ST. LOUIS – The sun is barely up at Bellerive, but the audition is about to begin. Here comes the 7:17 a.m. group to the No. 10 tee, where they’ll start their PGA Championship.
That’d be Jim Furyk, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain who must soon put together his team. Also Tony Finau and Xander Schauffele, two of the bubble candidates who are hoping to get chosen. Whether they shoot 65 or 80 this first round, the man they want to impress will be walking the fairways with them. Has to be a little nerve-racking. They showed up for a golf tournament and landed in a screen test.
WATCH LIVE: Featured Group 1 | Featured Group 2
“I think it’s a great pairing for me. It probably isn’t the best pairing for them,” Furyk had said the day before, “I hope that it doesn’t faze them. I hope it doesn’t bother them. I want them to enjoy the PGA Championship.
“I probably will let them both know I didn’t ask for it.”
They shake hands on the tee, and the man at the microphone does his work. “Welcome to the 2018 U.S. Ryder Cup captain, Jim Furyk,” he announces to the gallery. As if Furyk’s two playing partners had missed that fact.
Furyk hits first. Nice drive. Finau is next and goes right, landing near the fence by the hospitality tents. All three bogey No. 10. The audition is on its wobbly way.
The hills of Bellerive are alive with the sound of the Ryder Cup, and no wonder. Thursday was the 50-day mark before the first shot in Paris.
FOLLOW: Tee times | How to watch | Vote for the greatest PGA Champ | Leaderboard
Ian Poulter walks off the course Thursday after a 67, and talks of how a good week could push him onto Europe’s roster. “I’m trying not to think it, but I know it’s there.”
Before he opens with a 70, Tiger Woods speculates on how he could help, if selected as a player. He’s already a vice captain. “I like my chances in match play.” And 2016 captain Davis Love III seconds the motion that Woods should be considered. “If I was on the other side I wouldn’t want him picked, so that’s another good reason.”
Furyk describes the situation of players seeking a Ryder Cup qualifying spot in the same airspace as trying to win a major. “It’s like there are two scoreboards, one for playing and one for . . . checking out the guys around you.”
And Schauffele and Finau are right in the middle of it all, coming into the PGA 11th and 13th on the Ryder Cup point rankings. But they’re the only two whom fate threw into Furyk’s direct line of sight this week. Which is why that 7:17 a.m. pairing is so interesting, especially for Schauffele, who has never played a tournament round with Furyk in his life.
Nearly 4 ½ hours later, they all shake hands after finishing the round at No. 9. Furyk -- showing a little spunk at 48 and a lot of focus for someone who is thinking Ryder Cup nearly 24/7 -- comes in at 1-under 69. “I still have the fire to want to play and compete,” he says, while admitting his game has dropped down his priority list a bit, below family and getting ready for France next month.
>> For alerts, scoring and live streaming, download the free PGA Championship app
Schauffele, with three late birdies, scrambles to an even 70. Finau struggles to a 74. “Both really talented young players,” Furyk says of his partners. “They got off to tough starts this morning and they scrapped it out, to be honest with you.”
It has been a lively morning, Schauffele mentions, with the gallery reacting to Furyk. “Everyone’s yelling `USA,’” he says. And while Furyk understands his partners’ plight -- “I always put a lot of pressure on myself when I was playing with the captain in a Ryder Cup,” he says – Schauffele has tried to keep it all off his radar screen.
“There’s speculation if the pairing is random, or it’s not. I don’t know. I have no idea. At the end of the day, I was just trying to win this golf tournament,” he says. “He’s not dropping any comments, not making anyone feel uncomfortable. I think he knows it could potentially be awkward maybe, but he’s a really easy-going guy. He’s not putting any pressure on you.
“We talked about just about everything other than golf. Where he lives, his dog. He’s just like another golfer out here, trying to win this tournament. When we’re talking, we don’t want to talk about golf. It’s a pretty average conversation.”
>> Find the best of 2018 PGA Championship gear
Schauffele is trying to stick to his mental game plan for the week. Ryder Cup? What Ryder Cup?
“I’m trying to keep my mind away from all that and be very focused on this event,” he says. “I try to just keep one foot in front of the other.”
The next step takes him to the second round Friday. He and Finau will be playing with Furyk again, and it’ll be 49 days until the Ryder Cup. But who’s counting?
P.S. They all are this week at Bellerive.
WATCH BELOW: Nick Watney got one of the unluckiest breaks you'll ever see