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Ryder Cup spots are on the line at the 100th PGA

Ryder Cup spots are on the line at the 100th PGA Championship

ST. LOUIS – Xander Schauffele never has represented his country in a golf competition. The second-year PGA Tour pro from SoCal didn’t play the Walker Cup, and his college days aside, he never has been part of a team golf event. So why is he so driven to be part of next month’s U.S. Ryder Cup side?

“Every time I’ve asked a few veterans that I know how special that would be, or how special it was, they speak volumes about it,” Shauffele said. “I don’t know, because I haven’t been on a team … but to represent your country, and rally together with the boys, it’s just a really cool camaraderie from what I’ve seen. To be part of it would be really special.”

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Schauffele, winner of the 2017 Tour Championship, certainly is in the mix for one of the 12 team spots. Eight automatic qualifiers will be finalized late Sunday after the 100th PGA Championship at Bellerive. Shauffele, 24, who tied for sixth at the U.S. Open and second at the Open Championship, ranks 11th in the U.S. points table, and has an interesting opportunity on Thursday-Friday: He and Tony Finau (13th in points) will play alongside their potential captain.

Jim Furyk said he didn’t request the pairing. Nonetheless, as auditions go, this will be a big one for two players hoping to compete in their first Ryder Cup.  

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The top four in the U.S. standings (Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Patrick Reed) have clinched spots. Bubba Watson, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler and Webb Simpson, all of whom have Ryder Cup experience, fill out Nos. 5-8. This week’s PGA champion will earn two points for every $1,000 earned and other competitors will receive 1.5 times the money they earn in points. (Furyk made the alteration from every player getting double major points to just the winner, hoping to protect the statistical integrity of players who won other events during the season).

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Even if his standings shift this week, Furyk faces some interesting decisions. Tiger Woods, who spotted his peers a year of gathering points, ranks 20th; Phil Mickelson, who has played on every U.S. Ryder/Presidents Cup team from 1995 on, is 10th; Bryson DeChambeau (currently ninth) is an interesting prospect to make his first team, much like Schauffele and Finau, both of whom have performed well on big stages this season. Matt Kuchar, who has made eight consecutive U.S. teams, is 12th in the standings and in need of some good showings in the weeks ahead to be part of the team that will travel to the 42nd Ryder Cup Sept. 28-30 at Le Golf National outside Paris.

Decisions, decisions. Furyk will name three of his captain’s selections following the PGA Tour’s second FedEx Cup playoff event outside Boston (Dell Technologies), which concludes Sept. 3. The 12th and final spot will be finalized after the following week’s BMW Championship. There will be tough calls to make, but Furyk is excited to see what unfolds.

“It’s really a moving target, but it’s really clear, too, what type of players you want,” Furyk said. “I mean, you want the best players. You want the guys who are in good form. I think the golf course lends itself to a certain type of player. You want that, as well. And honestly, you kind of have to look at some intangibles and stuff you can’t really quantify. Who has some guts? Who really thrives in that atmosphere in a Ryder Cup on foreign soil?”

One player high on Furyk’s radar is DeChambeau, who won The Memorial in June and is a former U.S. Amateur champion. He and Furyk share the same management company, which has provided Furyk a window into an intelligent young player who turns 25 next month.

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“He’d bring the IQ up significantly for most of us,” Furyk said with a laugh. “We always say that you either have to be extremely bright or maybe not so bright to play this game. We know what side Bryson is on compared to the rest of us.”

The U.S. team has not won a Ryder Cup on the road since 1993, when Davis Love III, now 54, made a putt at The Belfry in England to seal a U.S. victory. Winning in France will not be easy. There has been a great deal of hype surrounding the current U.S. run of three cup victories (the 2016 Ryder Cup sandwiching the 2015/2017 Presidents Cups) and how bright the future is with twentysomethings such as Thomas, Spieth, Reed and others. But Europe, which won six of seven cups before 2016, will be ready.

The matches will have some serious star power. Of the top 31 players in the Official World Golf Ranking, only three (Jason Day, Hideki Matsuyama, Marc Leishman) are not from the U.S. or Europe.

“I think you’re looking at a battle of giants,” Furyk said. “You’ve got two very, very solid teams and we have our hands full. … They’re going to have a really strong team, in theory, possibly the strongest team Europe’s ever fielded."

European captain Thomas Bjorn has been encouraged by some strong play from his players the past few months. Justin Rose has been a stalwart. Rory McIlroy made a run at the Open. Tommy Fleetwood has become a force. Alex Noren won in Paris on the Ryder Cup golf course. Italy’s Francesco Molinari won three times, including the Open at Carnoustie.

Europe identifies its top eight players off two lists, a European points list and a world points list. The top four in European points are Molinari, Rose, Tyrrell Hatton and Fleetwood; the top four on the world points list: McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Noren and Paul Casey.

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“I sit in a good place,” Bjorn said this week at Bellerive. "I’m happy with what’s going on, but still a big fight going on the for the last few places. I’m happy to be in that position, because you want people to push themselves right to the end.”

One player currently on the outside looking in is Sergio Garcia, who hasn’t been in good form since winning the 2017 Masters. Garcia has but one top 10 in his last 11 global starts, that coming at the French Open in July, where he tied for eighth. Garcia, 38, has played on eight of the last nine European Ryder Cup teams, missing only in 2010, when he was an assistant captain. Also in the mix for consideration are England’s Ian Poulter, who has been a Ryder Cup force, Henrik Stenson, Thorbjorn Olesen, who’s been hot, and Rafael Cabrera-Bello, who was a bright spot in defeat in Minneapolis two years ago.

Woods, 42, has played on seven Ryder Cup teams, but has not been part of one since 2012, when the U.S. lost at Medinah in Chicago. Furyk said he was taken aback somewhat when Woods, who'd already named to be an assistant captain, approached Furyk in January to ask about the dual role of playing this year, too. ("That was probably a sign that I should have picked up quicker on," Furyk said.) In 13 starts this season, Woods, coming off a fourth back surgery, has four finishes of T-6 or better. He had the lead on the back nine on Sunday at Carnoustie before fading into a tie for sixth.

“He’s added so much value off the golf course for us the last two (Ryder Cups, as an assistant), if we could have him for both this time, it would be great,” said Love, a winning U.S. captain from 2016 who will assist Furyk in France.

Fifty-one days until the Ryder Cup, and on both sides of the pond, there remains much work to do.