LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Tom Watson effectively is off the hook.
By any conceivable measure, Tiger Woods no longer should be under consideration by the U.S. captain for the 2014 Ryder Cup team.
Perhaps that’s not really a revelation, especially after his first-round 3-over 74 in the PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club. But many observers still think that Woods, by some miracle, will morph back into his early-2000s form and save a reeling U.S. team. Dustin Johnson has taken a leave of absence, Matt Kuchar cited an ailing back in withdrawing from the PGA and Jason Dufner left Valhalla 10 holes into his round, pointing to a sore neck and an uncertain return.
“They’re falling like flies,” Watson said Thursday of his potential charges for the biennial match, Sept. 26-28 at Gleneagles in Scotland. “We really are. But there’s time between now and the Ryder Cup, and what’s going to happen between now and Sept. 2, when I make my picks, is anybody’s guess. It’s what I have to deal with. I have to take the information that I have and process it and see what comes out.”
Watson consistently has said that he wants to pick Woods for the U.S. team, but with a qualifier: that the 14-time major champion be healthy and playing well. Even Jack Nicklaus has weighed in and said that Woods should be a pick, but what could either of them truly be thinking now?
“Really, honestly, it’s speculation what’s going to happen,” Watson said Wednesday, on the eve of the PGA, of Woods’ potential to make the team despite having missed three months after March 31 microdiscectomy surgery to correct a pinched nerve. “I can’t tell you what’s going to happen with Tiger. I don’t know his physical condition right now. And I said right from the beginning, if he’s playing well and he’s in good health, I’ll pick him.
“Obviously he’s not in great health right now, and he hasn’t played very well. So the question is, will I pick him? Well, I can’t tell until things happen in the next three or four weeks. Honestly can’t answer this.”
If any doubts existed about whether the Americans’ Ryder Cup captain should pick Woods, those doubts should be extinguished after his first-round performance Thursday.
Woods ranked 98th in fairways hit (8 of 14), 84th in greens in regulation (10 of 18) and 99th in putting (30).
He made only one birdie, a chip-in at the par-4 16th after starting on the back nine, and made four bogeys while struggling to control his driver. On No. 1 (his 10th hole), Woods hit his tee shot wide left, 77 yards from the middle of the fairway, according to ShotLink, the PGA Tour’s scoring and measurement system. On the next hole Woods hit it left again, into a hazard. On both holes, he salvaged bogey.
What has been atypical for much of his career – errant driving, ala the late Seve Ballesteros – has become the norm for the former World No. 1.
The argument could be made that Woods is the best among a group of U.S. Ryder Cup candidates who are not playing very well, but there is one big exception: None of those guys has walked off the golf course with injuries. Woods has withdrawn twice this season, at the Honda Classic and last week at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
Healthy and playing mediocre golf is better than injurious and mediocre. And at this point, Woods’ play might not even be regarded as mediocre.
The proper thing would be for Woods to declare himself unfit for the Ryder Cup and take Watson off the hook. Even if Woods doesn’t provide that cover, Watson is gritty enough to take the heat, should he decide to leave Woods at home. He compares his decision this year with what he faced in 1993, when he opted for two steady veterans as captain’s picks, leading to victory at The Belfry, the last American triumph overseas.
“I was looking for people who were playing well, and that didn’t occur,” Watson said when he picked Ray Floyd and Lanny Wadkins, who were far down the points list. “And I went with experience. I want to go with horses that are running well.”
Watson will have a hard time finding a Floyd or Wadkins in the current crop, but it is clear that Woods does not meet the criteria that Watson has laid out of a horse running well.
With the PGA Championship in horse country this week, Woods’ game isn’t meeting the standards to run with golf’s thoroughbreds.