2004: Captain’s picks don’t go unchallenged

Haven, Wis.

A strong argument could be made that U.S. Ryder Cup captain Hal Sutton should have picked Scott Verplank over 50-year-old Jay Haas with one of his two wild-card choices.

Verplank is ranked better than Haas in five important statistical categories on the PGA Tour: fourth to 68th in driving accuracy, sixth to ninth in scoring, 17th to 31st in putting, 22nd to 38th in greens in

regulation and sixth to 27th in par-4 scoring average.

“Oakland Hills is a ball-control course,” Verplank said of the Bloomfield Hills, Mich., course that will host the Sept. 17-19 biennial matches against Europe. “You have to drive the ball in the fairway and putt well. That’s me.”

Verplank, ranked 16th in the world to Haas’ 12th, has been nothing if not consistent. He has made 25 cuts in a row, second to Tiger Woods’ 129. Verplank entered the PGA Championship with four consecutive top-11 finishes. His problem is that he tied for 11th twice and got no points because he was outside the top 10.

Verplank was 14th in points and in good position to automatically qualify in the top 10 until he twisted his ankle on Whistling Straits’ rugged, hilly ground adjacent to a fairway during the second round. He was 6 under par at the time, but he stumbled in with middle rounds of 76-77 and tied for 62th.

Verplank said his health soon would be fine, but after announcing Stewart Cink, a no-brainer of a pick, and Haas as his choices Aug. 16, Sutton said he was “worried about (Verplank’s) foot.” Verplank was the only unpicked player Sutton called. “Obviously he was disappointed,” Sutton said. “He was one of those deserving players, but I could only pick two.”

“By any measure but Ryder Cup points I’m one of the top 10 Americans easily,” Verplank said.

This is not to say Sutton didn’t take two good players. Cink, 4-0 in the 2000 Presidents Cup, and Haas each have seven top-10 finishes this year. Cink has had four since late May, Haas three. Cink’s include a victory in the MCI Heritage, whereas Haas is winless the last 11 years.

Sutton said he picked them in large part because they do well driving, hitting iron shots and putting. He also mentioned their strong finishes the previous week at the International. Sutton said he and assistant captains Jack Burke Jr. and Steve Jones were “unanimous” on the picks.

Haas brings experience and a well-liked personality to the team. Moreover, he played well in the Presidents Cup last fall, going 2-1-1 for an overall Presidents record of 5-3-1. He’s 3-4-1 in two Ryder Cups (1983 and ’95), going 0-2 in singles and 2-0-1 in four-ball.

The U.S. team got a boost when spunky Chris DiMarco and hot-putting Chris Riley qualified by virtue of their high PGA finishes. DiMarco and Riley, both outstanding putters, bumped Steve Flesch and Haas out

of the final top 10. DiMarco tied for second at the PGA, losing the three-man playoff to Vijay Singh, and Riley finished one shot back after missing a 4-footer at 18.

So while it was a bad week for an ankle sprain, it was a good one for Riley, who would have been bumped had Justin Leonard won the PGA. Riley was particularly enthusiastic. Sutton said Riley’s joy in itself made his captaincy worthwhile.

The United States has failed to win the Ryder Cup in six of the last nine meetings. In a positive sign, Sutton said he would not be a “politically correct” captain and play all 12 players at least three matches as in the past.

“We’re going to do it differently this year,” he said. “We’re all going to have to be big boys.”

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