Love couldn't lose with Johnson or Mahan

Dustin Johnson

First, a bit of editing needs to be done. These suggestions that Davis Love III had a tough task? Please. It wasn’t that tough.

European players were polite and dignified when pressed after the final round of the Deutsche Bank Championship. Asked how they saw the opposing team being rounded out for the upcoming Ryder Cup, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy said Love had difficult decisions.

“I’ll be tuning in like the rest of you,” McIlroy said Monday evening. “Davis has got such a tough job on his hands.”

Hey, what was the kid going to say?

But we tuned in, and now there’s only one thing to say: That wasn’t tough at all.

Fact is, the only difficult task for Love was keeping his cellphone charged and the media at a distance. Why in the name of Walter Hagen do we make this sound like we’re sending men to Jupiter?

For all the talk of seven or eight guys for four spots, it never was that at all.

Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk were locks all along, so truth be told, there were a handful of candidates for two spots. But Bo Van Pelt really never pushed the issue in recent weeks, and Nick Watney, despite his nice win at The Barclays, had not quite done enough. And when Rickie Fowler came to the finish line in suspect form, you had it nice and clean: Three players – Hunter Mahan, Dustin Johnson, Brandt Snedeker – for two spots.

Actually, let’s edit that further, because Snedeker in recent weeks really put the pedal to the metal and demonstrated for a wider audience what many have known for a while – the kid when he gets it going can make birdies falling out of bed. “Probably the best putter in the world right now,” McDowell said, and that’s spot on.

Snedeker ranks T-5 in birdie average this year, and in his last three tournaments (Wyndham, T-28; Barclays, 2nd; Deutsche Bank Championship, 6th), he made 50 birdies and two eagles in 12 rounds.

What was it that Captain Love said about going with the hot hand?

With Snedeker clearly having played his way on and with Stricker and Furyk having long ago been cemented into the Medinah lineup, it was a pretty clean decision for Love: Dustin Johnson or Hunter Mahan?

Don’t act surprised. This was not 2008, when Paul Azinger dipped down to Nos. 18 (J.B. Holmes) and 21 (Chad Campbell) because he had a pod system in place that only he and the Pentagon knew about and he figured some in the Kentucky crowd would love a native son (Holmes) and another country boy (Campbell, a Texan). It wasn’t even 2010, when Corey Pavin reached all the way to 20th to choose Fowler, bypassing names such as Watney and Van Pelt, who had better standing.

No, true to his conservative personality, Love was going to go “chalk” all the way and he did not stray. Stricker was 10th in the standings, Furyk 11th, Snedeker 13th. Choosing No. 15 Johnson over No. 9 Mahan may seem radical, but it’s not, and in the end, this was the only decision that Love had.

Johnson or Mahan?

If Love lost sleep over it, shame on him, because it truly was a win-win in either case. In Mahan, you would have had a wonderful driver and putter and an experienced hand at this team game, and what’s more, he’s a two-time winner this year, one of them being the World Golf Championship Accenture Match Play Championship when he dusted off a European, no less, guy by the name of McIlroy.

Remember?

You probably don’t, given that there have been 372 tournaments since then – or so it seems – and that hits at the heart of the problem for Mahan. You know how in college football if you’re going to lose a game, you'd best lose it in September? Well, in Ryder Cup years, if you’re going to win tournaments, you'd best win them late. Mahan didn’t, and it seems like light years ago when he started the season with two wins and three top 10s in his first seven tournaments.

Since then? Mahan in 14 tournaments has one top 10, a stretch of pedestrian play that dropped him out of the top eight, where he had been firmly entrenched (even leading it at one point) most of the year. Worse yet, since his last top 10, Mahan has played in six tournaments and finished no better than T-19, his cumulative score for his last 20 rounds a stunning 15 over.

And when you say you want the hot hand, you’re also saying you don’t want the cold hand, which is why Love – painful as it might have been because Mahan is genuinely liked by the nucleus of the American team – bypassed him.

There will be those, such as McDowell, who said Monday that he couldn’t “get my head” around a two-time winner being left off the team, but it’s not like Love opted for Kevin Na. (Like Campbell did in 2008, Na sits 21st, but the guess is, he wasn’t expecting a phone call.)

No, in Johnson you get a precious commodity for Medinah Country Club: power. Tossed into a lineup that already features Tiger Woods, Bubba Watson, Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson, Johnson adds even more firepower. He also brings a little bit of momentum – fourth at the Deutsche Bank Championship, T-3 at The Barclays – and he got his Ryder Cup feet wet (literally and figuratively) in Wales two years ago when he lost in each of his three team matches but scored an emphatic singles win over Martin Kaymer, 6 and 4.

The guess is, what really worked in Johnson’s favor is this: though he was hurt early and then in the middle of the season (he couldn’t tee it up at the Masters), he did a lot in a shorter period of time. Though Mahan played in 21 tournaments, Johnson has just 16 starts. In those 16 tournaments, though, he has a win, seven top 10s, and he has missed just one cut. Johnson ranks higher in birdie average (26th to T-72) and scoring average (15th to T-54) than Mahan, numbers that might seem like minutia to those on the outside, but in the tight inner circle of those who were involved in this decision (and Love relied on assistants Fred Couples, Scott Verplank and Jeff Sluman), they carry a lot of weight.

What might not carry much weight, but what deserves mention, though, are two other considerations.

First, hopefully Mahan subscribes to the Padraig Harrington way of thinking. When he got passed over for a European captain’s pick last week, the Irishman didn’t voice criticism.

“I’m a great believer (that) if you don’t make it into the team automatically, you don’t have any comebacks, any rights,” Harrington said. “I’m disappointed not to be on the team, but I’m comfortable with the whole thing. I’m pretty understanding of it.”

Mahan should think similarly. After all, there is this: Already in his career, Mahan has been a captain’s pick twice for the Presidents Cup and once for the Ryder Cup (2008, when he sat 13th in the standings, below Woody Austin and D.J. Trahan, in fact).

Three picks? That’s pretty good. For perspective, consider that Furyk has earned his way onto seven consecutive Ryder Cup teams and this year received his first captain’s pick.

It was well deserved, as was Stricker’s. So was Snedeker, and Johnson made for a fairly safe and sensible fourth pick.

In the end, simple stuff, so why so much silliness about the tough task that faced Love? It wasn’t tough at all.

Now, what color socks do the boys wear Sept. 28 for the opening matches? That’s a decision to wrestle with.

You're on your own there, captain.

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