News & Opinion

Tour elite feel heat as playoffs tighten

NORTON, Mass. – Among multimillionaire golfers or those nearly so, pressure is, of course, a relative thing. Having your season end a couple of weeks early sure isn’t like someone on the way up playing for a hundred bucks when all he has in his pocket is some lint and a couple of tees.

Loitering around a ranking bubble of one sort or another – as players are at the Dell Technologies Championship in the second event of the PGA Tour playoffs (tee times) – sure isn’t the worst place to be. Life can get better, depending on what happens this weekend and at the upcoming BMW Championship and Tour Championship. But make or miss, life is going to continue quite nicely for anyone who is laboring on Labor Day at TPC Boston or, for that matter, who packs up early Saturday evening after missing the cut.

That said, there is pride and a pecking order on the line, the latter magnified by the calendar.

Not only is the end of the season in clear sight, but so is the 42nd Ryder Cup. Captain’s picks by American Jim Furyk will be made Sept. 4 and Sept. 10. The Europeans’ eight automatic qualifiers will be determined after the European Tour event on Sunday, with captain Thomas Bjorn completing his squad with four selections on Sept. 5 for the matches Sept. 28-30 at Le Golf National outside Paris.

Who could benefit most from a strong performance this week?

If the consideration is the 70 players who will advance from the Dell to the BMW, giving themselves at least a chance to be among the 30 at the lucrative Tour Championship at East Lake in three weeks, the name that jumps out the most is Matt Kuchar, currently 74th in FedEx Cup points.

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Matt Kuchar likely will need some top finishes in the PGA Tour playoffs to extend his streak of Ryder Cup matches to 5.

© GOLFFILE/KEN MURRAY
Matt Kuchar likely will need some top finishes in the PGA Tour playoffs to extend his streak of Ryder Cup matches to 5.

Such a tenuous spot is unusual territory for the 40-year-old American. A seven-time career winner on the PGA Tour, Kuchar hasn’t lifted a trophy since the 2014 RBC Heritage, but he has been one of the most consistent golfers of his generation. Starting with the 2010 season, he hasn’t finished out of the top 20 in the FedEx Cup standings.

Kuchar will need a fast finish to keep that streak going, and he doesn’t have a lot of momentum to build upon. A tie for ninth in the British Open was his first top-10 result since April. At 13th on the U.S. Ryder Cup points list, he would seem to need an excellent showing at TPC Boston to get Furyk’s attention and have a shot at being on the American team for a fifth consecutive time.

The same can be said of the man immediately ahead of Kuchar on the Ryder Cup points list, Xander Schauffele, for whom a captain’s pick would mean his first appearance in the biennial competition. Ranked 34th in the FedEx Cup, Schauffele also needs a strong effort at TPC Boston or next week at Aronimink Golf Club to get inside the top 30 and have a chance to defend his Tour Championship title at East Lake.

Others who could help their chances of getting all the way to East Lake with a good performance this week include Tiger Woods (25th in FedEx points) Rory McIlroy (28th), Jordan Spieth (33rd), Adam Scott (40th) and Kevin Kisner (44th). For Kisner, 14th in U.S. Ryder Cup points, a strong weekend could do much for his chances at a captain’s pick. The same is true for a golfer ranked well ahead of him in the FedEx Cup, Tony Finau (fourth), who is right behind Kisner, in 15th in Ryder Cup points.

There would seem to be little left to prove on the Ryder Cup front for Bryson DeChambeau, whose Northern Trust victory last week in the playoff opener was his third in his past 30 PGA Tour starts. The FedEx points leader was the ninth in automatic qualifying. “If I go out and do my job and execute shots and play well and finish well, contend, I think there’s a very, very good possibility I’ll be picked. But you never know,” DeChambeau said Wednesday, showing that he can be as understated as he is technical.

Making up a lot of ground isn’t impossible in the playoffs. Billy Horschel climbed from 41st to 14th with a tie for third at last week’s Northern Trust, while Ryan Palmer’s tie for fifth vaulted him from 100th to 50th. Nick Watney – like Kuchar a FedEx Cup top-20 regular in the early part of the decade before losing his form – made a strong move by tying for 11th at the Northern Trust to go from 102nd to 67th in FedEx Cup points, in position to get back to the BMW Championship for the first time since 2015.

Who places and who shows is usually the concern of families, caddies and friends. This time of year, though, the subplots get their due, too.

Bill Fields has covered golf since the mid-1980s, with much of his career spent at Golf World magazine as a writer and editor. A native North Carolinian, he lives in Fairfield, Conn. Email: williamhfields@gmail.com; Twitter: @BillFields1