ATLANTA – The Ryder Cup is seven days away, so as I watch the Tour Championship here and imagine I’m U.S. captain Jim Furyk, I’m smiling. I can’t help it.
I know one round of golf means nothing in the grand scheme. Any of my Ryder Cup players can turn on a dime and shoot 62, as Tiger Woods did at Aronimink two weeks ago.
As captain, I never was worried about this team. I really like that 11 of my 12 guys made it to the final 30 at the Tour Championship. That means they played well when it counted and they’ve played well of late, a good sign.
It also means my official Captain’s List of Concerns keeps getting shorter. Hence my aforementioned smile.
I’ll start with Woods. I can’t believe how lucky I am. A year ago, I was pleased just to have him onboard as a vice captain. He’s a good strategist, and he really knows the secrets of Ryder Cup team match play, if there are secrets to know. I’m not sure whether Woods plays chess, but if he does, he’s one of those guys who’s always three moves ahead of his competitor. I play a little chess, and I hate guys like that.
Now I’ve got Woods as a player, instead. It’s like getting an early Christmas bonus. My only concerns about him: How does he feel? Can he play two sessions a day? If so, can he do it two days in a row? When he sat out the afternoon session at Medinah in 2012, it was the first time that he didn’t play every session in a Ryder Cup. I’d like to give him a session off in France, but that may be tough. He’s playing well.
Thursday at East Lake, I wanted to laugh out loud when he knocked it onto the 18th green in two and ran in a 27½-foot putt for eagle. I knew he was going to make it, partly because he needed it to tie Rickie Fowler for the lead at 5 under par (scores). There’s a lot of the old Tiger resurfacing, in case you hadn’t noticed.
Woods missed only four fairways and four greens Thursday. The man is on. I expect him to win this weekend. And next weekend, too. Oops, did I say that out loud?
Woods said his 65 at East Lake was “by far better than the 62 at Aronimink,” where conditions were soft and easy for the BMW Championship, in which he tied for sixth. The knock on Woods has been that he can’t hit fairways. Look again. He’s doing it. And his putting is getting dialed in.
I never had any reservations about Fowler, other than his recent health. He’s been a match-play stud since his first Ryder Cup in Wales, when it was a serious reach by captain Corey Pavin to put him on the team. So, he hasn’t won this year? He made a heck of a run at the Masters and was thwarted only because Patrick Reed finished like Secretariat.
You’re probably thinking, What’s Rickie done lately? Not much except put up red numbers. He threw down a 63 and a 65 at Firestone, shot 8 under at Bellerive in the PGA despite playing with a painful oblique injury that limited his swing, then came back and posted three straight 65s at Aronimink in the BMW. He said he’s swinging pain-free now. I guess so, because he’s 21 under in his past five rounds. Am I going to send him out for all five matches in Paris? I’ll let you and Thomas Bjorn take a wild guess.
Not much fazes Fowler. He was asked about hearing the big roar from the 18th green, which happened when Woods rolled in that eagle putt. Fowler expressed nonchalance about it. “I didn’t know who it was,” he said.
Some writers told him it was Woods.
“I couldn’t see anything,” said Fowler, who grinned and added: “It might have been him.”
I almost fell off of my captain’s throne guffawing when I saw that clip. Fowler wasn’t being cagey. I think he actually was being interviewed by Golf Channel or Sky Sports at the time, so he really didn’t see it. But everything he does just adds to his cool factor. Although I would like to watch a golf telecast and not see him in every danged commercial. Hey, Baldy – Rickie obviously stole that hunk of turf and is hammering tee shots into it on his office wall. What kind of insurance investigator are you if you can’t deduce that? C’mon!
What else is on my short Captain’s List of Concerns? Sure, Jordan Spieth. His putting has been off and on, which is strange for him. But he’s one of those guys who thrives in the moment, although I’ll see where he is during our practice rounds in France before I decide whether I’ll throw him out for all five matches with Patrick Reed or Woods – oops, did I just let that secret slip? Hey, Bjorn, don’t read this part.
I love this kid Bryson DeChambeau. He’s not a kid, of course. He just turned 25. My only concern about him is that he’s had back-to-back victories in the past five weeks, which takes a lot out of any golfer, and he’s had to deal with arriving as a new media star, which also is draining. My job is to make sure he’s not out of gas before his Ryder Cup debut next Friday with Woods. Oops, did I just let another secret slip? Or was I just kidding, Bjorn? I’m such a kidder.
The rest of our team is strong. Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka. I can’t imagine a European duo that wants to play them. Justin Thomas and Tony Finau and Webb Simpson? They’re grooved. All right, Phil Mickelson hasn’t been lighting it up, but he’s Phil. That’s good enough. I was bugged that some Internet troll said the only reason I picked Mickelson was so that he could pass me on the list for Ryder Cup match losses by an American. That’s some cruel shade. Even though he is 48, I may play him in five matches just to prove a point. Write that one down in ink, Bjorn.
Well, enough about me. Let’s move on to the next three rounds of the Tour Championship because, you know, I just can’t quit smiling … if I were Jim Furyk.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle