The PGA Championship, staged this weekend outside St. Louis at a parkland course called Bellerive, always takes a bit of flak as the least prestigious of the four majors.
Approximately once every three years a player poll is conducted in which the lions of the sport are asked which major they’d prefer to win if it could only be one, and the results are predictable: Europeans choose the British Open, a few Americans choose the U.S. Open, and everyone else picks the Masters.
The black sheep of this family is the PGA Championship, which routinely clocks in at about 1%, leaving reasonable people with the impression that it has been selected by the defiant few who have won just a single major, with that major being the PGA itself.
That said, there’s something just a little more exciting about the PGA Championship in a Ryder Cup year. As both teams approach the end of their automatic qualifying period, there’s quite a bit at stake for a handful of players on the verge. A good performance here, and they might leap into the top eight, or at least leap into the good graces of their captains as they stew over their final four picks.
The drama is heightened this year by the fact that for the first time in ages, the American qualifying period actually ends after the event—this Sunday, we’ll know eight of the U.S. team members. And though Europe has three more events afterward before their top eight are set, Thomas Bjorn has a unique conundrum that could be resolved by the action at Bellerive.
Here are the players with the most at stake, starting with the Americans.
Four players—Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, and Patrick Reed—have clinched for the Americans, while two others, Bubba Watson and Jordan Spieth, seem all but assured of a spot. The last two among the top eight are Rickie Fowler, who seems assured of a captain’s pick were he to slip out of the automatic spots, and Webb Simpson, who is assured of exactly nothing.
Simpson’s margin over Bryson DeChambeau is razor thin, and after the debacle of how Simpson texted his way onto the 2014 team at Gleneagles and then played like he had never lifted a club before, his chances of a captain’s pick look very slim. In other words, he needs to qualify this weekend. A missed cut at Bellerive almost certainly torpedoes his chances of making the team.
Here’s a fun stat—the “last man out” in the U.S. points standings has been left off the Ryder Cup team for four straight Cups dating back to 2010.
That’s brutal! Not only do they miss qualifying by a hair’s breadth, but they get snubbed by the captain. DeChambeau has been all over the place physically and mentally for the last month, alternating brilliant play with staggering collapses, and if he doesn’t make the team by his own merits, it seems deeply unlikely that he’ll get the nod from Jim Furyk. A strong finish at Bellerive is a must.
The world’s 19th-ranked player and the reigning PGA Tour champion has been lights out in big tournaments this year, with a second at the Players, a T-6 at the U.S. Open, and a T-2 at the Open Championship, but he needs one more big finish to prove to Furyk that he’s the man for the job in France.
Kuchar finds himself in an interesting position—he’s 12th on the list, so making the team on his own isn’t likely, and though he’s a “veteran” of many Ryder Cups, the truth is that the youth movement is what delivered the U.S. a long-awaited victory in 2016.
With Tiger and Phil likely gobbling up two captain’s picks, will Furyk really waste another pick on a veteran? Or will he be more likely to look to the likes of Schauffele/DeChambeau/Finau with an eye on grooming them for the future? In short, Kuchar needs to catch fire in a hurry.
To the Europeans!
Olesen is the first man out on both the European and World standings for Team Europe, and he’s been playing so well lately that his inclusion seems like a no-brainer. The problem is, Captain Bjorn has a lot of Ryder Cup stalwarts outside his top eight, including Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson, and the legend himself, Ian Poulter.
Captain’s picks are at a premium, and someone like Olesen can’t afford to slip up. His showing at the PGA is critical.
A big question facing Bjorn is whether he’ll feel compelled to include a French player on the roster since the Cup will be held outside Paris. “Grow the game,” etc. etc. He surely wishes that someone would qualify automatically and make his job easier, but it’s not going to happen.
The closest player is Alex Levy, and he’s really nowhere close to the top, and his form is extremely mediocre. At this point, Levy would be nothing more than an obvious token pick, and who really wants that? It’s pretty easy for Bjorn to talk himself out of it, especially with captain’s picks at a premium, so if Levy wants to make the team and play in front of his countrymen, he needs to make some noise fast.
Matt Fitzpatrick/Rafa Bello/Russell Knox/Ross Fisher/Eddie Pepperell
If you assume Bjorn will pick Sergio, Stenson, and Poulter, it leaves one captain’s pick at large.
Olesen is the leading contender, Levy has an inside track if he can show anything, but there’s a still chance that any of the players in this category could do something dramatic at Bellerive, follow it up with some strong finishes in Europe and sneak their way onto the team.
But the PGA Championship is truly do-or-die: anything less then a spectacular finish – by which I mean top three at worst – and their chances are gone.
Those are the stakes, and they’ll imbue this PGA Championship with more than its usual meaning. It may be the fourth major, both in chronology and esteem, but there’s a secondary narrative that will make the drama in Bellerive extremely compelling. The Cup awaits.