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O'Neill on golf: Let the Ryder Cup debate begin

O'Neill on golf: Let the Ryder Cup debate begin

British Open Golf

Phil Mickelson looms large in the Ryder Cup again this year. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

The major championships are done, the Olympics are over, the FedExCup playoffs are heading toward their usual anticlimactic conclusion ... and we’re just getting started.

That is, things are starting to shape up for the “Hazing at Hazeltine,” otherwise known as the Ryder Cup matches Sept. 30-Oct. 2 in Chaska, Minn.

European captain Darren Clarke has completed his Dirty Dozen, announcing his three at-large picks Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Patrick Reed’s victory at the Barclays on Sunday closed the qualification window on the U.S. side. Eight have earned the right to wear the red, white and Ralph Lauren for the U.S., while captain Davis Love III will augment the group with four at-large picks.

That foursome will be identified in two stages. On Monday, Sept. 12, at the conclusion of the BMW Championship, Love will announce three of his choices. Then on Sept. 25, in accordance with the “Billy Horschel Rule,” Love will announce the fourth and final spot. So remember, it ain’t over till it’s over. Keep those cards and letters coming in.

Over the next few weeks, there will be lots of debate and deliberation about the quality of the individuals, the overall makeup of the teams, the character of the golf course and the history of the competition.

There’s no denying the golf aspects of the Ryder Cup make for fabulous fodder and terrific theater. Hands down, it is the best All-Star Game in sports. That said, the hyperbole and hypocrisy that surround this opulent “exhibition” is the stuff from which reality television gets made.

For instance, there is much ado about Clarke not using one of his picks on Russell Knox, who is the 20th-ranked player in the world, higher ranked than all three of the players chosen. At the same time, there is speculation Knox could play for our side, given he has an American father and a U.S. passport. Or to put it in Colin Kaepernick terms, he could refuse to stand for both anthems.

The Ryder Cup has belonged to the Euros in recent times. The Old World has captured the last three in a row, six of the last seven and eight of the last 10. Things came to a head for the Yanks in the 2014 matches at Gleneagles Resort in Scotland.

Not only did our boys absorb a 16½ – 11½ beating, they went a little Hope Solo at the end. In an awkward postgame news conference, Phil Mickelson questioned the game plan and criticized the captain, legendary Tom Watson. Messy, messy business.

As the insinuations and innuendos flew, the PGA America went into cardiac arrest and formed an 11-man “Ryder Cup Task Force” to study the blueprint and crack the code. No, Dave Peacock and Bob Blitz were not involved.

Rather, the task force largely was made up of the very players responsible for constructing the dismal record. The group eventually recommended one of its members — Love — to serve as the next Ryder Cup captain. Keep in mind, Love’s previous captaincy ended in the most demoralizing U.S. loss of all, the 2012 “Meltdown at Medinah.”

It’s not fair to blame Love for that debacle, any more than it’s fair to credit Ben Crenshaw for his delusional “I’ve got a good feeling” statement at Brookline. But you have to admit, from a perception standpoint, it’s kind of like building a new ship and putting the captain of the Costa Concordia at the helm.

With the appointment of Love, the PGA whittled its task force down to a smaller committee, a group that includes Tiger Woods, Mickelson and Love. Their credentials, of course, are impeccable. Woods has the career record for the most Ryder Cup matches lost (17), Mickelson is tied for second (16) and Love is tied for third (12). Let’s face it, even Ryan Lochte couldn’t make this stuff up.

Interestingly enough, the eight-man foundation of Love’s squad includes Mickelson, the villain of 2014. If you recall, people were calling “Lefty” a cancerous communist after he dared to knock Watson at Gleneagles. Miraculously, two years later, he is golf’s version of Derek Jeter.

“Having Phil Mickelson, who’s made a record 11 U.S. teams, will be incredibly valuable,” Love said on “Phil will be a leader for us both on and off the golf course at Hazeltine National.”

Thus far, there is only one newcomer on this revised edition of the U.S. squad – Brooks Koepka. The rookie also is one of three members who has not won an event in more than a year, a group that includes Mickelson and Zach Johnson. In Mickelson’s case, it’s been 3½ years since he won.

On the other hand, the side that has dominated the action, the team you might expect to be filled with returning heroes, is packed with six rookies. Masters champion Danny Willett, Chris Wood, Rafa Cabrera Bello, Matt Fitzpatrick, Andy Sullivan and Thomas Pieters will be making their Ryder Cup debuts at Hazeltine.

For Clarke, the wild-card picking process was wrenching. In need of experience, he used two of his spots on Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer. In the end, he had to decide between Pieters and Knox. Referring to Knox, Jordan Spieth recently said, “I think it would be ridiculous if he didn’t get one of the picks.”

In the case of the U.S., the at-large debates seem to center on the likes of Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson, Matt Kuchar, J.B. Holmes and assistant captain Jim Furyk. By reputation, they are names you have to consider, hardly names you can’t do without.

The scouting report tells you the Americans have the longer hitters and the better putters. Moreover, the scouting report for any given Ryder Cup year would look the same. But that’s the thing about the Ryder Cup — credentials built on the professional tours don’t hold much water.

European players like Sergio Garcia, Colin Montgomerie, Westwood and Clarke have wrestled with putting throughout their professional careers. It is a primary reason that remarkably accomplished foursome counts only one major championship to its credit — Clarke’s surprising 2011 British Open.

But slap a blue European flag on their shirt, put a Ryder Cup on the table, and something happens. The Euros become to putting what the Jamaicans are to sprinting. Somehow, they figure out a way to be much better than the competition.

And when it all comes down to it, ladies and gentlemen, when we’re done talking about who’s done what and where, about pairings and personalities, about captains and color-coordinated outfits, that’s the bottom line.

As Jack Nicklaus put it, “It doesn’t make any difference how much planning you do, if the other team plays better, they’re going to win.”

You want the secret formula, the chemistry that works best at a Ryder Cup? Here it is — 10 feet, proper line, proper pace, in the jar.

That trumps the task forces, the rankings and the reputations every time.

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Dan O'Neill is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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