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September 08, 2010

Truth and Rumors: Fowler the riskiest pick in Ryder Cup history

Ryder Cup reactions (and overreactions)
Welcome to a Ryder Cup selection edition of Truth and Rumors. It seems like every sportswriter under the sun has an opinion on Corey Pavin's picks, and most of the heat in this debate centers around young Rickie Fowler. As The Golf Channel's Randall Mell points out, Fowler represents an unusually high risk on Pavin's part.

Rickie Fowler is a gamble.

He’s as much a captain's risk as he is a captain's pick.

There’s no way around it.

He’s a PGA Tour rookie who has never won a professional event.

That makes Fowler the boldest American captain’s pick in the history of the matches.

He seems destined to meet one of two spectacular extremes Oct. 1-3 at Celtic Manor in Wales. He seems destined to blossom or melt down.

A rookie on that stage? Is there any middle ground when you make your debut in the seventh game of the World Series? Because that’s what the Ryder Cup is like. It isn’t anything like golf’s major championships, where confidence and pressure build to a Sunday back-nine rush. The Ryder Cup is searing heat before the first shot is hit. It’s about winning and losing from the first hole. It’s about triumph and failure every hole. It’s about a player feeling as if he is lifting his team and country with every shot ... or letting them down. It's the kind of pressure that made American Mark Calcavecchia weep after he melted down and began hyperventilating at Kiawah Island in 1991.

“People tell you that you will be as nervous as you have ever been on the first tee of the Ryder Cup, and you say, `Nah.’ ... but you are that nervous,” American J.B. Holmes said of his Ryder Cup debut two years ago at Valhalla.

And that was a home game for Holmes.

The nature of the Ryder Cup stage is what makes Fowler a glorious gamble and a wondrous risk.

While it may seem like hyperbole at first, it really is impossible to think of an American captain's pick who has accomplished less than Rickie Fowler, so it stands to reason that Mell is right to call Pavin's choice a risky one. At the same time, I disagree that we should be expecting either a spectacular or spectacularly bad performance from Fowler in Wales. He's a young kid with a lot of talent who has played well but not broken through, a trend I expect to continue in the Ryder Cup. I see Fowler playing well but not brilliantly, which is probably all Pavin can hope for given his other options. In the short term, I think that J.B. Holmes himself would have been a better selection for this team, but I see Fowler being a leader for the American squad in years to come (something I can't really say for Holmes), so I suppose the sooner he gets his feet wet in international competition, the better.

The only other divisive pick for the American side was also the most obvious one: Tiger Woods. Despite the Pavin/Gray near-brawl of 2010, did any of us really think this Ryder Cup would be Tiger-free? Despite the obviousness of the pick, not everyone can agree on whether it was the right one to make. Garry Smits of the Florida Times-Union thinks that the U.S. team would be better off without the world number one

Woods brings obvious baggage to the U.S. team. He hasn't won since last year. He's played a bit better recently since his abysmal performance at the Bridgestone Invitational, but hasn't been in serious contention. His divorce is final but that won't stop the British tabloids from hounding him in Wales -- which could affect the team.

And the U.S. proved it could win without Woods, a marginal match-play performer who has been unable to mesh on a consistent basis with anyone, in Valhalla in 2008.

Now, let's play amateur psychologist for a bit. Woods will bring heat and pressure on himself and the U.S. team. But European captain Colin Montgomerie has been prone to rash and controversial statements during his tenure, and he created controversy when he left off the world's No. 8-ranked player, Paul Casey, and Justin Rose, who was 3-1 in the last Ryder Cup.

Monty is the Ozzie Guillen of golf. It's almost a sure bet he will say something during the run-up or during the week of the Ryder Cup himself to bring unwanted heat on the European team. With Woods on the U.S. team, that will be minimized. There will be a lightning rod on both sides...

Also, who will Pavin pick to play with Woods? And does he trot Woods out for all five sessions, as in the past? Woods' Ryder Cup report card has very large red letters that say, "Does not play well with others." Right now, who would want to play with Woods? He could be the drag on any doubles team.

The idea of forming a Ryder Cup team, through the points system and captain's picks, is to get the best team possible as close to the Ryder Cup as possible. Right now, I don't believe the best 12 U.S. players includes Tiger Woods.

Smits seems to be suffering from the bane of all hyper-reactive sportswriters: a very selective memory. Referring to Tiger as a "marginal match-play performer" is as popular as it is ridiculously untrue. Tiger Woods is the best match play golfer of all time and if you don't believe me, ask anyone who's played him in a WGC event. As for the Ryder Cup, Woods is 3-1-1 in singles. Yes, he's been mediocre or worse in doubles (struggling mightily to find a partner who could play with him...or stand him), but the question of "who would want to play with Woods" was answered last year, when Tiger and Steve Stricker went 4-0-0 in their Presidents Cup matches. There's plenty to worry about with Tiger's game, and you can play "amateur psychologist" all you want, but you can't rewrite history.

Snubbed?
If those are the biggest question marks for the guys who made the team, what about the guys who didn't? ESPN's Justin Ray takes a look at the three players he considers to be the biggest snubs of this year's Ryder Cup class.

It can be argued that every baseball season, when the managers for the All-Star game announce who will be filling out the rosters for their respective leagues, that the most interesting part of the entire event is seeing who made the teams and who -- to use a cliché -- was 'snubbed.'

Golf fans don't have that rock-solid tie to a collective group of players (unless you work for Nike, or Adidas, or the like), but there have to be fans of Nick Watney, Lucas Glover and Anthony Kim who have been left disappointed by Pavin's announcements Tuesday morning. All that being said, let's look at a few of the players who have the most legitimate gripes about not being picked for the team that will be heading to Wales for the Oct. 1-3 matches.

Anthony Kim Higher world ranking (16th) than: Cink, Johnson, Fowler                                                     More FedExCup points than: Cink

Nick Watney Higher world ranking (31st) than: Cink, Fowler                                                                     More FedExCup points than: Woods, Cink

Charley Hoffman Higher world ranking (51st) than: None of the four                                                         More FedExCup points than: All of the four

Ray goes into detail on all three players, and I think he'd readily admit that the term "snub" can barely be applied to any of them. Kim is a victim of his injury (even one top-20 after his return might have gotten him the invite) and Hoffman, besides being barely more proven (and seemingly significantly less talented) than Rickie Fowler, turned it on too late. The only real option on this list is Watney, and given the choice, I don't think I would have taken him over J.B. Holmes or even Justin Leonard, much less Fowler. If this list tells us anything, it's that Corey Pavin's options were pretty limited. Let's put it this way, if Paul Casey suddenly found an American passport under his mattress, he wouldn't be watching the Cup on T.V.

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