As they try to thread their way through the nearly 8,000 yards of marsh-lined fairways and windblown dunes to the deceptive greens that make up the Pete Dye-designed Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, the 156 competitors in this week's PGA Championship will have more than enough at stake to hold their attention.
Not to imply that shooting under par for four days will be impossible. But when the wind starts blowing off the South Carolina coast, as it did on the final day of the legendary 1991 Ryder Cup, it can mean the difference between hitting a 9-iron or a 2-iron into the 223-yard 17th hole.
Plenty to ponder for the world's best players. But one of the contestants this week will be more concerned about how some of his fellow competitors are faring than about his own game. That would be Davis Love III, the captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team that will face the Europeans in a little over a month at Medinah Country Club in Chicago.
For the first two days of the PGA Championship, Love will be very close to his work, in the same group with Phil Mickelson, currently No. 8 in the Ryder Cup point standings and right on the bubble of the automatic picks for the team. It's no secret that Mickelson has had some struggles lately with his game. He hasn't had a top 10 finish since May, when he was seventh at the HP Byron Nelson Championship, and has one just sub-70 round in his last 13 rounds.
Chasing Mickelson for an automatic berth are Hunter Mahan at No. 9, Steve Stricker at No. 10, Jim Furyk at No. 11, Rickie Fowler at No. 12. Brandt Snedeker at No. 13 trails Mickelson by more than 900,000 points, and would need a win in the PGA -- coupled with a missed cut by Mickelson -- to get into the top eight. Ditto for Dustin Johnson at No. 14.
|Ryder Cup bubble|
|The eight automatic spots for the U.S. team will be set after the PGA Championship this week:|
All of those players are certainly candidates for a spot as one of the four Captain's picks Love will make between now and the end of the month. But Mickelson, the most experienced of any of the 12 likely players on the 2012 squad with eight previous Ryder Cups, could make Love's job easier by retaining his automatic exemption with some improved play this week.
Love has three Ryder Cup rookies among the top eight: Jason Dufner, Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson. Although all three are seasoned players, only Simpson -- a member of the 2011 Presidents Cup squad -- has had a taste of the unique pressures inherent to international team cup competition.
Adding to the subtext drama surrounding Mickelson this week were the mildly piquant observations made in a conference call on Monday by CBS Sports golf commentators, Nick Faldo and David Feherty. Asked about Mickelson's current play, Faldo said he thought Mickelson, 42, looked slightly the worse for wear.
"I personally think Phil is suffering from a little bit of fatigue, to be honest," said Faldo. "Last week was really hot, 95 degrees, and I think he's just suffering from a little bit of stamina. He gives a lot on and off the golf course.
"And of course, he's crossed the 40-year-old line which, I can speak of this, does make a difference as a golfer."
Added Feherty, "He can look tired or unmotivated and all the rest, but you just never know with Phil. That's one of the great things about him. You never know when he's going to play well or when he's going to do something like the average golfer might do. He has that wonderful flaw that makes us sort of relate to him. He's such an unknown quantity. He can quite easily play fantastic this week."
Chances are good, whether he plays well this week or not, that Mickelson will be on the Ryder Cup team. His value extends beyond his ability to win points. Among the things Love has emphasized since accepting the captaincy is the importance of minimizing the stress players feel during Ryder Cup week.
His first two choices for assistant captains could hardly have been better: Fred Couples, who has been wildly popular as the captain of the last two Presidents Cup teams; Mike Hulbert, a former TOUR player whose understated humor and deftness at defusing pressure caused Curtis Strange to call Love and recommend him. Love also has spoken with the leading sports psychologists, including Bob Rotella and Morris Pickens, about how to create the optimal performance atmosphere.
Mickelson, the only golfer to make every Presidents Cup team, demonstrated a firm grasp of that particular role as a teammate the 2009 Presidents Cup at San Francisco, helping to guide rookie Sean O'Hair through some rough patches. Love already has spent time consulting with Mickelson, Furyk, Stricker and Couples about how to make this U.S. team gel into a unit.
And, as Feherty said, Mickelson can often surprise everyone by turning his game around on a dime. He did it at the 2010 Masters, winning his third Green Jacket after coming into Masters week winless for the season and with only one top 10. Whether he holds on to his automatic spot this week or not, the only way Mickelson won't be at Medinah is if he believes he can't help the team and tells Love not to pick him.
Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.