Keegan Bradley was leaving his home in south Florida for a critical two-week stretch of golf when he noticed a travel bag that hasn’t been touched in nearly two years.
He brought it home from Medinah in 2012 after his first time playing in the Ryder Cup. He’s not even sure what’s in there beyond a lot of dirty clothes stained by bad memories of an American collapse on the final day.
“For a split second, I thought about opening it and getting a little motivation,” he said.
Bradley got Ryder Cup fever that week, pumping his fists, waving flags and winning matches with Phil Mickelson. He wants nothing more than to be on the next U.S. team that tries to win back the cup in Scotland at the end of September.
But he has work to do.
Bradley is No. 16 in the Ryder Cup standings. Only the top 10 players – now that Dustin Johnson is out of the Ryder Cup – earn automatic spots, and qualifying for the American team ends after the PGA Championship. U.S. captain Tom Watson gets three at-large picks, and Bradley helped his cause by taking a scouting trip with the captain to Gleneagles.
Still, he can’t count on being picked. Not with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson among those not already on the team.
“I know I’ve got to play good golf the next two weeks,” Bradley said. “There’s plenty of points available to make the team. My plan is to make the team on my own. The best thing I can do is play good rounds.”
Bradley is an example – and there are a lot of them this year – of how the PGA Championship features two tournaments in one every other year.
The most important is getting that big Wanamaker Trophy from winning the final major of the year. The consolation prize is a spot on the Ryder Cup team. Because points count double at majors, and the PGA Championship offers $1.8 million to the winner, everyone at Valhalla has a mathematical chance of making the team.
Brad Faxon once shot 63 in the final round of the 1995 PGA Championship, enough to get him the final spot on the team. Two years later, Jeff Maggert closed with a 65 in the final round at Winged Foot to clinch a spot. David Toms qualified for his first team by winning the 2001 PGA. Bubba Watson earned a spot on his first team when he lost in a playoff at Whistling Straits in 2010. That took the sting out of losing out on a major.
But this is not an enviable position.
“It’s brutal,” Bradley said. “It’s stuff you don’t think about when you’re younger, having to grind out for spots on Ryder Cup teams. All you think about is having fun out here. And it’s not very fun.”
It’s not much fun for Watson, either.
The 64-year-old captain has to make decisions about bringing America’s two biggest stars. Mickelson hasn’t won since the British Open last year, and hasn’t had a top 10 on the PGA Tour in nearly a year. Woods had back surgery and missed three months of the season.
“If Phil and Tiger don’t make it in the mix there, I’ve got some real thinking to do,” Watson said at the British Open. “Everybody is thinking that I’m going to pick them automatically. I can assure you that I’m not going to pick them automatically. I said about Tiger that I’ll pick him if he’s playing well and he’s in good health. And Phil is the same way. If he’s playing well, again, how can you not pick those two?”
Woods was No. 70 going into the Bridgestone Invitational. What hurts his cause if that if he doesn’t make it into the FedEx Cup playoffs after the PGA Championship, he will have gone six weeks before teeing it up in golf’s most intense competition.
Mickelson was in much better shape at No. 11. He would seem safe as a pick. Mickelson holds the U.S. record by playing on nine straight teams, and he earned his way on every one of them.
“I have not had to rely on a captain’s selection in two decades,” Mickelson said. “And I’d like to keep that going.”
Among those in the best shape to make a move are Brendon Todd, Chris Kirk and Ryan Moore. None has ever played in the Ryder Cup.
Moore was having lunch at the British Open when the captain pulled up a chair next to him to talk about the Ryder Cup. It was inspiring for Moore to realize Watson was paying attention to him. But for a guy who’s never played in the Ryder Cup, he feels his only chance is to earn a spot.
He had two weeks to play good golf without being consumed by making the team.
“I simply want to play good golf,” Moore said. “At the end of the day, if that’s good enough to make the team, then great. If it’s not, then I tried my hardest.”