Last week at the Buick Open one of golf's nicest guys, Kenny
Perry, earned his first victory in six years, set a handful of
tournament scoring records and collected $558,000, the biggest
check of his 15-year career. Enough about him, though. Two years
of Ryder Cup anticipation has now reached a fevered pitch, and
while Perry performed like a headliner, his victory was
overshadowed by what Jeff Sluman called "the tournament within
the tournament"--the race to finish in the top 10 in Ryder Cup
qualifying points, thus earning an automatic spot on the U.S.
team. This week's PGA Championship is the last chance to earn
points, and that's why every player from eighth to 19th in the
standings showed up at the Buick.
Paralyzed by major championship pressure, vexed by a brutal
course setup, hounded by an oppressive number of reporters, the
Ryder Cup bubble boys figure to have a tough time simply taking
the club back at the PGA, let alone racking up points. The Buick,
then, became the last good chance to gain ground--or lose it. At
the end of a frenetic week two players had made bold moves up the
standings, one poor soul was unceremoniously bounced from the top
10, and a struggling hero of a Ryder Cup past blew a golden
opportunity to advance his cause.
Oh, yeah, and Perry inserted himself into the fray, at least
mathematically. "It's possible, I guess," said Perry, who would
have to finish no worse than second in the PGA to have a sniff
at the top 10. "I haven't thought about it. I will have to look
at my points." You have 370.286 of them, Kenny, putting you in
Players pick up points only for a top 10 finish: 150 to the
winner, 90 for second, 80 for third, 70 for fourth, and so on
down the line. (The points are doubled at the majors). Coming
into the Buick Open, a mere 56.5 points separated 10th place (Joe
Durant) from 17th (Scott Verplank), leaving Durant to stroll
around Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club in Grand Blanc, Mich.,
with a giant bull's-eye on his back.
August 19, 2001
Over the first four months of the season Durant had been the
darling of the Ryder Cup race, as he piled up points with a pair
of victories and two other top five finishes. Starting with the
Colonial, in late May, the Tour had been more like a death march
for Durant, as he had missed the cut in six of seven events while
hamstrung by the effects of a bulging disk in his neck. "No way
I'd be here [were it not for the Ryder Cup]," Durant said last
week. "I felt as if I had to protect my position."
His normally aggressive shoulder turn constrained by his balky
neck, Durant tried to scrape it around Warwick Hills by taking
more club and making a wimpy three-quarter swing. During the
second round he hit only 12 greens and, on fairways so dry they
were amber-colored, averaged a meager 272 yards per drive. With
rounds of 70-71 Durant missed the cut by a stroke, and on Friday
afternoon he finally cracked. "I don't care anymore," he said.
"I'm sick of all this. I want this whole thing to be over."
Even those enjoying better luck last week were overcome by the
Ryder Cup hysteria. "I can't get away from it," Jim Furyk said
while loitering outside the scorer's tent moments after a
second-round 69, which left him tied for second place. Furyk came
into the Buick 11th in the points race, and he said, "I hear
about it from the gallery at least once a hole. I hear it from my
friends on the phone, in the locker room from other players, in
the media center. It has probably come up 20 times already today,
and it will probably come up another 20." Moments later Furyk
arrived in the press room, where the first question began,
"Trying to pick up Ryder Cup points, this sets you up for a top
With a 66-66 weekend Furyk did better than that. By tying for
second, two strokes behind Perry, he leapfrogged into eighth
place in the Ryder Cup standings, with 587.875 points. (Stuck at
505.000, Durant plummeted to 12th, leaving Tom Lehman, who missed
the cut by eight shots at the Buick, in the precarious 10th spot
with 543.750.) "Second place usually leaves you feeling a little
empty," Furyk said, "but this is definitely a good consolation."
Furyk was a member of the last two Ryder Cup teams and is
unbeaten and untied in singles. Even if he were to fall out of
the top 10 this week, he would be a strong candidate for one of
Curtis Strange's two captain's selections. Chris DiMarco,
runner-up with Furyk at the Buick, has a shakier case, and he
knows it. "I saw Curtis at the British Open," says DiMarco, who
came into the Buick 16th in the standings, "and he said he's not
going to be afraid to go pretty far down the list for his two
choices. That's encouraging to a lot of guys, but not to me.
Let's be real--he's not going to go out on a limb and take a
rookie. They make you play your way onto your first team."
On the strength of a rousing 65-65 weekend at the Buick, DiMarco,
a 32-year-old New Yorker by way of Orlando, is on the verge of
doing exactly that. He's now 11th (534.000) in the points race,
with a bullet. The Buick was DiMarco's third top three finish in
his last four tournaments, and he doesn't downplay his
motivation. "Representing my country would be one of the greatest
honors of my life," he says.
The excitable DiMarco arrived at Grand Blanc even edgier than
usual, still wound up after having kicked away a golden chance at
a victory--and a pile of Ryder Cup points--the week before at the
International. (After eagleing the 8th hole at Castle Pines,
DiMarco held a four-point lead, but he made four bogeys and a
pair of doubles on the way in.) DiMarco is aware of his station
in golf and eager to claw his way into the ranks of the elite. He
had a breakthrough year in 2000, winning his first tournament,
the Pennsylvania Classic, and finishing 19th on the money list.
This year he was the 36-hole leader at the Masters, and only
three players on Tour have made more birdies.
Yet at the Buick he was still channeling Rodney Dangerfield.
"Every time they show the Ryder Cup standings on TV, they're not
showing me," DiMarco said last Saturday, after his third
straight bogeyless round. "They're stopping at 15th place. It's
as if I don't have a chance. I feel as if they're disrespecting
me, and I'm using that as fuel."
Early on Sunday it looked as if DiMarco was on the verge of
running out of gas. Trying to reach the par-5 7th with a driver
off the deck, he pushed his second shot into the trees and from
there made his first bogey of the tournament. However, instead of
backing off, DiMarco attacked with renewed vigor and was rewarded
with a back-nine 30, the kind of performance that is becoming
routine for this explosive, all-around talent. "It was a
pressure-packed week," DiMarco said following the round. "With
what happened last Sunday, with the Ryder Cup situation, I proved
something to myself this week. Hopefully I proved something to
some other people, too."
No doubt Captain Strange got the message, for he's no stranger to
using the media to make a point to his potential players.
Recently he sent a little pep talk in the direction of Justin
Leonard, the hero of Brookline who is languishing at 23rd in the
standings. "People assume that Justin is automatically going to
be on the team," Strange told reporters, "and that is obviously
not the case."
Last week Leonard blew off the dig. "I haven't talked much with
Curtis, but I don't need to," said Leonard. "I know what I need
to do, and he knows I know, and I know that he knows."
On Friday, Leonard began to do what he needed to do, striking the
ball, he says, "as well as I have all year from tee to green."
Considering that he hit 13 fairways and 17 greens, a 68 was about
the worst Leonard could have shot. On Saturday he continued to
play with authority and, with only 24 putts, shot a 63 to storm
into a tie for third and raise the possibility of a points
bonanza. Said Leonard afterward, "Did I think about the Ryder Cup
during the round? Absolutely. It's a big motivating tool. I'm
sure I will think about it tonight. The Ryder Cup is in the back
of everyone's mind."
Maybe Leonard should have been thinking a little more about
Warwick Hills on Sunday. His long game all but deserted him, and
he huffed and puffed his way to a 70. No one in the top 19 had a
worse score, and the meek finish doomed him to a four-way tie for
10th, worth a measly 2.5 Ryder Cup points. Leonard is still stuck
in 23rd place, with 376.250 points. He also needs to finish no
worse than second at the PGA to have a prayer of cracking the top
10, and that could represent his only chance of making the team.
Notwithstanding one remarkable 45-foot putt, Leonard has been
shaky at best in two previous cup appearances, amassing an 0-3-5
record. "I'm going to go to the PGA and try to win another major
championship, and if I make the Ryder Cup team as a result, that
will be wonderful," said Leonard. "No matter what I do, Curtis
has a tough decision. Maybe I can get in there and make it
Funny thing about this Buick Open, while everyone else was
obsessing over the Ryder Cup, Perry quietly went about the
business of winning the tournament. He took control during the
middle rounds with back-to-back 64s, highlighted by a 29 on the
front side on Friday and another 29 on Saturday's back nine,
which stretched his lead to five strokes. Clutch birdies at 14
and 16 on Sunday sealed the deal. So what was the secret to
Perry's fourth career victory? "I didn't think about the Ryder
Cup once this week," he said. "It never even entered my mind."
"Let's be real," says DiMarco. "[Strange] isn't going to go out
on a limb and take a rookie. They make you play your way onto
your first team."