-08/29/2016

The subplots thicken faster than the main event from time to time. So it went with the start of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs. The competition itself is already undermined by timing as well prestige. No one values the FedEx Cup more than the four majors or, maybe, even the Olympic Games. When you factor in the somewhat arbitrary structure the trip from the Barclays to the Tour Championship becomes a slog to the finish more than a sprint.

It’s no surprise the tour dishes out a $10 million payout to incentivize the players.
Still, there was plenty of intrigue at Bethpage Black this weekend (as there always is) beyond golf’s postseason. This was the last chance for players to automatically qualify for the American Ryder Cup Team. Would the woefully out of form Zach Johnson hold on for a spot? Would Jim Furyk, historically a poor Ryder Cup player, continue his hot play to garner a captain’s pick? And would any of the bubble stars—Bubba Watson, Matt Kuchar, Patrick Reed and especially Rickie Fowler—make a late dash to qualify?

For much of the weekend, it looked like Fowler would be the man to take charge. Instead, Reed held the trophy aloft as the winner of the first stage of the playoffs. In delivering a 9-under-par performance, the 26-year-old collected his fifth career victory and a coveted spot at Hazeltine.

Fowler, who needed a top-3 finish to sneak onto the roster, blew his shot to redefine his 2016 season. Entering Sunday with the lead, he looked unflappable through the front-9. Bethpage Black is among the most difficult courses in the world and Rickie walked it nearly mistake free. By the time he sank a long par putt on the par-3 third followed by a birdie on four, Fowler had gone nearly three rounds without a bogey. This was reminiscent of the player who brilliantly closed out the 2015 Players Championship. Give him motivation—then, it was the infamous overrated poll, now the Ryder Cup—and he delivers.

But whether it was the challenge of the Black course, the presence of the steely Reed (the two were paired in the final group), or merely fatigue from pressing for so long, Fowler faltered as he made the turn. He carded a back-9 39 to drop to a T7 finish.

Now, few believe that Davis Love III will leave Fowler off his Ryder Cup squad, but that’s beside the point. Fowler entered 2016 with a win in Dubai and status in golf’s new big four. More importantly, he, along with Jordan Spieth, represented the new blood of American golf. This would be the group to turn around the Americans’ misfortunes in the biannual international competition.

Well, Spieth was merely good rather than great this season, and Fowler played poorly from April on. He has had more missed cuts, three, than top-10’s, two, since mid-May.

Whatever optimism Americans had heading into the Ryder Cup is slowly dissipating. Zach Johnson did qualify (much to chagrin of most people not named Phil Mickelson). Furyk played merely okay but is still buzzing after that 58. His name is firmly in the mix.

We’re left with the prospect of watching familiar names head back to take on the Europeans, when there was serious hope this would be a changing-of-guard affair. Only Brooks Koepka is a rookie among the automatic qualifiers.

At least Reed made a statement. With a perfect match-play record in Augusta State’s back-to-back National Championships in 2010-11 and an impressive debut in Scotland two years ago, Reed, like Fowler, was all but guaranteed a spot in Hazeltine even without automatic qualification. He’s too good in the format. Still, we’ve been waiting for him to play consistently through an entire season. Aside from his first victory at the 2013 Wyndham Championship, more or less a JV event, Reed peaked in mid-winter the last four seasons.

Now, he has a crucial late summer win to his name at a championship-worthy golf course. Reed, after a bogey on three, rallied with three birdies to close the front-9. Another birdie on 12 gave him the cushion necessary to play Bethpage conservatively down the stretch. Forget the two bogeys at the end. He didn’t need anything more.

The performance served as a reminder to American fans slipping into the even-year doldrums. We have Spieth. We have Dustin Johnson. We still have Phil Mickelson. We can count on Patrick Reed.