Time to put captain's picks under the microscope

September, 5, 2009
09/05/09
9:11
AM ET

Fred Couples knocked one down the fairway. Greg Norman tried to cut one around the dogleg. Couples laid up and played it safe. Norman took a mighty hack and went for the green. Couples lagged one to tap-in range. Norman ensured he wouldn't leave it short.

Stars and Stripes

Phil Mickelson When the 2009 Presidents Cup begins at Harding Park in San Francisco on Oct. 8, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk will be the elder statesmen of the American squad.

Player Appearances *
Phil Mickelson 7
Tiger Woods 6
Jim Furyk 6
Stewart Cink 4
Justin Leonard 4
Kenny Perry 4
Steve Stricker 3
Lucas Glover ** 2
Zach Johnson 2
Hunter Mahan ** 2
Anthony Kim 1
Sean O'Hair 1
* Includes 2009 Presidents Cup
** 2009 captain's pick

You get the idea. In announcing their wild-card selections, the rival Presidents Cup captains employed two very different strategies when filling out their rosters.

The final four players were announced on Tuesday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., as Couples named past team members Lucas Glover and Hunter Mahan to the United States squad and Norman pulled a pair of mild shockers in choosing Ryo Ishikawa and Adam Scott for the International team.

Couples, a big-time sports fan, made picks akin to filling out a bracket sheet with the No. 1 seeds advancing to the finals.

The reigning U.S. Open champion, Glover wasn't just a lock, he was a steel trap protected by a dead bolt. In addition to his victory at Bethpage, the 29-year-old owns four other top-five results this season. Let's put it this way: If Freddie had failed to pick Glover, he should have had his captain's license revoked.

In fact, Glover was such a no-brainer that Couples told him he'd made the team after the PGA Championship -- more than three weeks before the official announcement was released.

The second pick wasn't as easy. Longtime pro Scott Verplank became a viable option after finishing T-2 at the Deutsche Bank Championship on Monday, joining a list of candidates that likely included Heath Slocum (Barclays champion), Brian Gay (two wins this year), Nick Watney (Buick Invitational winner), Ryan Moore (recent winner in Greensboro) and Dustin Johnson (who made a late charge thanks to some strong recent results). The one common bond for each player in this final fivesome? They are all PGA Tour champions this season.

The same can't be said for Mahan, who in fact owns only one career title, which came back at the 2007 Travelers Championship.

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So why did he get the job? Mahan already owns team experience, having played in the Ryder Cup last year and the Presidents Cup one year earlier. Plus, he's a birdie machine (third on tour this year), which will serve him well in the match-play format.

There's no doubt the 27-year-old is among the most talented players around, but Johnson owns one trait that may have been truly beneficial at Harding Park -- the ability to crush it off the tee. As the third-ranked player on the PGA Tour's driving distance list (307.7 yards), Johnson's length would have been an asset at the venue that played into the hands of the big bombers when it hosted a WGC event four years ago. In that event, Tiger Woods prevailed in a playoff over John Daly.

"He has put together a great, great year," Couples said of Johnson, who won a rain-shortened event at Pebble Beach and finished T-4 at TPC Boston this past week. "Hunter was my pick all along, and he did nothing to push his way off the team, whereas Dustin did everything to make me make about 40 more calls last night. I didn't sleep too much."

Tough call in my eyes, but as much as I love Mahan's game and think he has more long-term potential than Johnson, I would have picked the masher, who could have had the same effect that J.B. Holmes had on last year's Ryder Cup.

Even so, that's more a discussion than an argument. There will be much more conjecture and debate when it comes to Norman's extra picks.

International Flavor

Vijay SinghThe International team at this year's Presidents Cup certainly will have its share of experience, with five separate players having played in at least five editions of the biennial match-play event.

Player Appearances *
Vijay Singh 8
Ernie Els 6
Robert Allenby 5
Retief Goosen 5
Mike Weir 5
Adam Scott ** 4
Angel Cabrera 3
Tim Clark 3
Geoff Ogilvy 1
Camilo Villegas 1
Y.E. Yang 1
Ryo Ishikawa ** 1
* Includes 2009 Presidents Cup
** 2009 captain's pick

Ishikawa won the Japan Tour's Fujisankei Classic by 5 strokes this past weekend for his third professional victory of the year. The phenom has a ton of game, and although he hasn't enjoyed much success in the U.S. this season -- only two made cuts in six starts with no finish better than T-56 -- he has earned the necessary experience to be included on the team.

Then again, he'll be competing in a foreign land and with only slight knowledge of the English language, and he'll have trouble communicating with fellow team members. Norman contended that the fact that Ishikawa is constantly surrounded by media and fans aided his decision to place him on the roster, but I'd be willing to bet that the benefit of tapping into the Japanese market and continuing to grow the game in that part of the world had an effect on his selection, too.

Still, it speaks volumes of the state of Scott's game that the 17-year-old from Japan was actually a safer pick than the six-time PGA Tour champion.

A former Players and Tour Championship winner, it would be kind to say that Scott's game has fallen on hard times this year. Fact is, he's been dreadful. Once the world's third-ranked player, he has dropped to No. 53. Since finishing as co-runner-up at the Sony Open in January, the 29-year-old has made the cut in only six of 16 starts, with his best finish coming at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, where he earned a T-33 result only because of a first-round exit.

"There's more than one thing you look at to selecting a player," Norman said in defense of his pick. "It's not just the playing skills, but the camaraderie. ... He was really a logical choice."

Risky? Yes. Logical? No. It would have been more justifiable for the Shark to choose Jeev Milkha Singh, Rory Sabbatini, Stephen Ames, K.J. Choi or any one of a number of players -- the captain said he seriously looked as far down on the points list as John Senden at No. 31 -- over Scott. Instead, this selection will largely be considered playing favorites, as Norman has long served as a mentor to the younger Aussie.

Of course, much like a presidential election or an NFL draft, it's impossible to predict whether a Presidents Cup captain's pick is the right call until we see the action unfold. That will come on Oct. 8-11, when we'll find out whether Fred Couples' safe choices or Greg Norman's adventuresome ones will prove to be the keys to success.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.

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Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.

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