U.S. Ryder Cup spots still on the line

Tiger Woods' name was put down in ink from the moment the final putt dropped at the Belfry. Same for Davis Love III and David Toms. Even Phil Mickelson, who had a tough 2003, was a lock for the 2004 U.S. Ryder Cup team.

But there are still several spots to be won or lost in the coming weeks, as just four tournaments remain before the team is determined following the PGA Championship.

The race continues at this week's U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee -- although not everyone is taking part.

Only two of the current top-10 U.S. players in the Ryder Cup points standings are participating. One is defending champion Kenny Perry, who is fifth behind Woods, Mickelson, Love and Jim Furyk and is all but assured of a spot on the team. Fred Funk, who is ninth, is the other.

So this week presents an excellent opportunity for Jerry Kelly, who is 11th, and Scott Verplank, who is 12th. Jeff Maggert is 10th.

The top 10 players on a three-year points race (qualifying was extended after the 2001 Ryder Cup was postponed) will automatically make the team. Captain Hal Sutton will then have two captain's selections to round out the squad that will take on the Europeans Sept. 17-19 at Oakland Hills Country Club outside of Detroit.

Sutton is charged with bringing the Cup back to the U.S. after a frustrating defeat to the Europeans two years ago, 15 1/2 to 12 1/2, in England.

That defeat, the third in the past four Ryder Cups, led to all kinds of theories as to why the U.S. lost again.

"It is disturbing to me," Sutton said soon after taking the job. "We possess all kinds of talent. I don't know what the missing ingredient is other than we need to become more passionate about it. I think the players are passionate, but they show it in different ways."

One of the players Sutton did not mind singling out was Woods, who has not been as dominant as expected. Woods went 2-2-1 in the matches and is 5-8-2 in three Ryder Cups.

"Tiger parallels his career to Jack Nicklaus, he has got Jack Nicklaus' records right in sight," Sutton said. "Jack Nicklaus had a pretty sterling career in the Ryder Cup (17-8-3). I would like to challenge Tiger to look at Jack Nicklaus' Ryder Cup record and let's go after that one, too.

"I think Jack understood the passion of the Ryder Cup. He understood what it was like to play. Tiger, if not the greatest, is one of the greatest players we have ever seen in the game, and he's going to bring that game out the next time, I am going to assure you."

But you can't put it all on Woods. Not only has the U.S. lost three of the past four, but six of the past nine. And Woods can only play a role in five of the 14 1/2 points needed to win the Cup. And in four of the points, he has a teammate.

That is all part of the dynamics of the next couple of weeks.

Once the 10 players are decided, Sutton then has two captain's selections. Whom will he choose? Does he go with Jay Haas, 50, for leadership and experience? What about British Open champion Todd Hamilton, who just moved to 15th in the standings? If Verplank doesn't make the team on points, does he get chosen, like the last time?

It won't be easy. Players nine through 14 in the standings have not won this year, so it's not as if guys are making strong statements.

Meanwhile in Europe, there was some consternation over the fact that captain Bernhard Langer was not at the British Open. Sutton was there, watching his prospective players while doing television work for ABC-TV. Langer's absence was notable, although the Europeans have a few more weeks to go before their team is picked.

Right now, Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Lee Westwood appear to be locks.

Five Things To Watch
1. Kenny Perry defends his title at the U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee, formerly known as the Greater Milwaukee Open. Last year, Perry's victory was his third of the year. Don't be surprised if a few players use the week to sneak up to Whistling Straits, site of the PGA Championship in three weeks.

2. This week is the equivalent of a major championship for Wisconsin natives Skip Kendall, Steve Stricker and Jerry Kelly, who is also battling for a Ryder Cup spot.

3. The Champions Tour has its second major in three weeks with the Senior British Open at Portrush in Northern Ireland.

4. Defending champion Tom Watson, who missed last week's British Open with an injury will attempt to play. Also scheduled to play are Bob Charles and Gary Player, who along with Watson, won both the regular and senior British titles.

5. The LPGA Tour begins a two-week European swing with one of its richest events, the Evian Masters, in France. Juli Inkster is the defending champion of the 2.1-million event. That's a bigger purse than next week's Women's British Open.

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.