With selections made, questions begin

By Drew Sharp

Knight Ridder Newspapers

MILWAUKEE -- The team is ready. The mission is clear.

All that was left was the Monday morning quarterbacking -- or perhaps caddying would be more metaphorically korrect in this instance.

As much as Ryder Cup captain Hal Sutton tried to steer the conversation to those two men he chose as his wild card selections, many of the questions revolved around those he bypassed.


Why not Scott Verplank?

Why didn't Todd Hamilton's two tour victories this season, including a major, wield more weight?

Would Justin Leonard have merited strong consideration had he finished strong in the PGA Championship's concluding regulation holes only to have eventual champion Vijay Singh play even better?

The PGA of America "told me when they offered me the captain's job that this was going to be the toughest day of the whole experience for one reason," Sutton said.

"There's no way you're going to win over everybody--and that includes you (media) guys."

As long as he wins a month from now when the world convenes at Oakland Hills, who cares how anybody feels right now.

Sutton's captain's picks of Jay Haas and Stewart Cink were safe and steady. Ryder Cup captains rarely venture too far along the limb with these selections. Sutton can throw around all the statistical jargon as he wishes to justify his rationale, but the bottom line is that you ultimately go with the guys with whom you're most trusting and most comfortable.

And although Sutton insisted Monday that there were five to six strong candidates spinning around in his head over the last remaining weeks, it's pretty obvious from the criteria he set at the outset of the process that only three of the available prospects would prove worthy in his mind--Haas, Cink and Verplank.


Sutton declined gambling on Verplank's tender right foot holding up for inspection come Ryder Cup weekend.

"Obviously, he was disappointed," said Sutton. "I was worried about his foot problem and his ankle problem. There are many deserving people. He was one of those deserving people, but they only give me two spots."

If Cink disappoints next month, it could become a gamble that costs the United States a seventh Ryder Cup over the last 10 matches.

'"I've told Jay and Stewart that I'm holding them accountable for making me look good," laughed Sutton.

The captain has no control over five-sixths of this team. He inherits them. But the wild card selections represent his opportunity to stamp his signature on this team. Don't underestimate their importance. They aren't merely throw-ins simply because they're the last two additions.

The captain's picks have gone a perfect 2-0 in the final day's singles matches the last three Ryder Cups. And since the Americans joined the Europeans in selecting two wild cards in 1989 only Curtis Strange (in 1995) and Raymond Floyd (in 1991) have lost their respective singles matches.

"We are four weeks away from knowing whether I made the right decisions or the wrong decisions," said Sutton. "And I'm sure I'll hear about it if we don't win."

It's now up to Sutton to mold the respective strengths of his 12 Ryder Cup players into a cohesive team capable of reversing a recent competitive slide against the Europeans.


The U.S. team captain has played Oakland Hills, the site of next month's matches, several times over the past year.

He believed he needed the familiarity with the course to determine what attributes might matter most. You generally have to keep the ball below the hole at Oakland Hills, placing a premium on strong short iron play.

Verplank was considered the odds-on favorite for one of the captain's choices. He had battled plantar fasciitis--remember that, Pistons fans? -- throughout the season and it limited his participation in tour events.

He was fitted for orthotic inserts in his shoes that help alleviate the pain and inflammation. He was playing better in recent weeks and was six-under par through the first 22 holes of the PGA Championship.

And then he stepped into a pothole along Whistling Straits' hilly terrain and badly twisted his right ankle. It affected his performance. He finished five-over par for the championship.

Experience played a prominent role in the selecting process and Haas, Cink and Verplank were the only three of the top prospects with any prior Ryder Cup knowledge.

And Sutton apparently felt comfortable that there wouldn't be too much of a difference if he went with Cink rather than Verplank, especially since Cink is rated No. 1 in putting average on the PGA Tour this season.

"It's my job to get us ready and I'm very pleased with the team that we've assembled," Sutton said.

And now it's Sutton job to turn them into a team.

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