Players stay sharp for Ryder Cup

Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy lead a talented European Ryder Cup team. Scott Halleran/Getty Images

When the Tour Championship begins on Thursday at the East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, the 12 members of the U.S. Ryder Cup team will be in the field. With the exception of Jason Dufner, who took off the Barclays to rest and practice, these players were in the first three FedEx Cup playoff events. Even for these remarkably fit athletes, it has been a torrid stretch since the Open Championship in mid-July.

Will the Americans be running on fumes come next week at Medinah given the mental anguish of trying to win the $10 million that goes to the winner of the FedEx Cup champion? Do the playoffs give the U.S. team a competitive advantage over the Europeans, who have only five players in Atlanta this week? Does it matter how much competition these players have seen coming into the matches?

The Ryder Cup is such a unique and pressure-packed event that no amount of preparation may prepare these players for the stress of playing for their countries in front of the world. No matter how deep the American team looks on paper -- Furyk is the only player on the squad outside the top 20 in the world ranking -- the Europeans have won four of the last five Cups.

In Rory McIlroy, the Europeans have the hottest player in the world. Right now, no one on the American team comes close to him if you had to beat him over 72 holes. But the Ryder Cup is a team event. Alternate shot, for example, takes away McIlroy's ability to have complete control over the outcome of a match.

Reactions from some in the American camp to the hefty schedule leading into the Ryder Cup have been mixed.

"It keeps us fresh, but I hope it doesn't get us burned out, as well, playing that much golf," Tiger Woods said at the Barclays. "If you're playing well, it'll be great. If you're not playing well, you just don't have a lot of time to work on your game, and you want to be rolling into Ryder Cup with some confidence and obviously some practice and get everything situated with your teammates."

Overall, the American team has a combined 11 top-10s in the playoffs. Six of these players have failed to record a top-10 in any of the three events. With a T-3, T-4 and T-6 in his three playoff starts, Dustin Johnson has been the most consistent player on the team. Based on his performances thus far in the playoffs, he should do well at Medinah. But in 2010 matches at Celtic Manor, the 28-year-old former Walker Cupper went winless in his four matches. Last year in the Presidents Cup in Australia, Johnson went 1-3-1 in five matches.

Johnson could extend the good play into Medinah or succumb to the pressure, as he did in his two previous team competitions.

Phil Mickelson believes that the playoffs have been a good thing for the Americans.

"If you look back at the U.S. record since the FedEx Cup has been in existence [2007], our record in the team competitions from Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup has been extremely good, with the only loss being The Ryder Cup two years ago," Mickelson said earlier this year. "This has really helped the U.S. players be sharp mentally and have our game sharp. The FedEx Cup has forced us to really prepare and practice for the four events following the PGA Championship, where oftentimes in the past, we have taken a bit of a break."

But the heart and soul of the European team -- Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia -- have all done a pretty good job of using the playoffs to sharpen their games. Garcia won in Greensboro the week before the start of the playoffs, and McIlroy has been on a Tiger-like tear since he won the PGA Championship in August.

Probably more than anything, the playoffs keep the players mentally sharp and focused on golf. The main focus for these Ryder Cuppers has been on positioning themselves for the Tour Championship. None of them has viewed the playoffs as a preamble to Medinah. The money and prestige of winning the playoffs is too big to overlook. The top five in the FedEx Cup standings control their own destiny in Atlanta. With a win, any one of them could be the FedEx Cup champion. Four of these players are in the Ryder Cup.

It bodes very well for the Americans to have Tiger and Mickelson playing well heading into the matches. But the Americans need all 12 guys on the top of their games. As Tiger pointed out at the Barclays, playing a lot doesn't do you any good if you're playing poorly. At points during the season, Jason Dufner, Zach Johnson, Steve Stricker, Bubba Watson, Matt Kuchar and Webb Simpson have all looked like the best player in the world, but none of them have had their best stuff in the playoffs.

Does this mean they won't play great in Medinah? Probably not, but U.S. captain Davis Love III will know what players have done recently in competition. He won't have to base who is playing well solely on practice rounds the week of the matches.

The Tour Championship will give 17 players -- 12 Americans and five Europeans -- one last chance before they head to Medinah to either find their games or continue to build on their good play. But it all could be an exercise in futility in terms of what it could mean for what they will do in the Ryder Cup.
East Lake is a fine place with a great history, but there won't be overly-rowdy, patriotic crowds that grind away at the nerves of the best players in the world.