U.S. wild-card hopefuls have Ryder Cup selection in their hands

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FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- It was just after noon on Sunday when Zach Johnson walked out of the Barclays scoring area, saw the swarm of reporters take a step in his direction and started laughing.

"I know," he said, holding up his hands. "Settle down."

Johnson knew exactly what awaited. After steadily residing within the top-eight on the U.S. Ryder Cup points list since his Open Championship win last summer, he was on the verge of falling outside an automatic position on the final day of qualification and needed to answer the questions about it.

Here's how strange the next several hours were: Seemingly resigned to believing he'd need a captain's pick, Johnson offered responses such as, "I just hope I get another opportunity," and "I just hope I play better." By sundown, he was on the team.

The line separating the last few players who made the U.S. roster and those who missed out is thinner than the gallery ropes which will separate the boisterous fans from the action at Hazeltine in four weeks. Johnson's gain was Rickie Fowler's loss, the byproduct of a closing struggle that left Fowler two strokes shy of qualifying.

With two-thirds of his roster now set, captain Davis Love III will embark on a Monday media tour in New York City during which he'll undoubtedly sing the praises of any and all potential wildcard selections.

That list includes Fowler, of course, with Bubba Watson and Matt Kuchar theoretically right beside him and Jim Furyk and J.B. Holmes perhaps just behind them.

But the remaining four captain's picks could turn into a sort of shell game for Love and his assistants. The first three will be announced on September 12, one day after the BMW Championship, while the 12th and final one will be decided two weeks later, directly after the Tour Championship.

That was a conscious decision on behalf of the infamous task force, a decision which should allow them the ability to pick the hottest players going into the Ryder Cup.

It could just as easily paint them into a corner.

Let's say Fowler, Watson and Kuchar are indeed those first three picks. If Love is planning to pick, say, Furyk or Holmes with that last one, it'll be a bad look if neither even plays in the season finale, a very real possibility considering each is currently outside that top-30 on the points list.

Instead, the door remains wide open for a player who might not be on the radar, even right now with a month left. There's a very real possibility that someone such as Bill Haas or Billy Horschel, each of whom has won the playoffs in past years, can post a few strong weeks and essentially force his way onto the team.

Maybe that's the best way to decide things anyway. After all, the usual list of characteristics from captain's picks is contradictory.

We collectively want players with experience who aren't scarred by previous losses. We want big hitters and great putters. We want guys who have enjoyed season-long success and guys who could be horses for the course.

With all of those variables, going simply with the hot hand sounds as effective as any other idea.

Those who are seeking one of these final spots will simply need to heed the advice Johnson had for himself when he thought he wouldn't make it: Play better.

It was a notion also eloquently explained by Phil Mickelson, a member of that task force who also qualified for the team.

"The great thing about golf is if you don't like where you're at, you can do something about it" Phil Mickelson

"The fact is, if you don't make it on your own, then you need to bring a lot more to the table than just your game," he said Sunday. "The great thing about the game of golf is if you don't like where you're at, you can do something about it by simply playing better and shooting lower scores. There are no judges here that are giving you scores that are subjective. It's all out there. Whatever your number is, just shoot it. Shoot a lower score than the other guy and you'll do pretty good. You might win."

Two-thirds of the U.S. Ryder Cup team is set. The next few weeks will determine the remainder of the roster, but each candidate knows exactly what he needs to do in order to land one of those spots.

It's the same answer to every problem in golf. Play better.