AKRON, Ohio -- An obvious and stated goal this year for Tiger Woods was to make it to Firestone Country Club. He became especially keen to do so when word trickled out that the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational was coming here for the final time this week.
Woods has won at Firestone eight times, and it is the site of his most recent PGA Tour victory, in 2013. Making it to the Bridgestone occurred only when Woods tied for sixth at The Open two weeks ago and by the slimmest of margins slipped into the top 50 in the world, one of the qualifying criteria for the tournament.
From 656th in the world in January to 50th six months and 12 tournaments later is an impressive achievement for Woods.
All of that leads to another question: Is it enough to be on the U.S. Ryder Cup team at the end of September?
Woods, who is 20th in the standings, still has a chance to earn one of the eight automatic spots on the team, although he is a long shot to do so with just two tournaments left in the qualifying process that ends after next week's PGA Championship.
But he is undoubtedly a strong contender for one of captain Jim Furyk's at-large picks -- and it is perhaps already a done deal. Furyk, of course, will not say as much, but there has been speculation for weeks that Woods will get a pick -- and that was before his showing at The Open.
Furyk gains little by saying anything definitive now, so it likely play out over the coming weeks. After the two remaining qualifying events, there are still four weeks of tournaments to be played before the four at-large selections are made, with three coming following the Dell Technologies Championship -- the second FedEx Cup playoff event -- and the final pick coming after the BMW Championship.
So will Woods get a pick from Furyk? Does he deserve one? Here are some things to consider:
Getting to 20th in points is an impressive achievement
Woods did this in 12 events, having missed two cuts, without winning and without benefit of getting to play in any of the eight 2017 events in which he could have earned points. If you went by 2018 alone, for example, Jordan Spieth would not be among the top 12. He would be 13th -- just two three spots ahead of Woods. Three players among consideration for at-large picks -- Matt Kuchar, Brian Harman and Zach Johnson -- have earned fewer points than Woods in 2018.
The standings are not the only factor in the at-large picks
Once the top eight players are determined, Furyk is free to pick whomever he wants, regardless of the standings. That is the idea behind giving the captain four at-large picks. It gives him some flexibility; he can go with a hot player or veterans over rookies or someone he believes will make a better partner. For Woods, you can make compelling arguments for or against his inclusion based on all those factors.
Woods' Ryder Cup record is underwhelming
This might not matter as much today as it once did, but the fact remains Tiger has a losing record at the Ryder Cup: 13-17-3. You can dissect that in many ways. At times, such as 2012, Woods did not play great; other times, such as 2004 and 2006, he was part of historically bad U.S. teams. But since his inaugural Ryder Cup in 1997, Woods has not lost in singles. In 2010, when he was last a captain's pick, he went 3-1 with a singles victory in the 14½ to 13½ defeat to Europe. He was 3-2 in a losing effort in Ireland in 2006. He's still an intense competitor, and having him on your side on the final day probably means more than having a newcomer. He also figures to be easier to partner with today given his more relaxed demeanor.
The constitution of the team makes it easier to pick him
Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, Justin Thomas, Bubba Watson and Spieth hold down the top six spots -- with Koepka, Johnson and Reed assured of making it and the others near locks. Rickie Fowler and Webb Simpson are in the final two positions, but Fowler is a certainty to get a pick if he falls out of the top eight.
Spieth and Reed have been a strong combination for the U.S. at both the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup. Fowler formed a good team at the Presidents Cup with Thomas, who won 3½ out of 4 points. Johnson played with both Koepka and Kuchar during the 2016 U.S. victory at Hazeltine. Phil Mickelson, who also figures to get a pick if he doesn't make the team (he is 10th), partnered with Fowler and Kuchar.
The point is this: The U.S. has three, and potentially four, solid teams for the first two days of foursomes and four-ball without Woods. Unlike years ago, Woods would not be expected to play all five matches; in fact, he might play just once a day if chosen. You could easily see him paired with someone such as neighborhood buddy Thomas in four-ball, or even Reed if it is decided to give him a break from Spieth. Bryson DeChambeau has been a frequent practice-round partner this year and would make for an interesting team.
His role in the U.S. Ryder Cup/Presidents Cup effort
Woods has been an important factor behind the scenes since the U.S. overhauled its Ryder Cup formula following its 2014 loss at Gleneagles: first as part of the Ryder Cup task force and now as part of the Ryder Cup committee, which consists of him and Mickelson along with the current captain. Woods is also a vice captain, so he will be in France anyway. He was an assistant at Hazeltine two years ago. He was an assistant to Steve Stricker at the Presidents Cup last year. He will be the U.S. Presidents Cup captain next year. If he wants to play, and is performing well through the playoff events, it is difficult to envision him being passed over.
Lest we forget: the commercial aspects of the Ryder Cup
Nobody will ever admit it, but you can bet that behind the scenes, the various movers and shakers at the PGA of America, European Tour and broadcast networks around the world want Woods playing in the Ryder Cup. This is an exhibition, after all, with no money changing hands. Think of it like a sponsor exemption at any other tournament. Who would not choose Woods?
Who do you take instead of Tiger?
If the top eight -- Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Reed, Thomas, Watson, Spieth, Fowler and Simpson -- remains intact, who are the four picks? Mickelson, for reasons stated above about Woods, would seem to be a lock in the 10th spot. That leaves three players from among the likes of DeChambeau, Xander Schauffele, Kuchar, Tony Finau, Harman, Kevin Kisner, Kevin Na, Aaron Wise, Zach Johnson, Kyle Stanley and Woods. All of them have qualities that give them a chance: Harman's tenacity, for example; Kisner's recent form and his play at last year's Presidents Cup; Schauffele's solid play as an up-and-comer, and likewise for DeChambeau; Finau's length and raw talent; Zach Johnson's experience. But do three of them get the nod over over Woods? Unlikely.