Timing of Tiger decision the real issue

No matter who he chose, Fred Couples set himself up for scrutiny. Not because Bill Haas was picked and Keegan Bradley wasn't or because one of them deserved it more than the other. No, it's all about Tiger Woods, whose spot on the U.S. Presidents Cup team will be debated all the way to Australia and back.

Bradley, who won the PGA Championship last month, who won the Byron Nelson Championship in May, who is a slam dunk for PGA Tour rookie of the year and will be a strong choice for player of the year, will sit home while Woods -- who has played two full tournaments since the Masters -- gets the nod.

It is a fair assessment of the situation, and both Couples and Woods would have trouble disputing it. Anyone who wants to say that Bradley deserved it and Woods doesn't has plenty of fodder.

But where Couples, the U.S. Presidents Cup captain, erred was not so much in the pick of Woods but in the pick of Woods so early.

Despite his struggles, there is a good argument to be made for Woods, whose game has suffered this year but whose body of work in a 14-major championship career is tough to ignore. We're not talking about stroke play, but match play, a format in which he has excelled and where not every single shot is crucial.

Woods' 3-1 record at last year's Ryder Cup and a 5-0 record two years ago in the Presidents Cup in San Francisco should not be ignored. Nor should his overall experience -- 12 combined Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams -- or his record with Steve Stricker, a combined 6-1 over the past two team competitions. Or even how he's raised the stature of the sport.

It seems that Couples was factoring in all of those things when he referred to Woods as "the best player forever.''

But by picking him in late August, less than two weeks after Woods shot 10 over par to miss the cut at the PGA Championship, Couples set himself up for the kind of second-guessing that will continue through the tournament, Nov. 17-20, at Royal Melbourne.

Had he waited until Tuesday, when the captain's picks were announced via conference call, it would have been much easier to sell the idea of Woods on the team. His history, his experience, his leadership are all strong factors. And then there's this.

"I'm thrilled that Tiger is healthy and ready to play and wants to play,'' Couples said -- something he could not have said on Aug. 25, the day Couples announced he had already told Woods he was on the team.

And then there was this from Woods, who had nothing to do during the FedEx Cup playoffs but try to get his mind, body and game in shape.

"I've been practicing very hard up at Medalist [the club near his new home in Jupiter, Fla.] and playing as much as I possibly can,'' Woods said. "It's something I hadn't done all summer. My training sessions are great, my explosiveness has come back through my training. [Instructor] Sean [Foley] has come down a few times and we've worked on my game.

"I'm really excited to get back out there and compete, knowing that I'm fully healthy enough to do it and I've practiced. Things are definitely shaping up quickly.''

That is also something Woods could not say back when Couples informed him he was on the team. Woods admittedly rushed into the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and PGA Championship with little on-course preparation. Less than two weeks later, with little evidence of where his game will be, Woods was picked. Now, at least, Woods can proclaim himself healthy and fit, with a month of practice and playing in his immediate past.

And then there is this: of all the players Couples had to choose from who did not make the team on points -- Haas, Bradley, Brandt Snedeker, Rickie Fowler, Zach Johnson -- are there two who you would take over Woods?

Haas got the nod because of his clutch performance on Sunday, but a week earlier he was shooting 42 during the final nine at Cog Hill to blow a shot at securing an automatic spot on the team.

Bradley won the PGA Championship, but has done little since mid-August, missing two cuts in playoff events and finishing tied for 11th at the Tour Championship in a field of just 30 players. Snedeker was also in the mix, but finished 11th in points and didn't do enough at the BMW Championship or the Tour Championship to sway the captain. Johnson, who played on last year's U.S. Ryder Cup team, didn't make it to East Lake.

The fact that nobody clearly stood out made it even easier to pick Woods -- although, again, Couples could not have known that a month ago.

Bradley went the classy route, congratulating Haas and Woods via his Twitter account.

"They deserve the picks. Although I'm very disappointed, I'm very happy to have been considered. GO USA.''

Bradley could still make the team, though, as Couples said that if Steve Stricker were unable to play due to a recent injury, the Vermont native would be heading to Australia to fill out the roster.

Snedeker said at the BMW Championship that he had nobody to blame but himself if he did not get picked and had no problem with Woods being selected.

"I couldn't imagine not having him on the team,'' Snedeker said. "He's not been playing well this year, but he's literally one round away from playing the way he was. And I think he needs that kind of confidence boost that Freddie has given him. I think it'll be great for him.''

It is not unlike what International team captain Greg Norman did for Adam Scott two years ago. Scott hadn't performed well, but Norman gave his Aussie buddy a spot, and although he went just 1-4, the confidence boost has helped Scott return to form. He easily made the team this year and is coming off a season in which he won the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

Through the years, captains have reached out to their buddies for at-large picks, with varying degrees of success (Norman chose Aussies Robert Allenby and Aaron Baddeley this time, hardly a surprise), and that is a perk of being the captain. You get to choose whomever you want.

That won't make it any easier on Bradley, who likely won't be consoled by the fact that past major winners such as Shaun Micheel, Ben Curtis, Todd Hamilton and John Daly were also not chosen for Cup teams in years they won majors.

And yet, even if Bradley had been chosen, there still would have been consternation over the pick of Woods, whose merits this year don't compare to what Haas accomplished.

Woods will finally return to action next week at the Fry's.com Open, his first tournament since the PGA Championship. He'll then play the Australian Open in Sydney the week prior to the Presidents Cup.

Both will offer more opportunities to critique his game, and assess whether he was a worthy choice. The discussion is likely to continue through to the end of Woods' singles match at the Presidents Cup. Even then, because it is Woods, the argument might not abate.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.