Perry pushing closer to Ryder Cup team after hot start at Memorial

DUBLIN, Ohio -- Paul Azinger's biggest impact on this year's Ryder Cup might already have occurred. The U.S. captain believes his push to change the points-earning criteria will result in a team made up of the hottest players, an element lacking in recent blowout defeats at the hands of the European squad.

Kenny Perry is helping to prove Azinger's point.

Perry -- an Elizabethtown, Ky., native who dearly wants to make the team that will play in his home state against Europe this September -- has come from out of nowhere to within a victory of putting himself among the eight automatic qualifiers.

Of course, with three more months of qualifying to go, much can happen. But that is exactly the point for Azinger, who likes the volatility of the points race, believing it will produce the team playing the best.

Perry agreed.

"I think you'll have the best players going in at the time to compete," said Perry, who shot 6-under-par 66 on Thursday at Muirfield Village and trails leader Matthew Goggin by one stroke at the Memorial Tournament. "I think we'll have a stronger team. We'll have a more motivated, more focused team. We'll have a team that's sharp. Razor sharp. They will have played more, trying to make the team."

That is exactly what Perry is doing. This is his sixth straight tournament, and although he is admittedly spent, he keeps going, keen on achieving the lone goal driving him: making the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

Perry, 47 and a nine-time PGA Tour winner, is proving that a stretch of good play can make a big difference.

Just two weeks ago, after a tie for 15th at the Players Championship, Perry had "risen" to 42nd in the standings. Then, after a playoff defeat to Ryuji Imada at the AT&T Classic, Perry jumped 26 spots to 16th. A tie for 46th at last week's Colonial didn't help much, as he dropped a spot to 17th.

The truly crucial time to make the U.S. team will be in July and August. It is in those months that the first eight on Azinger's 12-man team will be solidified, with the door closing on the automatic spots after the PGA Championship.

"It's my only goal," said Perry, who has won the Memorial twice in his career, including his first PGA Tour victory, in 1991. "I'm just laying it on the line. If I make it, great. And if I don't make it, that's fine, too. I just want to prepare myself to do the best I can do."

When Azinger took the captain's job in late 2006, he insisted on two major changes to the qualifying process. Instead of giving players points for top-10 finishes in PGA Tour events, he pushed through a system that gives one point for every dollar earned, with double points at the major championships. Last year, players earned points only at the major championships, putting a big focus on this year's tournaments.

Azinger also asked for and received four at-large selections, up from the two that previous captains were allotted.

"We have laid the groundwork to get the hottest, most confident players there," Azinger said. "In my heart, I believe the selection process is going to make the big difference."

Azinger believes that only the most consistent of players will be able to make the team without winning this year. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are locks at the top, followed by Stewart Cink and Jim Furyk -- neither of whom has won in 2008. Boo Weekley and Anthony Kim, who are fifth and sixth, both have recent tournament victories. Zach Johnson, mostly on the basis of his Masters victory last year, is seventh, followed by Steve Stricker, who hasn't made a cut since before the Masters. Neither Johnson nor Stricker will remain in the top eight without some strong outings.

Perry could move into the top eight if he were to win the Memorial and its $1,080,000 first prize.

Staying there will require more than a victory this week, however, especially with double points available at the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship.

Perry is especially keen on making the team because the matches will be played at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, where he lost a playoff for the 1996 PGA Championship to Mark Brooks.

"I feel like that place owes me a little something," he said.

But Perry knows that if he falls short of one of the eight automatic spots, Azinger will not be using his captain's picks on sentiment or trying to get a home-state advantage. Perry does have Ryder Cup experience after playing on the 2004 U.S. team, but both he and J.B. Holmes hail from Kentucky.

"I think I would have to look at them if they're playing decent and they're close," Azinger said. "I'm looking for confident guys. That's it. … I really just want guys who are playing good. That's what I'm looking for. And I like the idea that they're from Kentucky. I don't think that hurts. But you never know."

Holmes is 10th on the points list.

After missing the cut in his first tournament of the year in Hawaii, Perry has reached the weekend 13 events in a row, meaning he has earned Ryder Cup points in each of those weeks. But you only make the big moves with high finishes, and he has just two top-10s.

He's on his way to another -- and a big jump in the standings -- if he can sustain his level of play at Muirfield Village.

"I've got to play well; I've got to somehow get in the winner's circle again," Perry said. "It hurt me losing in a playoff in Atlanta a couple weeks ago. So I've just got to play consistent, somehow keep making lots of points and if I don't win, figure out a way to get in the top eight so I earn my way on the squad."

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