In his own resolute, time trusted way, Tom Watson will be the key figure at the PGA Championship in Louisville, Kentucky this week. He will be more than a sentimental favorite at 64, the oldest player in the field. He will also be the most interested and influential observer.
Like most golf fans, Watson will be most intently keeping an eye on Tiger Woods, who will be continuing his return from back surgery and playing his only major on U.S. soil this year. This week at Valhalla Golf Club will help Watson decide who will be on the U.S. Ryder Cup team that he will captain in Scotland next month and whether Woods will be part of that group.
To be sure, the PGA Championship is an important event in its own right. The stellar field will go from A to Z: Adam Scott, No. 1 in the most recent Official World Golf Ranking, to Fabrizio Zanotti, No. 100. Only the absence of Dustin Johnson, out with what he and the PGA Tour are calling a "leave'' is preventing this year's PGA from being the first major ever to have all top 100.
Still, the intrigue about the Ryder Cup squad is a major within a major. The biennial international team competition has developed into the most intense, exciting event in golf. The stakes have grown considerably for the Americans because they have lost five of the past six Ryder Cups -- all but the 2008 match at Valhalla.
Watson was recruited to be the captain because of his winning history and his toughness. Tough is the way to describe the decisions he probably will have to make. The PGA Championship marks the cutoff for golfers to earn nine automatic spots based on points. Unless Woods, or some other top player, wins the tournament this week and makes it a no-brainer, Watson will have a hard choice.
With Woods, it is a matter of how well he can play and whether he will have shaken off the rust from his microdiscectomy. Woods missed the cut at his first tournament after the surgery and played poorly for most of the British Open. He came into the WGC Bridgestone Invitational this past week swinging for the fences, knowing he needed to do something dramatic at that event and the PGA -- where he will play the first two rounds with Phil Mickelson -- to accumulate enough points to qualify for the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup playoffs.
He is hoping for a burst of positive energy at Valhalla, where he won a riveting playoff against Bob May for the 2000 PGA Championship. May's career never did take off after that. "I believe he had back surgery, and he went through a really tough period of time physically. It happens," Woods said.
It is a bit of an upset that Woods is even in the hunt, after surgery just before the Masters.
"If he's playing well and he's healthy, I'll pick him," Watson said at the British Open, reflecting remarks he has made all along. "But then the caveat is if he doesn't get into the FedExCup, what to do then? And that's the question I can't answer right now."
Woods said earlier this week that it there is no shame in being a captain's pick, as he was when Corey Pavin selected him at the end of an injury filled 2010 season.
"In the end, it's what can you do for your team? Are you able to contribute? Corey felt that I could contribute to the team. I felt I could, too," Woods said. "I went out there with and we played really well. I think I had a 3-1 record in that event. The whole idea is, when your name is called, are you able to get a point?"
This is no easy Ryder for Watson, and not only because of Woods. What about Mickelson? He has been a fixture for the U.S. since 1995, but has been lackluster at best most of this year and is 10th on the points list. What to do about Keegan Bradley, a sparkplug at Medinah in 2012 who is only 16th on the current points list?
Unlike Davis Love III and some other recent U.S. captains, Watson is not a peer of current players, especially Woods, and is not beholden to them in any way. Still, he makes no secrets of his feeling about having one of the greatest golfers of all time on the roster.
"I'll be watching Tiger," Watson said, "and I want him on the team. I do. He's a tough competitor and he's great in the team room. Wouldn't you want him on your team?"