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Is FedEx run-up breeding ground for Ryder Cup success?

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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NEWPORT, Wales -- The man who generally falls out of bed with a smile on his face stood along a metal rail, his shirt wet with sweat, signing autographs and attempting to exchange upbeat pleasantries with fans seeking autographs.

One by one, they lined up along a metal rail to get some scribbles from Matt Kuchar, who was mostly trying to get off the golf course at the season's FedEx Cup finale. Even for Kuchar, with the perma-grin as the points frontrunner plastered on his mug, the grind of the past few weeks clearly was getting to him.

"I could use a couple down days, but I don't get a couple of down days for a couple weeks," he said Sunday night after the Tour Championship finished. "I understood that. I've played a lot since the British Open, and I knew it was on my plate."

It's more like a whole cafeteria tray, heaped with a stack of food not seen since Bluto Blutarsky gulped down entire plates of Jell-O in Animal House in one memorable slurp. Now Kuchar and his mates head to the biggest food fight in golf, the Ryder Cup this week at Celtic Manor, and the culinary question seems pretty obvious.

Are they overfed or still hungry?

As his boss signed autographs for fans in steamy Atlanta, caddie Lance Bennett considered whether the dizzying pace of play had finally taken the steam out of Kuchar, who eventually finished T25 in a field of 30.

"Well," Bennett said, "this week makes eight out of the last 10 weeks for us, so it's a fair theory."

For Kuchar and the American team, the past three years of pre-Ryder prep truly have morphed into a famine-or-feast proposition. Even the newest vegetarian in golf can see that the FedEx Cup has helped the Americans stay honed, vs. staying home, playing in the backyard pool with their kids.

"In the past, before team events, we would have six weeks off after the last major championship, the PGA, where guys would kind of shut it down," Phil Mickelson said. "With the FedEx Cup, it's kept our games sharp, and so the by-product has been we've had great performances in the last three team competitions."

Look no further than Lefty and Tiger Woods for evidence that the PGA Tour's so-called playoff series has helped establish an edge that finally befits the favorites' role the team so repeatedly enjoyed in Ryder and the alternate-year Presidents Cup matches. Even Woods believes there might be some credence to Mickelson's notion that the FedEx Cup series has given the team an edge it has lacked for years.

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"I've never looked at it that way, but it's possible," Woods said. "There's been some outstanding competition and performances the last several weeks."

The two players who have amassed more victories than any active tour members are all the evidence needed to prove that, based on a three-year sample size, the tour's points series not only has helped the Americans go 3-0 in the past three international cups, but it might be the smoking gun as to why.

The FedEx Series began in 2007. Though he missed the last Ryder Cup because of his knee surgery, Woods is 8-2-0 in the two Presidents Cup competitions staged since the FedEx started, including a 5-0 mark in San Francisco last year, easily his most successful team match-play outing ever. Mickelson is 7-3-5 in his past three international matches, including a 4-0-1 mark in the Presidents Cup last year, when he was hailed as the best player in the event.

It's a far cry -- if not a hysterical outburst -- from their previous team results, to say the least. Mickelson was 21-27-15 in international play before the Presidents Cup last fall, while Woods was 23-24-3. For players seeded first and second in the world rankings for much of the past decade, the best explanation was that the layoff in the lead-in was deadly.

Over the years before the big-money FedEx came along and lured players into extending their seasons into late September with a $10 million bonus, the offseason essentially began in mid-August. It had been that way for years.

"I think back in the day, when I was on teams, we played the PGA Championship, and I think it was six weeks till we played the Ryder Cup," said U.S. captain Corey Pavin, 51. "Honestly, a lot of guys had a hard time because they weren't playing events between the PGA and the Ryder Cup, and it's hard to keep your game sharp when you're not playing tournaments.

"I think the change in the system the last time is a big help to create a better team for the United States."

Few aficionados will forget the Ryder Cup debacle at Oakland Hills in 2004, an 18½-to-9½ rout that was the worst in U.S. history. Mickelson hadn't played in weeks and showed up with a new set of clubs, then was twice paired with Woods and got trounced in consecutive matches on the opening day.

Lefty says the FedEx Cup has 'kept our games sharp,' unlike the past when the Americans took time off before team events. (Getty Images)  
Lefty says the FedEx Cup has 'kept our games sharp,' unlike the past when the Americans took time off before team events. (Getty Images)  
"I agree 100 percent that it [FedEx fare] gets us there, it gets us playing at a high level," veteran Steve Stricker said, specifically recalling the Oakland Hills bloodletting. "You know, there's big-time fields, great competition, so it's an opportunity to keep on working on your game under tournament conditions, which is always more beneficial than just being at home whacking it around with buddies or by yourself."

Or getting whacked in team matches, period. The Americans had lost five of the past six Ryder Cup meetings before winning the 2008 contest in Kentucky, but haven't won on foreign soil since 1993, going 0-3 overseas. Of the 3-0 mark since the FedEx began, the lone matches played on foreign soil were in a 2007 Presidents victory in the comparative comforts of Canada.

Still, like never before, the Yanks ought to be game-ready this week. Nine Ryder Cup players made it to the FedEx finale last week in Atlanta, while only one of the four players on the Euro team with U.S. tour membership, Luke Donald, advanced that far. Players on the U.S. Ryder roster claimed three of the four individual FedEx Cup titles and the $10 million bonus was claimed by Jim Furyk, a veteran of 12 international cup competitions.

Meanwhile, the only Euro player other than Donald who played anywhere last week was Padraig Harrington, which was certainly no accident.

In fact, it raises the indelicate question of whether the FedEx and Ryder run represents overkill for some. In particular, U.S. team member Jeff Overton seems to have hit a physical wall, finishing 29th last weekend. Same with Kuchar, who has contended for victories several times over the past two months and was ill three weeks ago in Chicago, letting even more wind out of his sails. Both are Ryder rookies.

It won't be much of a stretch to view the FedEx grind as a double-edged sword if this week turns out to be another lopsided beatdown. The majority of the American team will have played seven times in the past nine weeks after the Ryder is completed, with the most suffocating part saved for last -- the possibility of 36 holes per day, before a partisan overseas crowd looking for Yankee scalps, staged 5-8 time zones away from home, while shouldering the additional burden of playing for mother and country.

Incredibly, Kuchar will have played in 10 of the last 11 weeks in which a PGA Tour-sanctioned event has been scheduled, including the Ryder.

So, in a vacuum, Lefty says the FedEx has helped: "It's very easy to just continue to play one more week. It's very difficult to turn it off and try to turn it back on six weeks later."

But there's a fine line between playing in a vacuum and sucking wind.

Stricker, who finished T25 in the 30-man field with Kuchar in Atlanta and had no trouble admitting that fatigue was becoming an issue, put his hands on his hips and exhaled when asked why many of his mates were seemingly stumbling across the finish line at the FedEx finale.

Seven of the nine American Ryder players in the 30-man field finished no better than T15, while five were T22 or worse, including Ryder vets Mickelson and Stricker.

"It's hard not to think about next week," Stricker said last weekend. "Maybe some of that's creeping in, I don't know. It is for me.

"But you are right. It's a lot of golf. No doubt about it."

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