As Harris English ran home his 28-foot putt on the 72nd hole of the Travelers Championship on Sunday and swung his arm back and forth more like a disc golfer warming up for long toss than a golfer celebrating what could be a winning putt, there was only one thought to ponder ...
He'd better improve his fist pump before the September Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits.
English went on to win the tournament in a wild eight-hole playoff over Kramer Hickok, and he ended the playoff the way he ended regulation -- with another running fist pump that looked like something out of a 1930s Open Championship film. It actually might be growing on me.
The broader point here is that English is likely going to need any kind of celebratory gesture for Whistling Straits because he's likely going to be on the U.S. Ryder Cup team for the first time. He's the only golfer to win twice on the PGA Tour so far this calendar year and moved up to eighth in the U.S. Ryder Cup standings (the top six are automatic qualifiers) with his win at the Travelers. There are just eight weeks of qualifying left.
Plenty could still happen, of course, with so much talent currently hovering around the back end of the U.S. Ryder Cup standings. Currently, Patrick Reed, Patrick Cantlay, Tony Finau, Jordan Spieth, Daniel Berger, Webb Simpson, Scottie Scheffler and Phil Mickelson join English on the outside looking in at the top six -- all of which will be locks. However, it's starting to become difficult to imagine English -- if he remains around that No. 8 slot -- getting snubbed for his first-ever team event in September.
Normally, the U.S. side automatically qualifies the top nine or 10 players in the standings. But because COVID-19 disrupted last year's Ryder Cup, more captain's picks were added for Steve Stricker, and that protocol was rolled forward into 2021 even after the 2020 Ryder Cup was postponed.
When asked on Sunday about the opportunity ahead, English played it like he did most of his drives in the eight-hole playoff, right down the middle.
"The Ryder Cup is where I want to play," said English. "I love Steve Stricker. I know he's the captain this year. That's what I miss about playing golf at the University of Georgia. I miss that team atmosphere, and that's the pinnacle of our sport is to represent your country and to play in probably one of the biggest tournaments in the world.
"I still need to keep playing well and keep showing Strick that I deserve to be on the team, but looking forward to having a chance, and we'll see what happens."
Much of what happens at the end of August when the team is finalized after the BMW Championship is dependent on Phil Mickelson. It would be pretty crazy for a six-time major winner who won a major in the year in which the Ryder Cup was contested to be left off the team, but Mickelson's results outside of that historic PGA Championship week have not been that great. He's currently No. 17 in the Ryder Cup standings with only a handful of events left to make a move. Nevertheless, it sounds like the U.S. leadership wants to give him a spot.
If that happens, then only five of Cantlay, Reed, Spieth, Finau, Berger, Simpson, Scheffler and English can be on the squad. Fewer if somebody like Will Zalatoris or Max Homa makes a late move. With the history Spieth and Reed have, you have to imagine they're in. That leaves three of Cantlay, Berger, Finau, Simpson, Scheffler and English.
It's been a wild year and half for English, who went into 2020 ranked outside the top 175 in the world. He began his ascent to where he is today -- No. 12 in the world -- early in 2020, but it accelerated late in the summer. He finished second to Dustin Johnson at the Northern Trust. He finished top five at the U.S. Open and in the top 10 at four of the six events he played in the fall.
Then he opened 2021 by winning the Tournament of Champions in January -- his first win in eight years -- and seemed as if he was going to pick up where he left off in 2020. For the next five months, though, he accumulated exactly zero top 10s until the U.S. Open two weeks ago (which he nearly stole before finishing third). It came full circle with another win at TPC River Highlands.
That might be a difficult resume to reconcile, but remaining in the top eight in these standings will be useful to him because that's going to be a difficult bullet point to deny. In every modern Ryder Cup, a top-eight spot meant you were automatically on the Ryder Cup team. It would be bizarre if, in the first year with more captain's picks, the eighth-place golfer was not one of them.
English is a ball-striker who would fit in well with anyone on the U.S. side. Though his strokes-gained numbers are not elite this season, his other numbers make a lot of sense on a Ryder Cup team. He's 11th on the PGA Tour this season in birdie percentage and 19th in bogey avoidance. He, like Cantlay and Xander Schauffle, would be a nightmare to play against in a match-play format.
Whether he officially makes the team remains to be seen, and could be dependent on that Mickelson decision. But with two months to go in qualifying, English -- who two years ago was just trying to get back to the PGA Tour via the Korn Ferry Tour Finals -- has put himself in a better position than ever before to play the first Ryder Cup of his career.