NEW YORK (AP) — Gary Woodland was runner-up twice against strong fields in South Korea and Kapalua. He won the U.S. Open. He had another top-10 finish at the PGA Championship. And it still wasn’t enough to earn one of eight automatic spots on the Presidents Cup team.
So imagine the difficulty in making the next team.
Not the Ryder Cup — the Olympics.
“That’s got to be the hardest thing in golf,” said Kevin Kisner, currently No. 34 in the world and 16th among the Americans who will try to capture one of the four spots at the end of Olympic qualifying on June 22.
Unlike golf’s return to the Olympics in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, where concerns over the Zika virus and security led the top four players in the world to skip, all the top players want to be in Tokyo for the opening round on July 30.
Each country can send two players, with a maximum of four if they are among the top 15 in the world ranking. With six months to go, the top four Americans are Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson and Tiger Woods. Five other Americans are among the top 15.
“Huge,” Thomas replied when asked if the Olympics were a big deal to him. “I really want to be on that team.”
Thomas has not finished lower than third in the standings for the last three Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup teams. With the number of qualifiers cut in half, there is less of a margin.
“Especially when you look at the world ranking. It changes every week,” he said. “It’s so dense to where it could go into the last week between two guys.”
Woods sat out all of 2016 and the Olympics did not appear to be part of his future. And then he had fusion surgery on his lower back, won the Masters and is among the elite again. Now, the Tokyo Games have his attention, especially after winning in Japan last month.
“I know some of my friends have made Olympic teams before and they said it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Woods said. “I have never played for a gold medal before and certainly it would be an honor to do it, and especially at the age I’ll be, I’ll be 44 and I don’t know if I have many more chances after that.”
It also has the attention of Xander Schauffele, who has additional incentive. His maternal grandparents live in Japan — it’s where his mother was raised — and his father, Stefan Schauffele, had his own Olympic aspirations for Germany until he was hit by a drunken driver on his way to a training camp for decathletes.
“He spent his life training, preparing, tracking for his big moment in the Olympics,” the younger Schauffele said. “He’s been pushing me along when I needed it, encouraging me, kicking me in the (tail) when I needed it. It’s cool he can see the results come to fruition, which he wasn’t able to see for himself. It’s a special thing to share.”
The Masters offers a three-year exemption to the winner of The Players Championship. This year, there could be as many as four players who fall under that category.
Si Woo Kim won The Players in 2017, making him exempt for the next three Masters. Now that The Players has moved to March, a full month ahead of Augusta National, he will be part of the field along with the three most recent winners from the TPC Sawgrass.
The field for the 2020 Masters figures to stand at 88 by the end of the year. A world ranking specialist who goes by “Nosferatu” on Twitter projects that Adam Hadwin will end the year at No. 50, with Andrew Putnam and Erik van Rooyen also just inside the top 50.
Adding to the field before the April 9-12 tournament is the Latin American Amateur Championship winner, PGA Tour winners (except for opposite-field events) and the top 50 in the world ranking published on March 30.
Adam Scott ended the longest drought of his career at the Australian PGA Championship, and he can only hope a victory at the end of the year bodes well.
He considered his victory in the Australian Masters at the end of 2012, and then the real Masters at Augusta National the following April. Rory McIlroy won the Australian Open in late 2013, and then captured back-to-back majors the following year. Jordan Spieth won the Australian Open in 2014 and went on to win the Masters and U.S. Open the next year.
“It’s big for the confidence,” he said. “I’ve seen what it’s done for me in the past — a win, you feel like you’re just never going to lose again, so you want to run with that while the confidence is up. Somehow, I’ll have to think that in seven weeks when I step back in LA.”
The win ended a drought of 81 starts worldwide since his last victory at Doral in a World Golf Championship in 2016.
Scott had a pair of runner-up finishes this year, at Torrey Pines and Muirfield Village. He turns 40 next July, yet another reminder that winning isn’t getting any easier.
“I’m on the wrong side of this age thing now where these young guys are really good,” Scott said. “I played some pretty good golf a couple weeks this year and fell short. I think the courses are getting tougher, guys are playing good. Just being all right doesn’t really get you in. You’ve got to be pretty much sensational.”
DESIGNS ON PEBBLE
Tiger Woods was at Pebble Beach preparing for the U.S. Open when he noticed some construction work on Peter Hay, the nine-hole course. He mentioned to John Sawin, the Pebble Beach Resort vice president and golf director, that he’d love to be involved in any plans for the par-3 course.
Those plans are now.
Pebble says TGR Design will start reconstruction on the short course as early as May. Sawin told Golf Digest the resort would submit permits for approval after the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February. If all goes according to plan, the course could be open in the fall.
“From our standpoint, it was a natural fit,” Sawin told Golf Digest. “Tiger and his team are very fun, creative people. And they have experience building these fun, dynamic playable short courses that are interesting and challenging for avid golfers, but still fun and playable for beginners. And maintaining that family-oriented, welcoming environment for junior golfers and beginners will be a great fit for how we see Peter Hay continuing to play a role in our community within the golf resort.”
Woods has a little history at Pebble. He won the AT&T in 2000 despite trailing by seven with seven holes to play, along with a U.S. Open title that summer by a record 15 shots.
Zach Johnson fell out of the top 200 in the world this week for the first time since January 2004. … Jin Young Ko was selected South Korea’s top female athlete as part of the BMW Women’s Sports Awards last week. She is the second golfer to receive the honor. Inbee Park won in 2015. … Stuart Wilson of Scotland has been appointed captain of Great Britain and Ireland for the St. Andrews Trophy in July and the Walker Cup in 2021 at Seminole. … Ernie Els is the latest player to join the field for the Saudi International.
STAT OF THE WEEK
Brooks Koepka is the first player since Tiger Woods (2008-09) to end consecutive years at No. 1 in the world.
“It’s been a long time between drinks for me and maybe only once or twice did the thought cross my mind that I’ll never win again.” — Adam Scott after winning the Australian PGA Championship for his first victory since March 2016.