Column: Team USA strong enough that it doesn't need LIV help

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Zach Johnson waves after his putt on the third hole during the first round of the Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Signing up for Saudi riches to play for LIV Golf was always going to come at a cost.

One risk was thought to be eligibility for the majors, which turned out to be a false alarm, at least for the top players. Augusta National kept its criteria, while U.S. Open and British Open organizers have said they would honor everyone eligible, with minor tweaks.

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The PGA of America is soon to announce its field for the PGA Championship on May 19-22 at Oak Hill. Its chief championships officer, Kerry Haigh, has said it will strive to deliver the strongest field, as always.

Even players from LIV Golf?

“Absolutely,” Haigh said two months ago.

That's as it should be. The mission of the major championships is to produce a thorough test for the best players in the world, regardless of where they make their living. It worked just fine at the Masters, where everyone seemed to get along at the Masters Club dinner, in the locker room and inside the ropes.

Further down the road, yet increasingly in view, is the Ryder Cup. LIV Golf will be in the Chicago suburbs the week before the Sept. 28-Oct. 1 matches. There should be no need for any American to catch a flight to Rome.

Haigh made it clear LIV Golf players would have a difficult time earning one of the six automatic spots “if the only events they get in are the majors.”

That's because the U.S. points list is based on money from PGA Tour-sanctioned events (including majors). And the tour has 10 tournaments that offer more prize money than the majors. Those are tour events Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and the rest of LIV can't play.

Earning one of the six spots will require winning at least one major along with a top finish in another one. Koepka and Phil Mickelson tied for second at the Masters and moved up to No. 17 and No. 23, respectively.

The question becomes the six captain's picks.

Are they worthy?

U.S. captain Zach Johnson will have to base that on how they perform in 11 of the 54-hole events or the four majors.

Perhaps the bigger question is do the Americans even need them?

The current six qualifiers are Scottie Scheffler, Max Homa, Cameron Young, Jordan Spieth, Sam Burns and Patrick Cantlay. Right behind are two-time major champion Collin Morikawa, Justin Thomas and Xander Schauffele.

And then there is a mix of newcomers to be considered, such as Kurt Kitayama.

“No decisions have been made,” Johnson said last week at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, the team event where his partner was Steve Stricker, the previous U.S. captain and an assistant for the Rome matches.

Stricker thought he had it tough because his Ryder Cup was delayed one year by the COVID-19 pandemic, and he had to change the qualifying criteria to account for so much uncertainty. That turned out to be a breeze.

Johnson has to consider players who have big names, big games, and who have defected to a rival league that has offered them generational wealth just for joining.

There's still plenty of time for this to sort itself out. With three majors and five $20 million designated events to come, the U.S. team won't become clear for another two months.

Johnson also suggested he would take from the model of Paul Azinger — the real “Captain America” in golf — who in 2008 created a pod system in which the automatic qualifiers had the strongest voice on who was picked.

“So I don’t know who those six are going to be, obviously, but their ownership and their opinions will weigh heavily into what I — what we — decide to do,” he said.

That doesn't account for team unity, whether to bring in players who “turned their back” — the phrase Tiger Woods used last July — on the tour they now want to represent.

Besides, what does the captain really know about LIV players except for their reputations? As he told Sports Illustrated at the RBC Heritage two weeks ago, “It’s probably a little bit more difficult because I’m not face-to-face, nor am I witnessing their games.”

“I don’t know what the conditions are like, probably don’t know what the golf courses are like,” Johnson said. “I mean, there’s competent players out there. But it’s hard to really decipher, I guess, what’s really going on. And frankly, I don’t know how they go about their work. I don’t really follow up much, but I might want to start.”

Dustin Johnson is overwhelmingly regarded as the one LIV Golf player everyone on the PGA Tour misses. He is a freak talent, to be sure, but he also has a reputation of never saying anything bad about anyone.

Johnson's name appeared in recent days for disparaging remarks about PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan, prompting a swift and emphatic denial that he had said anything other than, “No comment.” Turns out it was Pat Perez — shocking — who made the remarks, and Perez owned it.

Johnson told the Sydney Morning Herald he would love to be on the Ryder Cup team, noting he “played pretty well” in the last one. Johnson went 5-0 at Whistling Straits, the first such record by an American since 1979. Then again, he had a 7-9-0 mark going into that week.

“If I play well for the rest of the year,” Johnson said, “hopefully I'll get a consideration.”

After four LIV Golf events, he is No. 17 in the standings. He tied for 48th at the Masters, 20 shots behind Jon Rahm. Johnson is a long way from consideration. That goes for the rest of the Americans who defected to LIV.

They chose guaranteed Saudi cash. The trade-off is the Ryder Cup. The U.S. team is strong enough it doesn't need the distraction.

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