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Ryder Cup selection problems for Hal Sutton

Todd Hamilton left Royal Troon with the silver claret jug. Hal Sutton left with a dilemma.

Hamilton's playoff victory over Ernie Els made for a great story, and Sutton was there to tell it as an analyst for ABC Sports. He watched a 38-year-old journeyman hit remarkable shots, show incredible poise and stand up to the challenge of two of the best players in golf -- Phil Mickelson on the back nine, Els in a pressure-packed playoff.

Hamilton is a worthy Open champion. But does that mean Sutton wants him on his Ryder Cup team?

The U.S. captain already had his hands full waiting to see who will show enough game to make the team on his own. The guys from No. 8 to No. 14 in the standings have not won this year, nor has any of them come particularly close. Sutton has been leaving letters of encouragement in their lockers all year.

Odds are, Hamilton never got one of those letters.

He wasn't even a card-carrying member of the PGA Tour until seven months ago. Since then, he birdied the last two holes to beat Davis Love III in the Honda Classic, and he shot 69 from the final group and beat Els in a playoff for his first major championship.

Sure sounds like Ryder Cup material.

Hamilton's victory was worth 300 points, enough to move him up to No. 15 in the standings.

"To be honest, I haven't thought anything about it," Hamilton immediately after the Open. "I hadn't played well for a couple of months. I don't even look at the standings. I know Tiger is usually top and all the other normal guys that are on the team are always up there. Hopefully, this bit of magic will continue."

If Sutton were to leave Hamilton off the team, that would mean five of the last nine Americans to have won majors would have to watch the matches on television -- Hamilton, Shaun Micheel (2003 PGA Championship), Ben Curtis (2003 Open), Rich Beem (2002 PGA Championship) and David Duval (2001 Open).

The only other player in recent times to win a major and get left off the Ryder Cup team was John Daly, and it happened to him twice -- after the 1991 PGA Championship and the 1995 Open.

Daly was so unpredictable -- on and off the course -- that the captains never took any grief for leaving him off.

Europe probably won't have any major champions on its team, so this is a good problem for Sutton to have.

An unpleasant problem might be if Fred Funk makes the team.

Funk, No. 8 in the standings after the U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee, chose not to play in a major championship so he could try to get Ryder Cup points against junior varsity competition at the B.C. Open. He tied for 40th, so it became a moot point. Still, several of his peers thought it smacked of a guy ducking a challenge.

Is that what you want on a Ryder Cup team?

"You would never see me backing down from a major," said Jerry Kelly, who is fighting for a spot on the team.

All this will be sorted out over the next three weeks as golf heads into the homestretch.

The PGA Tour season doesn't end until November, but interest starts to wane after the PGA Championship, then returns for one weekend in September at the Ryder Cup.

Phil Mickelson looks like a lock to win PGA Tour player of the year, and the way his season has gone in the majors, he probably will be the betting favorite at Whistling Straits to win the PGA Championship.

It's hard to believe Mickelson has won only two tournaments -- the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic and the Masters. But he leads the money list with $5.4 million, not quite half of that coming in the majors.

If not for missing two putts inside 5 feet -- on the 17th hole of the final round at the U.S. Open and on the 13th hole of the final round at the Open -- he might be headed to Wisconsin for a shot at the Grand Slam.

Still, Lefty has 1-2-3 finishes in the majors, and that's tough to beat.

Unless Tiger Woods wins a couple of World Golf Championships and their $1 million-plus payoffs, the only player who seems capable of winning the money title is Vijay Singh. But then, Singh no longer looks like the same player he was in the spring.

Gunning for his third consecutive victory, he was within one shot of the lead at the Wachovia Championship until a bogey-double bogey finish. He shot 78 in the final round at the EDS Byron Nelson Championship, 78 in the final round of the U.S. Open, and 76 in the third round to fall out of contention at the Open.

"I just have to rethink what I need to do," Singh said as he left Royal Troon.

Els is having a spectacular season and could replace Woods at No. 1 in the world by the time they arrive at Whistling Straits. Then again, he might need to be suited for a strait jacket after having three excellent chances in the majors and coming away empty. Particularly crushing was the Open, where he missed four putts inside 15 feet on his final five holes.

As for Hamilton?

He could win the PGA Championship and make a strong case for player of the year with two majors.

That also would put him on the Ryder Cup team, and then Sutton wouldn't have to worry about leaving the Open champion off his squad.

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