- - Wednesday, June 27, 2012

If Congressional’s par-3 10th hole isn’t tough enough to face first thing in the morning, Dustin Johnson and Hunter Mahan have to deal with it under the gaze of Captain America.

No pressure, guys.

“It’s just nice to be out here playing with them, watching what they’re doing,” said Davis Love III, the 48-year-old captain for the U.S. Ryder Cup team.

Love will play the first two rounds of the AT&T National with Johnson and Mahan, two of the top young stars expected to play big roles in American team events for years to come. As much as they will want to make an impression on the captain, Love is a little more concerned about trying to beat them instead.

“I’m right now focused on my game,” said Love, who is playing a full schedule since returning in May from a six-week layoff to let a cracked rib heal.

Love won his 20th career event four years ago, but he still has the talent to qualify for majors almost every time he tries. Other than a few absences at the limited-field Masters, he has missed only one other major (2009 U.S. Open) since 1990. He hasn’t missed a British Open since 1986 or a PGA since ‘88.

On a major-caliber course such as Congressional, the captain still has plenty of game. He tied for 11th in last year’s U.S. Open on the Blue Course a year after tying for sixth at Pebble Beach.

Love finished 16th the last time the AT&T National was played at Congressional in 2009. He was runner-up to Sergio Garcia on the same course in the 2005 Booz Allen Classic.

After finishing third three weeks ago in Memphis and 29th in the U.S. Open, Love has climbed to 42nd on his own Ryder Cup points list. He would like to keep that performance trend going through the PGA Championship at the famed Ocean Course on Kiawah Island, S.C.

“I’m sure when we get to Kiawah, I’ll be watching it as much as playing,” he said.

Even this week when he’s trying to be just one of 120 players trying to win, his role as captain is never far from the surface.

“I get asked something about the Ryder Cup every day,” he said.

With only 92 days until the balls start flying at Medinah for the 2012 Ryder Cup, Love has to have some kind of blueprint in his mind already for how to fill out his 12-man roster.

Eight players will lock up spots based on points at the conclusion of the PGA. After that, Love will have three more weeks to assess guys before announcing his four captain’s picks Sept. 4 in New York City.

“Two [picks] are going to be clearly obvious, I think,” he said. “Two of them will be really hard. That’s what I saw with the last couple of teams.”

What exactly is he looking for? Nothing can be set in stone until he sees who he has in his base eight, but Love already has a good idea of the prototype needs.

“We’re going to be plugging holes,” he said. “We’ll pick an experienced guy or two and we’ll probably pick a long hitter and maybe a great putter. We certainly want guys who are putting well. … We want one guy that’s hot. One guy that’s playing well and two experienced guys. That’s probably where we’re leaning.”

Experience always has been a major factor, and currently established international team veterans such as Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker and David Toms are on the outside looking in with other emerging stars such as Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Keegan Bradley and Bill Haas.

Love - who played in six Ryder Cups, six Presidents Cups, five World Cups and a Walker Cup - understands the value of having been there as well as anybody. But he doesn’t want to turn his nose up at fresh blood, either.

“Experience will play a factor,” he said. “But Rickie Fowler and other guys have proven you don’t have to have done it before to play well.”

Love is always looking when he plays with other Americans, but he doesn’t want anyone to get too stressed out when he’s around. He played two rounds with Toms in Memphis when the 2000 PGA champ missed the cut. A week later he played with him again at the Olympic Club when Toms contended to win the U.S. Open.

“I’m watching a lot of guys play,” Love said. “I don’t want David Toms coming off after two rounds thinking I have an opinion of him. I think how they’re playing from maybe the British Open through the Deutsche Bank is maybe more important than right now.”

Still, Love has to like what he sees from his prospective team. Two years ago, the running topic was how the U.S. was being outclassed by Europeans on a weekly basis and being thumped in the majors. This season, Americans have won 22 of 27 PGA Tour events (Europeans have won four) and own the past three major titles.

“Our players were winning lots of tournaments over here and around the world,” he said. “They were playing very well, they just weren’t winning the majors until Keegan won. He kind of changed the tide a little bit. It really doesn’t matter, each individual tournament six months before the Ryder Cup. It matters how everybody is playing. Everybody is playing well. That’s the most important thing.”

It’s not just players Love is concerned about. The host captain gets to decide how the course will be set up. When Love sees a potential roster filled with bombers such as Bubba Watson, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Johnson and Bradley, he’s got an idea what Medinah will look like in September.

“We’re probably going to have a long-hitting team, so it would be to our benefit not to have deep rough,” he said. “They’ve cut down a bunch of trees, which is nice. It’s still big, long and tree-lined. It certainly suits guys who’ve won there recently like Tiger. And long hitters.”

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