By Mark Lamport-Stokes
(Reuters) - Zach Johnson's stunning form since September has caught the eye of United States Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson who has identified his "big heart" as the most prized attribute for players in the biennial team competition.
American world number six Johnson, who has represented his country three times against Europe at the Ryder Cup, has triumphed three times in his last eight starts while only once finishing outside the top 16.
"I've been actively watching the players and how they're playing ... I've been impressed by a number of them, especially Zach Johnson," eight-times major champion Watson, 64, wrote in his captain's blog on the Ryder Cup website (www.rydercup.com).
"I've said it many times - heart is the No. 1 quality I'm looking for in these players. Zach's the kind of player who has a big heart.
"You can't underestimate the value of a big heart from a standpoint of winning and how that plays in a Ryder Cup."
Long renowned for his brilliant short game and never-say-die attitude, Johnson has won the PGA Tour's BMW Championship and Hyundai Tournament of Champions, plus the unofficial Northwestern Mutual World Challenge, over the past five months.
Though U.S. players still have a little more than six months to earn the nine automatic selections in the 12-man team to take on Europe from September 26-28 at Gleneagles in Scotland, Watson likes the way things are shaping up.
"It's too early to look at the standings and think, 'This is the team that will be at Gleneagles,' but there certainly are trends," said Watson, who in September will become the oldest ever captain at a Ryder Cup at the age of 65.
"And right now, the team is really shaping up similar to the one we had in 2012. Guys from that 2012 U.S. team are playing well and getting significant points."
Among those in the top nine in the U.S. points standings heading into this week are Cup veteran Phil Mickelson, PGA Championship winner Jason Dufner, Zach and Dustin Johnson and former U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson.
Watson has no doubt over his two most important tasks as the Americans bid to end a run of seven losses against Europe in the last nine editions of the Ryder Cup.
"My two most important jobs are these: 1. To make my three captain's picks; 2. Put together the strongest pairings as possible," said Watson, who led the U.S. to victory in 1993 in his previous stint as Ryder Cup captain.
"To inspire is part of my job too, but I don't think they have to be inspired too much. I know they'll be motivated without a question from our last Ryder Cup experience."
At the 2012 Ryder Cup in Chicago, the U.S. threw away a commanding four-point lead heading into the final day in what became known as the 'Meltdown at Medinah', losing to Europe by 14-1/2 points to 13-1/2.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank Pingue)