This Tuesday is D-Day for Darren Clarke and his European Ryder Cup team.
That’s when the former Open champion will announce the three wild cards who will complete his team to take on America and attempt to win the iconic gold trophy for a fourth successive time.
The weight of history is against them. No European team has ever managed to win four in a row and they’ll attempt to do so in front of a pugnacious home crowd. Chris Wood’s caddie Mark Crane told this website earlier this week that he expects the environment at Hazeltine to be ‘hostile’. He won’t be wrong. Minnesotans love their sport. Whether they’re cheering on the Vikings, the Twins or the Timberwolves, they are loud and they are partisan. As if all that wasn’t enough, US golfers are currently in fine form, comprising 15 of the world’s top 30, as compared with nine from Europe.
Be under no illusions: Clarke needs to get his picks right.
The nine automatic qualifiers for his team include five rookies, so it is expected that he will try and add some experience into the mix. Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer are the obvious choices. Both, pictured above, are former world No.1s and have played in multiple editions of the match previously (Westwood in nine, Kaymer in three). More significantly, both came agonisingly close to making the team on merit, about as close as you get without actually qualifying.
Those two, I would suggest, are plainly obvious additions and locked-in.
That leaves one pick – and this could be the most important decision Clarke makes during his entire captaincy.
Names in the frame include Tyrrell Hatton, the young Englishman who has an impressive summer; Soren Kjeldsen, the dependable Dane who could strengthen his case for a pick by winning his home event, Made in Denmark, this weekend; Thomas Pieters, above, the big-hitting Belgian who finished second in his Czech Masters defence last weekend; Shane Lowry, the 2015 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational champion and runner-up in the US Open in June; and, of course, Scotland’s Russell Knox, twice a winner on the PGA Tour in the last nine months, the most recent of which came earlier this summer.
Bookmakers have also shortened their odds on Clarke’s fellow Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell getting a pick on account of his relationship with Clarke and to add further experience to the rookie-heavy side.
For me, G-Mac, above, shouldn’t even be in the conversation. He admitted as much himself after the PGA Championship. “My race is all but run,” he said. “I wouldn’t pick me right now.” There you have it.
Clarke must know that the case for picking McDowell is weak. He’s currently 70th on the world rankings, behind 23 of his fellow Europeans. He came nowhere near qualifying automatically.
Read more -> Knox 'won't sulk' if he doesn't get picked
If Clarke took him to Hazeltine, he’d leave himself open to suggestions of nepotism and Northern Irish bias, which would, in turn, be unfair on McDowell. Why heap pressure on a player, who has already acknowledged he is badly out of form, to deliver the goods on the biggest stage in golf? Because he has played in the Ryder Cup a few times before? So have Francesco Molinari and David Howell, but I don’t see anybody making the case for them. In fact, if it’s ‘experience’ Clarke wants, why not take Colin Montgomerie or Bernhard Langer? Monty’s played in eight Ryder Cups, Langer in ten. That’s experience.
In Clarke’s position, I’d be taking Knox, above. No question about it. Not because he’s a fellow Scot. Instead, take your pick from the following reasons: he’s the only European in the world’s top 20 not already in the side; he’s on form, having won just a matter of weeks ago; he plays in the US week in, week out (which you can’t say for Hatton, Kjeldsen or Pieters); he is one of only five players to have won multiple times on the PGA Tour this season; he goes into the first FedEx Cup Playoff event in fourth place on the standings; and, as his lengthy putt to win the Travelers Championship proved, he is clutch under the greatest of pressure.
So what if Knox isn't a chest-pounder or a badge-kisser in the Ian Poulter mould?
There’s also this: if the points for his WGC-HSBC Champions victory had counted towards his own Ryder Cup qualifying bid, he’d have made the team automatically – and very comfortably.
So what if he’s not a chest-pounder or a badge-kisser in the Ian Poulter mould? Who cares if he’s not the ‘sexy’ option? And frankly, what does it matter that he would bring the total number of rookies in Clarke’s side to six? We had five first-timers at Oakland Hills in 2004 and handed the US a record defeat on home soil. Likewise, Paul Azinger had six rookies in his 2008 winning team. Azinger, in fact, even had the guts to hand three of his four wild cards to first-timers – and it paid off handsomely.
There’s a suspicion that Clarke may be under pressure to pick somebody who is more ‘loyal’ to the European Tour. Let’s face it, without the Ryder Cup, the tour doesn’t exist. That’s why membership of it is such a silly condition of qualification. Heaven forbid a player should want to improve themselves by playing on the world’s most competitive circuit…
Clarke is facing a straightforward choice. It's only complicated if he allows sentiment to interfere.
Still, office politics aside, Knox is the obvious choice. The case is as convincing for him as it is unconvincing for McDowell.
For me, Clarke is facing a very straightforward choice. It’s only complicated if he allows sentiment to interfere.
Go with your head, Darren, not with your heart.
Asked about Olympic golf earlier this week, Zach Johnson channelled his inner Rory McIlroy and said he didn’t watch it because he’d “rather watch the sports that should be in the Olympics”. He went on: “The fact that it put a kink in our schedule this year irritates me. To mess with the four tournaments that matter most because you’re at the Olympics, I’ve got a strong, strong disdain for that.’’
Thing is, Olympic golf didn’t “mess with” all four majors. The Masters, US Open and Open all took place in the same weeks they always take place. Only the PGA was affected, moving up by – cue dramatic gasp – two full weeks on the schedule.
Johnson also wants Olympic golf to be for amateurs, so he’s clearly ignorant to the fact that professional sport has been a part of the Games since 1992 and that, in Rio, only one sport – wrestling – remained the exclusive preserve of amateur participants. It’s a pathetic argument.
The word 'disdain' really gets me. It demonstrates a monumental degree of self-important entitlement.
He also argued that we have ‘so much international golf as it is’. This from a man who has played twice outside the USA (the 2015 Presidents Cup and 2016 Open) in the last year…
But it’s the word ‘disdain’ that really gets me. It demonstrates a monumental degree of self-important entitlement that makes some professional sportsman hard to root for. They’ve lost touch with the common man, unlike, say, a Jason Kenny, or a Max Whitlock, or a Liam Heath.
If certain pro golfers don’t see the value in Olympic golf, fair enough. Not everyone has to. But if they are so ignorant to the potential benefits of the sport’s inclusion – wider TV exposure, stirring interest in new territories and so on – then perhaps they should keep it buttoned and go quietly count their millions.
Fife has been named the ‘happiest region in Scotland’ in the latest ‘Happiness Index’ published by the Bank of Scotland. If I lived in the same neck of the woods as St Andrews, Kingsbarns, Crail and Elie, I’d be pretty damn happy, too.
And finally… ‘going to play golf’ is the top excuse adulterous men use when they sneak out to meet their bits on the side. Research, commissioned by illicitencouters.com, discovered that 34% of cheating men use the sport as a cover for their affairs.
Seems Tiger's influence is much more far-reaching than any of us thought...
Michael McEwan / The Cut Line
Log-on every Friday morning to read The Cut Line, a weekly blog by bunkered's Michael McEwan.