In the end, there was only one real talking point once Darren Clarke revealed his European Ryder Cup wildcard picks.
Clarke had always required further player experience on his team, so it was hardly surprising to see him select Lee Westwood for his 10th and Martin Kaymer for his fourth Ryder Cup campaigns. Their selections were as much about their form as for their team pairing options, but the real answer everyone was looking for on Tuesday was whether or not he would pick a sixth rookie on his team?
Wildcard selections and Ryder Cup campaigns are all about intelligence, communication, and attention to detail but the selection of Thomas Pieters also says much about the mindset of Darren Clarke, in that it seems that it was more of a “gut” selection, despite his fantastic recent form. In fact, it begs the question as to whether or not Clarke, a known admirer, can see a younger version of himself in the explosive Pieters?
Someone who has every right to be thoroughly dismayed and bitter about his non-selection, for good reason, is Russell Knox, the PGA Tour based Scot and world number 20, who out-qualified Pieters in the race for the nine automatic places on the team and who would have qualified automatically for the team, had he been a European Tour member at the time when he won the WGC-HSBC Champions last November.
What’s clear is that Knox’s decision not to play in any more qualifying events after winning the Travelers Championship on the PGA Tour in Connecticut last month may well have contributed to his own downfall.
Either way, Clarke’s decision to ignore the 31-year-old’s impressive record on the toughest tour of them all, the PGA Tour still seems tremendously harsh.
So let’s analyse the merits of Clarke’s decision to select Pieters over Knox by starting with a comparison of their key golfing stats for 2016.
Thomas Pieters – World Ranking 41:
Tournaments (18) 3 Wins; Winnings €1,080,900; 2016 Stroke Average 70.57; Driving Accuracy (%) 55.44%; Driving Distance (Yards) 301.63 Yards; Greens In Regulation (%) 68.39%; Average Putts Per Round 29.31; Putts Per Gir 1.79; Sand Saves (%) 57.69%
Russell Knox – World Ranking 20:
Tournaments (22) 2 Wins; Winnings $4,473,656; 2016 Stroke Average 70.27; Driving Accuracy (%) 67.69%; Driving Distance (Yards) 285.3 Yards; Greens In Regulation (%) 69.91%; Average Putts 29.52; Putts per GIR 1.79; Sand Saves (%) 50.43%
In almost every department of the game, Knox is a better player that his younger adversary Pieters, except for power and he is much more used to competing on American soil against the Americans. Technically, his strengths lie in his consistency, ranking 11th for fairways hit and second in greens in regulation on the PGA Tour, stats which would have been ideal for the demanding Hazeltine test.
Pieters, on the other hand, is the only player to have won three European Tour titles in the last 12 months and while his explosiveness and length will undoubtedly be an asset at Hazeltine, questions must be asked as to whether or not he will be able to help to deliver an unprecedented fourth straight win on the most intimidating and emotional stage of all for a European player - a Ryder Cup in America?
Can Clarke afford this type of a gamble – given that Europe have never won on US soil with so many first-timers in their ranks? He obviously thinks so because in Pieters’ he sees a potential game-changer, someone with X factor potential but that is all it is at this time.
In selecting Pieters, Clarke has provided us with some clarity as to what type of captain he will be. He clearly understands that emotion is part and parcel of the Ryder Cup and that the European team has been very successful in capturing that emotion and using it for their benefit. Much like Rory McIlroy in the most recent Ryder Cups, he is now hoping that Pieters too can provide that all-important emotional spark to get Europe victoriously over the line.
Either way and true to form, you feel that the charismatic Clarke will never die wondering but neither should it be underestimated the long-term boost that his selection of Pieters will have on the next crop of continental Europeans hoping to compete when France plays host to the Ryder Cup in 2018. It’s all big picture stuff.
Before then, Clarke must now prepare to face an edgy and wounded American team, now compelled to take the event more seriously - a team of hardened professionals that will do everything in their powers to outsmart, outplay and psychologically gain the upper hand on their more charismatic European rivals.
In fact, if Davis Love’s suggestion that he would have picked Russell Knox, were he the European captain is anything to go by, then that psychological battle has already begun.
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