No-one should underestimate the importance of next Tuesday in the golfing life of Darren Clarke, because it is then that he will have to reveal his hand.
As captain of the European Ryder Cup team for 2016, much of the past 18 months has been spent playing diplomacy, while nine players gained automatic selection to his team.
On Tuesday that all ends as Clarke has to step out of his comfort zone by revealing his three wildcards.
As easy as it is to say that these selections will reveal much about the mindset of Clarke and his fellow vice-captain’s Sam Torrance, Pádraig Harrington, Paul Lawrie, Thomas Bjorn, and Ian Poulter, who themselves are the veterans of 29 Ryder Cup appearances, Clarke will know that his wildcard selections will go a long way towards retaining or losing the Ryder Cup next month.
So, given the concerted efforts of the US to get their act together in order to win back the cup, expect the task facing Europe at Hazeltine to be nothing short of monumental.
Already, we know the composition of the first nine players of a strong European Team, (McIlroy, Stenson, Garcia, Rose, Willet, Wood, Cabrera-Bello, Fitzpatrick, and Sullivan) and, while Clarke has already saluted the fantastic mix of fresh blood among his many world beaters, given that the last five listed players are Ryder Cup rookies, it is vital he finds the right combination of additional picks to add even greater value and camaraderie to an already tightly connected group.
Central to that decision is what constitutes too many Ryder Cup rookies, versus the need to focus on Ryder Cup experience, prioritising those whose exploits entitle them to be part of the conversation?
My gut feeling is that it will be a combination of both and that his European Team on Tuesday will comprise of six Ryder Cup veterans and six rookies.
So, here are the three players I feel Clarke will pick as his wildcards on Tuesday.
1. Lee Westwood (nine previous Ryder Cups )
As much as Westwood is one of his closest friends, I simply cannot imagine Clarke being anything other than thoroughly professional about his wildcard picks. Clarke himself has been a Ryder Cup partner of Westwood’s on many occasions and he knows that an in-form Westwood can bring so much to the European table.
With a string of consistent performances already this year, including a T-2nd at the US Masters, Westwood’s strong game and easy nature makes him an ideal candidate to partner and ‘blood’ rookies, looking after them in the tense opening foursomes and fourballs over the first two days.
2. Russell Knox (Rookie)
As much as I have thought about it, I simply cannot imagine Clarke not selecting Knox to be the record-tying sixth European rookie on a Ryder Cup team. Having already won twice this season, including the Traveller’s earlier this month, Knox sits in an impressive fourth position on the FedEx Cup list. Surely, that’s already enough, despite him being out of sight and out of mind on the US Tour. His form all year has been impressive and, with fellow Scots and European vice-captains Paul Lawrie and Sam Torrance no doubt supporting his case, I’m counting him in.
Technically, he is very consistent, ranking 11th for fairways hit and second in greens in regulation on the PGA Tour this season, which is ideal, as Hazeltine is a demanding tee-to-green test, so he would make an ideal partner for the foursomes and fourballs. All-in-all, he would be a great addition to the European Team.
Clarke’s last selection I feel will be his most difficult but here I give the nod to Martin Kaymer, unless Graeme McDowell wins this week.
3. Martin Kaymer (Three previous Ryder Cups)
If you want further experience, then it’s hard to look beyond the two-time major champion and three-time Ryder Cupper, Kaymer, who holed the winning putt in America four years ago.
Though not at his imperious best, Kaymer’s form this season has been sufficiently consistent to merit selection as a wildcard.
Kaymer’s solid, all-round game is a huge asset for Europe, but so too is his big-game temperament and experience. At his best, he is an intimidating competitor who has won his major championships leading from the front and coming from behind, so should he enter Ryder Cup week in a rich vein of form, then it is safe to say he will deliver many points for Europe’s cause.
In conclusion, bearing in mind the monumental task that the European Team faces defending the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine against a US team overflowing with talent, Clarke simply cannot afford to be sentimental. Unfortunately that means no place for our own players, the tenacious and passionate McDowell and the out-of-form Shane Lowry. I feel sorry for Lowry, in particular, as he has lost his form at the wrong time and, even if he finds it spectacularly this week and wins in Denmark, I still can’t see it being enough, as this is where captains have to come into their own — and Clarke simply will not go with seven rookies on his team.
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