Olazabal hot favourite to lead Europe into battle in Medinah

AFTER Paul McGinley came out publicly yesterday in favour of Jose-Maria Olazabal for the job at Medinah, Chicago, in two years’ time, it is now a virtual certainty that Ireland will have to wait at least another four years before being honoured with the captaincy of the European Ryder Cup team.

For a country of its size, Ireland has arguably done more for the cause than any other. Graeme McDowell became the fifth Irishman after Eamonn D’Arcy, Christy O’Connor Junior, Philip Walton and McGinley to play a decisive role in a European victory and many others have made outstanding contributions to the eight successes of the team since 1987 and prior to that, when the team was confined to Britain and Ireland.

Nevertheless, not a single one of our players has ever been honoured with the captaincy. There were several worthy candidates in the past and McGinley and Darren Clarke are right in the running, having served so nobly as vice-captains at Celtic Manor. They have now fallen in behind Olazabal and not even the most ardent Irishman could disagree with that, given Olazabal’s magnificent record in the event. He and Seve Ballesteros claimed 12 out of a possible 15 points in fourball/foursomes matches between 1987 and 1993 and Olly is also a two-time winner of the Masters at Augusta. However, he has one major reservation about accepting the job. He has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for many years and has made only one tournament appearance this year.

“I would love to do it but there is just one issue, and that is my health,” said Olazabal. “There are certain things you have to do and one is to be close to the players and play with them during qualifying.”

Should he be satisfied at his ability to perform the task to his own exacting standards, the Spaniard is assured of the job. And his point about needing to participate in the same tournaments as his team members should serve as a warning to McGinley and Clarke if they have to wait until 2014. They are respectively 43 and 42 years of age and their form suggests that they might well struggle to be capable of competing with the best in 2014.

If they have, by then, slipped off the upper echelons of the European Tour, their claims on the Ryder Cup captaincy might well be appreciably lessened. Meanwhile, Pádraig Harrington expressed an interest in the job on Monday evening, musing that by the time his turn came around, the likes of Clarke and McGinley should already have been accommodated.

At Monday’s final press conference, Colin Montgomerie expressed the belief that Clarke or McGinley, Olazabal, Thomas Bjorn and Sergio Garcia should skipper the side at Medinah.

Garcia, who is still only 30, will surely not be a runner and will instead be fighting hard for his place back in the side. Yesterday, however, Monty pinned his colours more firmly to the mast.

“I do hope Jose-Maria will be well enough to be the next captain,” said Montgomerie. “He did brilliantly as one of my assistants in Wales. It was between him and me for the captaincy this time and in two years he’ll be 46, a year younger than I am now.”

The new incumbent, whoever he may be, will surely be given a very strong hand where retention of the trophy is concerned.

While the USA brought more or less their strongest side to Celtic Manor and still lost, it is fair to state that wasn’t necessarily the case with Europe. The points-scoring system worked very much in favour of Francesco Molinari and Peter Hanson and this in turn led to the absence of Paul Casey, ranked 7th in the world, and Justin Rose, twice a winner on the USPGA Tour in 2010.

Both will be trying hard for automatic inclusion in two years when Harrington has also promised to consider his schedule a lot more carefully and save the captain from having to make a difficult decision where his “wild card” picks are concerned. Although all captains would like to have even more control over the composition of their teams, the number will almost certainly remain three selections.

Moreover, Garcia will surely regain the form that made him one of the game’s finest exponents in the recent past. Throw the potential of young Italian Massimo Manassero and big-hitting Spaniard Alvaro Quiros into the mix and even some of the major successes at Celtic Manor will have to look to their laurels.

All but Luke Donald, Miguel-Angel Jimenez and Ian Poulter of the triumphant Ryder Cup team flew to St Andrews yesterday for this week’s €5.8 million Dunhill Links Championship. Montgomerie is also in the field along with American John Daly, while Ireland’s Ryder Cup heroes are joined by Clarke, McGinley, Peter Lawrie, Damien McGrane, Michael Hoey, Shane Lowry, Gareth Maybin and Gary Murphy.

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