Four big questions for Darren Clarke as the Ryder Cup draws nearer

Darren Clarke still has a selection dilemma, writes Simon Lewis. 
Four big questions for Darren Clarke as the Ryder Cup draws nearer

With six weeks until Darren Clarke learns the nine automatic qualifiers for his European Ryder Cup side, there still appear to be more questions than answers about the make-up of his side to face the United States at Hazeltine in late September.

For both Clarke and American counterpart Davis Love III things should be taking shape with three of the year’s four major championships in the books and the majority of points already played for.

Yet the final major of the season, the PGA Championship at Baltusrol in New Jersey in 10 days’ time, looks likely to be the real tipping point for the qualification race on both sides of the Atlantic.

Clarke also has three wildcards to deal, Love has four.

Is Team Europe in a good place?

Henrik Stenson’s victory in his duel with American veteran Phil Mickelson at the top of the leaderboard may not have a material effect on the outcome at Hazeltine, but it will do wonders for Clarke’s confidence to have another major champion present in the European team room.

There were also top-10 finishes for Rory McIlroy and fellow linchpin Sergio Garcia as well as potential rookies Tyrrell Hatton, Andrew Johnston and Soren Kjeldsen.

Yet the ongoing victory hangover being endured by Masters champion Danny Willett continued, and there were also poor weeks for Matt Fitzpatrick, who missed the cut, and Rafa Cabrera-Bello, who both started the week in qualifying positions.

How many Irish will be on Clarke’s team at Hazeltine?

McIlroy is the only nailed-on team member after a disappointing week for the Irish at Troon. Shane Lowry’s debut hopes suffered with a missed cut although he did rebound from a bewilderingly poor opening 78. Graeme McDowell made the cut but his chances of making a fourth consecutive team were not enhanced by weekend rounds of 72 and 76, and he will be delighted to leave bad weather behind him and return to North America at this week’s Canadian Open.

Who needs a big week at Baltusrol?

Clarke yesterday insisted there was still a lots of golf to play in the race to make the plane for Minnesota.

“There’s other events as well between US PGA and Made in Denmark,” he said.

“There’s other chances. Guy goes in and wins back-to-back, then they come into consideration. There’s still quite a way to go.”

Yet there is a huge weighting in favour of the points available for prospective Ryder Cuppers from the USPGA Championship at the end of the month, and plenty of kudos to be gained with a strong week at Baltusrol having the potential to plant a seed in the captain’s mind ahead of his three picks.

In addition to Lowry and McDowell, Ryder Cup stalwarts Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer can catapult themselves into the automatic spots.

A big week in Baltusrol changes everything.

How are the Americans fixed?

After three straight defeats and a lot of soul-searching following their hugely demoralising loss to Paul McGinley’s Europeans at Gleneagles in 2014, the Americans are desperate for vengeance on home soil at Hazeltine.

After the blood-letting that followed Phil Mickelson’s public evisceration of Tom Watson’s captaincy in Scotland two years ago, the PGA of America set up a task force to stop the rot and recalled Love III as captain.

They will certainly start as favourites with Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth comprising half of golf’s “big four”, Phil Mickelson back in his pomp, and an exciting group of young, committed players such as Rickie Fowler and Patrick Reed lining up behind them to have a crack at Europe.

“The Ryder Cup, we’ve got to win one,” Spieth said yesterday. “We’ve got to start a trend back the other way and make them develop a task force.

“I’ve got to avenge. I felt like I put… 2014 singles match Ryder Cup is a really important match that I lost (to McDowell) for the team, and I’m going to go back and try to avenge that the best I can.”

The Americans mean business.

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