Sergio Garcia’s inclusion as one of Thomas Bjorn’s four captain’s picks for Europe later this month could come to define the success or failure of the Dane’s bid to regain the Ryder Cup from the United States.
The decision, revealed yesterday, to make the out-of-form Spaniard part of a quartet of experienced campaigners alongside Paul Casey, Ian Poulter and Henrik Stenson to augment the eight automatic qualifiers on Bjorn’s team for the September 28-30 matches at Le Golf National is a bold call.
The joy of finally fulfilling his potential and winning a major championship at the 2017 Masters has given way to regular disappointment for the 38-year-old. Yet, Bjorn is banking on Garcia’s pedigree and experience to kick in and replace dismal form with the sort of Ryder Cup muscle memory that will reinstate his position as, in the captain’s words, “the heartbeat of the team”.
When the chips are down, as they inevitably are during a pressure-filled Ryder Cup weekend, a captain looks to his personal picks to drag the side out of the mire and put them back on the front foot.
When it is delivered, either courtesy of a spark of magic or through the dogged experience of a veteran, the skipper is rightly lauded for the foresight of his selection. When it fails to materialise he must accept he made the wrong call. It happened to Darren Clarke at Hazeltine two years ago, when one of his three picks, fellow veteran and friend Lee Westwood, failed to contribute a point from his three matches in a 17-11 team defeat, as the rampant Americans reclaimed the cup for the first time since 2008. Another veteran pick, Martin Kaymer, delivered a single point from a possible three, while Clarke’s rookie selection Thomas Pieters, was a revelation for Europe, the Belgian winning four points from five and finding an instant chemistry with foursomes and fourballs partner Rory McIlroy, who together won three of their four matches.
There will be no opportunity for Pieters to build on that relationship now, nor for Rafa Cabrera Bello to kick on from an equally promising debut (2.5 points from a possible three) in 2016. Both were overlooked by Bjorn in favour of more familiar warhorses. So too birdie machine Matt Wallace, a three-time winner on the European Tour, who has looked to the manor born in front of big and often raucous galleries on both sides of the Atlantic during a breakthrough season.
Wallace was always going to be a left-field selection, but Garcia’s is perhaps even more so, a pick that puts the ‘wild’ in wild card, given his failure to make the cut in all four majors this season. Those were some of the seven halfway cuts he missed in his last 12 starts, which caused him to also miss out on the FedEx Cup play-off series, which started without him last month.
Garcia has not played since. While others have done their utmost to impress Bjorn in tournaments during the interim, Garcia has been left to his own devices to try and improve his game in private and has obviously convinced his friend he has done enough. It sounds as if Bjorn needed little persuasion.
“You’ve got to look at Sergio in certain ways,” the captain said yesterday. “The one thing about Sergio is he’s the heartbeat of the team. I’ve always said that about him. It’s like a football team going without their captain. That’s what he is. He comes in the team room, and people that have experienced Sergio in the team room and around The Ryder Cup Team realise how much he brings to it. Not only is he a fantastic golfer and goes out on the golf course and does what he does in Ryder Cups, and we’ve seen it time after time, but what he also brings is that he makes everyone around him better. He is just everything that that team room is.
“There’s just something about him, and I for one have so much belief that he’s going to go to France and deliver, as he normally does in the team, on the golf course, but as important, off the golf course.”
Garcia believes he will arrive in Paris rested and ready and justified his decision not to compete in the season-ending Made in Denmark tournament.
“Unfortunately, because of how the year went, I had to play five weeks in a row in the summer, eight weeks out of 10, and I’m not 25 any more, I’m 38,” said Garcia.
“I knew I was putting my position at risk, but at the same time, I told Thomas I want to get to the Ryder Cup at 100%.
“I don’t know how to play a Ryder Cup flat and, if I’m going to play a Ryder Cup flat, I’m not going to help the team.
“I need to rest for two weeks then play a little bit before that and get to Paris with the best chance possible. He understood, obviously, it didn’t make sense for me to play Denmark.”
There is little disputing Garcia’s experience, nor that of the other picks, though Stenson’s injury profile this season has not been encouraging. Casey, at world number 16, is a sensible choice, given the commitment shown in resuming eligibility for this year’s Ryder Cup team after eschewing European Tour membership in the past.
Also, though Poulter is, like Garcia, lower ranked than world No 29 Cabrera Bello, his form is at least heading in the right direction, while the passion he showed when winning the Houston Open earlier this year gave fans a reminder of the drive that Europe’s “Postman” always brings when delivering victory for his team.
“When he won in Houston, I thought he was on the track to be part of this team,” said Bjorn. “The thing about Ian is, when he gets confident and gets believing... I met him in the parking lot in Augusta he was like: ‘Right, I’m going to be there, I’m going to be part of your team.’
“That’s what he is all about, doing it on the big stage. He is a man for the occasion. He really is just a special person. The way he kept playing and kept talking that this was his only main focus, he was back in that frame of mind we like seeing.”
Bjorn revealed he “felt sick” when omitting Rafa Cabrera Bello from his squad in favour of Garcia.
“For Rafa it was hard to understand and tough for him to take it. That was really hard for me. When I picked up the phone, I almost felt sick having to do it.
“I can only imagine what the other guy on the end of the phone felt like. That’s the tough part of being captain. That is not something I envy anyone having to do.”