The sight of European big guns limping over the finish line early on Sunday at the Masters need not necessarily give Ryder Cup team captain Darren Clarke cause for panic five months out from the 41st match-up at Hazeltine.
Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia, Martin Kaymer and Ian Poulter, heroes all for their continent over the years in the biennial golfing dust-up with the Americans, were among the tail-enders at Augusta National yesterday.
Sweden’s Stenson, one of Paul McGinley’s most dependable soldiers in the famous victory at Gleneagles two years ago, completed the first major of the season at six-over par, Garcia at eight-over while Team Europe inspiration Poulter tied with Kaymer, the German who hit the winning putt to seal the Miracle at Medinah in 2012, on 12-over par to finish joint 49th of the 57 who made the halfway cut. Graeme McDowell did not get that far.
Should Clarke be worried? Of course, it will be a concern that players his predecessors would have banked on in previous Ryder Cups are not in the best of form right now but the Masters and the course it is played on is often a tournament to be treated in isolation, a place where 58-year-old Bernhard Langer can give himself a chance of victory and American Smylie Kaufman can announce his presence on the world stage.
Yet Clarke, who played for Langer on a record-breaking winning team at Oakland Hills in 2004 alongside Westwood, Poulter, Casey and Garcia, will not assess the strength of his potential team just yet. There is a long way to go in the race to qualify and while major victories by Europeans would give a much-needed boost he will be mindful that Langer took his team to Detroit that year with Phil Mickelson, Retief Goosen, Todd Hamilton and Vijay Singh as the season’s major winners. Not a European among them and yet Langer engineered an 18.5 to 9.5 victory.
Last August, at the PGA Championship. Clarke was asked about the effect an American clean sweep of the majors would have on the challenge facing him as the captain charged with winning a fourth straight Ryder Cup in Minnesota this September.
Jordan Spieth had won the Masters and US Open with Zach Johnson taking the Claret Jug with his Open victory at St Andrews.
There would be no clean sweep with Australian Jason Day winning that week’s PGA at Whistling Straits but Clarke replied: “If you ask me the same question next year, then I may be a little more concerned because the points haven’t started for us. So we shall see. But in terms of does it make any task anymore daunting, no, it’s a very, very tough task that we as the European Tour have in front of us.
“There’s a new breed of American player coming through, highlighted by Jordan Spieth, obviously. And those are wonderful players. Davis (Love, the US captain) is going to have a very strong, possibly quite a new look on the team. But a very, very strong team.”
As Spieth maintained his 54-hole lead over compatriot Kaufman over the front nine at Augusta National last night, and McIlroy began to fade without laying a glove on the defending champion for the past two days, Clarke will have taken solace in a number of strong European performances.
Soren Kjeldsen, the Irish Open champion from Royal County Down, was closing the gap on Spieth, Danny Willett was emerging as a major championship contender and both Westwood and Casey were prominent while Justin Rose is as solid as he has been over the past six seasons.
The continuing good form of Casey may also lead him to reconsider his eligibility issues by returning to the European Tour family to meet the qualification criteria.
McIlroy may be an enigma, once more bamboozled by the Augusta National course he believes most suits his game, but think back two years ago and he started the season in much worse shape. He finished tied for eighth and went on to kick-start his season by winning, minus fiancee Caroline Wozniacki, the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth the following month.
And McIlroy wound up going into the Ryder Cup as world number one, having completed a three-tournament run in July and August that saw him win The Open, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship in successive starts.
There is plenty of time for him and Team Europe to come good.
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