Fighting talk as Darren Clarke keeps his eyes on the prize

Darren Clarke last night hit back at Johnny Miller’s criticism of his European Ryder Cup team, pouring scorn on the American’s assertion it was the worst in years.

Former US Open champion Miller, an NBC Sports analyst, told viewers during Saturday’s coverage of the Tour Championship the six rookies on Europe’s team and the absence of Ryder hero Ian Poulter through injury, though he is one of Clarke’s vice captains, would be the decisive factor in this weekend’s contest in Minnesota.

“I do believe the Euros have got, at least on paper, the worst team they’ve had in many years,” Miller said on NBC. “I think with all those rookies ... when you lose Poulter, it’s like tearing your heart out. I think this is the year not only could the US win, they could win by like five points.”

With Europe also fired up by US captain Davis Love’s reported suggestion his team were “maybe the best ever assembled”, Ryder Cup tensions have been ratcheted up a notch ahead of Friday’s opening foursomes session at Hazeltine National.

Sergio Garcia reacted to such talk by saying yesterday: “you don’t win Ryder Cups with your mouth,” while Clarke was asked if Miller’s comments would be used as a motivating factor in their bid to win for the fourth time in succession.

“I don’t need to,” the captain replied. “The guys have all seen everything that’s been said. But in terms of that, we have the Masters champion, we have The Open champion, we have the Olympic Champion and we have the FedEx Champion. You combine that with all the experience and with all the rest of the team and the way those guys have played, I don’t really need to respond to that. I think I’ve got full confidence in our team.”

Clarke sent out three practice groups yesterday with a definite theme of experienced players pairing with rookies. Open champion Henrik Stenson and Olympic gold medallist Juston Rose accompanied Matt Fitzpatrick and captain’s pick Thomas Pieters while in the second quarter wild cards and seasoned Ryder Cuppers Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood played with Danny Willett, the rookie with a Masters green jacket, and Rafa Cabrera Bello of Spain.

That left Garcia and FedEx Cup champion and world number three Rory McIlroy to keep an eye on English duo Chris Wood and Andy Sullivan.

“Well, if you take a look at it, there’s two seasoned guys with two veterans in each of the three matches. There was no real particular reason for who went with who, because today the guys were just hitting their own balls, just getting out to see the golf course. Some of them have played before and some of them haven’t. So it was just a case of letting them see the golf course and see their thoughts. Obviously we’ll discuss it all later on and see what they think.”

Despite the rancour from outside the camp, Clarke said he was enjoying his experience as captain now Ryder Cup week had finally got under way with the European team assembling for the first time on Monday night for what he described as “a very relaxed evening”.

“We had everybody from Team Europe, and that being the physios, the backroom staff, the coaches, everybody was in our team room last night for maybe 30, 45 minutes and then we all had a little bit of a chat to everybody, a little bit of conversation and addressed everybody and welcomed them all here.

“This is what I thought it would be, but better, to be honest.

It’s great to be in the position where I’m addressing maybe 80, 90 people in the room last night, in our team room, and every one of them there part of Team Europe, was very special.

“The whole build-up just over a year and a half since I was given the honour of being captain, everything has been geared towards this week, and now we’re here to see all our artwork, to see everything that everybody has pulled together and worked on all coming together has been wonderful.

“Thus far, it’s been much better than I thought it was going to be. I’m really enjoying it.

“I know that’s easy to say at this stage of the week.

“It’s very early in the week, but certainly I’m very excited and looking forward to the rest of the week.”

Clarke also said he was comfortable with Europe’s designation by the bookmakers as outsiders.

“We are always the underdogs, aren’t we?” he said. “We’re always not supposed to win.

“But they have been doing okay.

So you know, the guys are all here and they are very very excited and really keen to play.

“The odds frequently are against Europe, and so it’s nothing different.

“So I’m certainly not worried about it and I’m just looking forward to the whole thing kicking off and starting on Friday morning.”

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