THE certainty that there will be a fierce battle for places in the European Ryder Cup this year is good news for the ‘3’ Irish Open Championship at Killarney over the August Bank Holiday, less than a month before Colin Montgomerie’s team to face the USA at Celtic Manor is finalised.
While Monty has reserved three ‘wild card’ selections for himself, nine will play themselves automatically into the action. New Accenture WGC World champion Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood are already virtually assured of their places and much the same probably applies to Sergio Garcia, Rory McIlroy, Pádraig Harrington and match play runner-up Paul Casey.
That leaves six spots still to be filled, three off the points lists and the remaining three in the gift of the captain.
By the time Killarney comes around, every single euro/point will be precious for those in contention. This in turn should mean the presence of those either anxious to clinch their places or of those hoping to make a late challenge. And with determined efforts being made to attract one or two big name, non-European players, this should be the strongest field in the Irish Open for some years.
Europe’s domination of the Match Play Championship over the weekend suggests Montgomerie rather than his opposite number, Corey Pavin, will be celebrating on Sunday, October 3.
Stewart Cink was the only American to reach the quarter-finals and he went out tamely by 4 and 3 to Paul Casey. In contrast, Casey, Ian Poulter and Sergio Garcia cruised through to the semis while Oliver Wilson and Luke Donald were other Europeans to make their presence felt in Arizona. Although Tiger Woods, Steve Stricker and Phil Mickelson retain the top three places in the world rankings, six of the next seven spots are filled by Europeans, Westwood (fourth), Poulter (fifth), Casey (sixth), Martin Kaymer, (eighth), Rory McIlroy, (ninth), and Pádraig Harrington, (10th) with Jim Furyk the only American “interloper” in seventh.
Indeed, the only dark moment for Montgomerie at the weekend was the war of words between Garcia and Poulter at the end of their semi-final. The Spaniard wasn’t happy with the way his opponent handled a controversial if rather irrelevant ruling (Poulter won the match by 7 and 6) and told him so in no uncertain manner. Undaunted, the Englishman stood his ground and the pair of them went at it nose to nose in full view of the television cameras.
That won’t do much for the kind of European team spirit that has served them so well in the days of the captaincy of people like Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam and Sam Torrance and which was so regrettably less apparent two years ago when Nick Faldo led the team at Valhalla. Already, there is no love lost between Garcia and Pádraig Harrington and if there are more episodes like this, Sergio will struggle to find a suitable partner at Celtic Manor.
However, Montgomerie will do everything possible to send out a committed and united side in Wales. And if he succeeds in doing so, all the current indications are that his team will hold a considerable edge.
The leading eight Americans (Pavin has four ‘wild cards’) are Steve Stricker, Dustin Johnson, Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, David Duval and JB Holmes. It could hardly be described as an intimidating bunch, especially as it is extremely doubtful if Woods will be available.
Of the successful side at Valhalla, Kenny Perry and Chad Campbell are next best in 11th and 14th. After that, though, a thorough search is needed to find the others. Even 60 year-old Tom Watson, currently 16th, is better placed than Hunter Mahan, (20th); Jim Furyk, (28th); Zach Johnson, (29th); Anthony Kim, (44th) and Boo Weekley, (57th).
Compare those names with the talent available to Montgomerie – Poulter, Casey, Garcia, Westwood, McIlroy, Harrington, Martin Kaymer, Henrik Stenson, Luke Donald, Oliver Wilson, Ross Fisher, Graeme McDowell, Miguel-Angel Jimenez, not to mention the Molinari brothers Francesco and Edoardo, Simon Dyson, Chris Wood, Alvaro Quiros and Ross McGowan.
True, the Americans also have a few likely looking rookies coming on stream like Shaun O’Hair, Ryan Palmer and Ben Crane, all winners this season, but again they haven’t set the golf world alight. Indeed, if the Poulter-Garcia spat is a source of some concern to Montgomerie, an even greater dilemma could be presented by who to include and to omit from his three personal picks.
And that’s why those seeking his favour will be more than happy to turn up at Killarney on July 29-August 1 for what even now seems sure to be one of the best Irish Opens for years.
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