An Irish captaincy is far from certain unless Darren Clarke backs his erstwhile rival, says Dermot Gilleece
A protracted and often confusing build-up to this week's choice of Europe's Ryder Cup captain for 2014 brings to mind the observation that politicians are people who, when they see light at the end of the tunnel, order more tunnel. Just when we thought an Irishman was finally certain to get the job, Darren Clarke has decided it's not for him, at least for now.
Comparing the process to politics is prompted largely by the way Clarke has handled his bid for a role thought to be worth about £2m. After what amounted to spirited campaigning, the 2011 Open champion seems to be giving way to the quiet dignity of Paul McGinley, a one-time close neighbour in Sunningdale.
I believe Clarke became increasingly unhappy at the perception that he was sabotaging his long-time friend. And these feelings happened to coincide with a welcome upsurge in his playing fortunes as exemplified in an eighth-place finish in the Australian PGA Championship in December, when he had three birdies and an eagle in a closing 68.
"By winning the Open, one of the biggest prizes in golf, I am exempt for another three years on Tour," he said. "If I was given the opportunity to do the captaincy, I'd effectively be throwing two of those years away. It's a tough one for me. I'm still wrestling with it but to be honest, I want to play golf."
His decision appears to put Colin Montgomerie's hat prominently in the ring for 2014. But whatever happens, this week's Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship will also be the scene of a significant milestone in the life of another Irishman. Details will be announced tomorrow of a much trumpeted contract with Nike, expected to be worth around €190m over 10 years to Rory McIlroy, who, incidentally, is 9/4 with Ladbrokes to win another Major championship this season.
In the process, McIlroy will become commercially attached to Nike's long-time frontman, Tiger Woods. And like Woods, he now has his own 'Rory Foundation' which was launched in Holywood last Thursday, aimed at supporting children's charities. Its first outing this week involves the '6 Bags Project' with McIlroy's golf bag carrying the name and logo of the Northern Ireland Cancer Fund for Children (NICFC).
Further charities will feature at his following five events, culminating in the US Masters. On each occasion, the bag will be auctioned through www.roryfoundation.com with all monies raised going to the relevant charity. Those after Abu Dhabi will have a local context which means the beneficiaries will be American.
From the time Fred Daly made the 1947 team in Portland, Oregon, this island has contributed 19 representatives to the Ryder Cup cause. Particularly notable among them was Christy O'Connor Snr, who completed a then record 10 successive appearances from 1955 to 1973 when, curiously, Irish involvement was acknowledged for the first time in the title of the team.
And I'm convinced Des Smyth should have captained Europe at The K Club in 2006. Indeed Clarke was of similar mind, saying: "Des would be my preferred choice." The nonsense that the absence of a Major title in his CV effectively made him ineligible remains nonsense when one considers other successful candidates, before and since.
But a great wrong looked certain to be righted when McGinley was widely viewed as the clear front-runner for 2014 with Clarke an ideal choice for the next American staging at Hazeltine in 2016. Then things changed dramatically in the aftermath of Medinah, with Clarke suddenly deciding he wanted the job in 2014.
One English paper went so far as to declare that the European Tour had already decided Clarke would be "the first Irishman to hold the post", as successor to Jose Maria Olazabal. Though Clarke promptly denied on Twitter that he had been offered the captaincy, he later made it clear to me that he was a candidate.
"People on the European Tour approached me as to whether I would be available to captain Europe at Gleneagles, if asked," he said in early November. "My response was, 'Of course I would be'. It is not the sort of thing you would turn down."
There was also an awareness that Pádraig Harrington was emerging as a candidate for 2016. While the Dubliner is maintaining a very low profile regarding such speculation, it is obvious that the committee cannot overlook a three-time Major winner in their future deliberations.
Clarke publicly hinted at a change of heart in the run-up to Christmas, due to what could be described as the Tom Watson factor. Remarkably, it has emerged that the victorious US skipper in 1993 was mooted in PGA of America circles as far back as the Grand Slam of Golf in October 2011.
Expressing his surprise at the move, Clarke made the astonishing admission: "Maybe we have to have a look and consider other people as well [to oppose Watson as captain]. Whoever it is standing on that stage . . . needs a huge presence."
That's when he mentioned Montgomerie as having such a presence. Though Harrington scoffed at this notion in view of the mental strain imposed by the Celtic Manor experience, the Scot himself said in South Africa last week that he would be "honoured" to be asked again. Either way, this could now be viewed as the first move in Clarke's exit strategy.
There is no evidence that an iconic figure such as Watson will influence the outcome of a Ryder Cup battle. Lee Trevino (1985), Jack Nicklaus (1987), Lanny Wadkins (1995) and Curtis Strange (2002) have all been losing American captains.
And Nicklaus was somewhat dismissive of the role's demands when he said: "It's a great honour but you don't actually do a lot. From what I remember my main concern was that I had a lot of tees, ball markers, towels, gloves and spikes for the shoes and things like that. Then you put the pairings together and you go watch them play."
Organisational skills are obviously important for a team leader, but if I was to pick one factor above all others, it would be Napoleon's famous requirement of his generals: that they be lucky.
This, in my experience, has outweighed every other consideration in determining the outcome of matches.
Yet McGinley's skills cannot be questioned. Apart from serving as a vice-captain in 2010 and at Medinah, he led Great Britain and Ireland to a memorable victory in the Vivendi Seve Trophy in Paris 16 months ago. And he showed considerable integrity in his withdrawal from the vice-captaincy under Nick Faldo.
His team-room contributions must have been impressive to earn the firm endorsement of McIlroy and other key members of Medinah's victorious line-up. Meanwhile, as to whether he remains in line for a double-captaincy announcement this week for 2014 and 2016, Clarke said: "That's not up to me. It's down to the committee. I think it will be purely Gleneagles and that will be it."
The committee members, who become kingmakers this week, are: Thomas Bjorn (chairman, Denmark), Felipe Aguilar (Chile), Paul Casey (England), Clarke, Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano (Spain), Peter Lawrie (Ireland), Joakim Haeggman (Sweden), David Howell (Eng), Raphael Jacquelin (France), Miguel Angel Jimenez (Sp), Robert Karlsson (Swe), Francesco Molinari (Italy), McGinley, Montgomerie, Henrik Stenson (Swe). Given the presence of Bjorn and three Swedes, the outcome could be determined by Scandinavians. Is the prospect of an Irish captain now less sure? Undoubtedly. Which is all the more reason for Clarke to row in, four-square, behind his erstwhile Irish rival.