Pieters' power play seduces Clarke for wildcard call
Published 30/08/2016 | 02:30
Darren Clarke is set to unleash the power of Thomas Pieters on the Americans, favouring the young Belgian over Shane Lowry, Russell Knox and Luke Donald for his third Ryder Cup wildcard place.
The Europe captain will name his three picks at Wentworth today and it is believed he will take a chance on the big hitter to make up his Hazeltine dozen. Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer have been seen as near certainties for weeks and will add the experience to a side expected to contain six rookies.
With five rookies already in the European team - Danny Willett, Chris Wood, Rafa Cabrera Bello, Andy Sullivan and Matthew Fitzpatrick - Clarke has hinted he will balance his team and go for experienced heads to join Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose at Hazeltine in Minnesota from September 27.
And despite repeatedly emphasising the importance of experience in the away encounters, Clarke has apparently been seduced by the undoubted attributes of Pieters.
The 24-year-old has not only emerged as one of the longest drivers in the game, but has also proved he possesses so much more than distance off the tee.
Pieters is the only player to have won three European Tour titles in the past 12 months, with the latest seemingly being vital in securing his seat on the plane to Minnesota in four weeks' time.
The Made In Denmark title on Sunday lifted Pieters into 11th position, less than one world ranking point behind Knox and only 12 points behind the 21-year-old Englishman Matt Fitzpatrick, who captured the final automatic berth in ninth.
Clarke is an admirer of Pieters and, having seen him finish fourth at the Olympics three weeks ago and second at the Czech Masters the week after, the Ulsterman asked to play with the Antwerp native in Forso.
Clarke could not have failed to have been impressed. With his prospective captain looking on, Pieters shot a nine-under 62 in the first round on his way to a win capped by birdies on each of his final three holes.
Pieters remained humble afterwards, saying: "Darren's got plenty of good players to pick from, so if he doesn't pick me, then so be it, and I'll work my butt off to get there in the next one."
Knox might not be so conciliatory should he not receive the nod, particularly if his comments from last week are a gauge of his mood.
After winning the Travelers Championship on the PGA Tour in Connecticut last month - a success which took him on to Fitzpatrick's heels - the Scot opted not to play in any more qualifying events. By his reckoning, the fact that he would have been in the automatic top nine had his win as WGC HSBC Champions in Shanghai last November counted - Knox was not a European Tour member at the time - all but made his candidature irresistible.
"There is a moral obligation to pick me, I guess," Knox told Golf Digest. "I don't want Darren to pick me because of that, though. His goal is to pick the three best players who did not make the team. And I have a hard time not thinking I am one of those right now.
"What I also have going against me is that I am maybe not super-close with a lot of guys on the team. I know people are assuming I am the third of the picks if he goes for Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer. But I should really be the first."
Knox's CV is persuasive - the 31-year-old is No 20 in the world - as is his affinity with American courses, being based in Jacksonville, Florida.
Yet Clarke is thought to have been convinced by the X-factor of Pieters, a prodigious talent who on the US college circuit played with and beat the likes of Jordan Spieth
If Clarke does wobble in the final hours before he makes his announcement at European Tour HQ at 12.30pm, Donald would likely be the lucky veteran.
The 38-year-old finished down in 21st in the standings and has slipped to 64th in the rankings, but he did show some form in coming second at the recent Wyndham Championship and there can be no doubting a Ryder Cup record which boasts only four defeats in 15 matches.