Roy Curtis: Darren Clarke has ticked so many Ryder Cup boxes that his pen might well have run dry
Published 30/08/2016 | 13:53
ONLY those with an inflexible antipathy to 1970s British pop - or Scots with the Saltire flag wrapped tight and patriotically around their shoulders - could grumble with Darren Clarke’s decision to place Pieters and Lee on the Ryder Cup turntable.
In nominating Thomas Pieters, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer as his three captain’s picks for Hazeltine, Clarke has made as sure-footed a start as, when, in maybe the most emotionally charged moment of his career, he thundered his opening drive of the 2006 match some 300-yards to bisect the K Club’s first fairway.
The Northern Irishman has ticked so many boxes his felt pen might well have run dry.
Adding experience to a callow, baby-faced team in which five of the nine automatic qualifiers were rookies: Check.
In Westwood and Kaymer, he has turned to a brace of former world number ones with a combined 12 previous immersions into the white heat of Ryder Cup.
Rewarding form: Check.
Pieters stands alone in winning three times on the European tour this season; he stared down immense pressure last weekend, when, paired with Clarke, the ferociously powerful Belgian fired a stunning opening round 62 on his way to victory in the Made in Denmark event. He exhibited an undeniable taste for the most acute pressure.
Avoiding unnecessary controversy: Check.
While Scotland’s Russell Knox is certainly unlucky, the X-factor counter-claims of Pieters – regarded by many, Clarke included, as a world number one in waiting - really were irresistible. Over the last three weeks, he has finished first, second and, at the Olympics, fourth.
If Ireland has reason for regret, there can be zero grounds for feeling aggrieved that Rory McIlroy will stand alone among the 12-man European team. Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell would have been resigned to their fate long before receiving the dreaded phone call from Clarke on Monday.
It speaks eloquently of how Lowry’s form has flat-lined since that harrowing final round at the US Open that the Clara man was not even initially name-checked by Clarke as among those most unfortunate to miss out.
Lowry at his best would have presented an irresistible claim. Lately he has been nowhere close. But it is more than 12 months since he elevated his game with a stunning WGC victory at Akron. Four missed-cuts, a 42nd and 24th from his most recent six events simply is not the anatomy of a Ryder Cup player.
Clarke, conscious of the team’s inexperience, considered both McDowell and Luke Donald, but ultimately the dazzle of their luminous Ryder Cup records was clouded by form that simply does not compare with their peak year pyrotechnics. Donald has not won in four years. McDowell has tumbled to 73rd in the world rankings.
A month before the opening shot is hit, Europe, despite winning the last three matches, have drifted to 7/4 outsiders with the odds layers. It is largely a reflection of the team profile.
Chris Wood and Matthew Fitzpatrick, Andy Sullivan and Rafael Cabrera-Bello are hardly names to send a tremor of apprehension down the spine of American captain Davis Love III as he goes in search of his own redemption after being the fall-guy in the Miracle of Medinah.
Not that their inexperience necessarily dismantles Clarke’s prospects of emulating Paul McGinley’s hugely successful Gleneagles masterplan.
The notion that a rookie-laden line-up equates to a band of naive innocents walking into an Uncle Sam ambush doesn’t survive scrutiny. In 2004 at Oakland Hills, a European team with five debutants eviscerated America by 18.5 points to 9.5. Six years later, Colin Montgomerie led a team with six first-timers to victory at Celtic Manor.
Yet, still, Westwood and Kaymer add wisdom, leadership and intimacy with the suffocating questions of temperament and nerve that the biannual golfing slugfest poses.
Westwood is a close friend of Clarke, but his is hardly a selection to raise accusations of even the tiniest sliver of cronyism. A runner-up finish to Danny Willett at Augusta in April propelled him toward a 10th Ryder Cup cap, equalling Christy O’Connor’s number of appearances.
With his selections, Clarke has steered clear of plonking his captaincy into a potential early water hazard.
More testing obstacles, an American team laden down with big names - Bubba Watson, Ricky Fowler and Matt Kuchar among Love's wildcard options - and ravenous for atonement, now loom on the rapidly-approaching Minnesota horizon.