Ryder Cup: So who will be the odd men out?
Paul Casey and Luke Donald could be left to watch from the sidelines, writes Dermot Gilleece
H ad Seve Ballesteros been asked at the peak of his powers if he considered the Ryder Cup to be a matter of life and death, he would probably have borrowed the immortal words of Bill Shankly and described it as far more important than that.
But as we've discovered in the build-up to this year's selection, times and attitudes have changed. And with good reason.
The team will be finalised after the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles today when I expect Pádraig Harrington to be named by European skipper, Colin Montgomerie, among his three wild cards. They will complete a 12-man side attempting to retrieve the trophy lost at Valhalla two years ago.
On the crucial matter of his choices, Montgomerie has been somewhat ambivalent regarding the need for aspirants to compete in this weekend's final qualifier. It should be understood, however, that he would be conscious of pleasing his employers from the European Tour on this issue.
Which brings to mind the attitude of Ken Schofield, the Tour's then chief executive, when he was negotiating the 2006 staging at The K Club. "Let's be clear about this, we're talking commercialism, unashamedly as far as I'm concerned," he said. We should remember these words when next we're bombarded with all the honour and glory stuff attaching to the biennial showpiece.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Ryder Cup was hugely important not only as a cash cow but in moulding European team members into truly international competitors. Beating the Americans, which Europe did for the first time in 1985, became a basis for regular success in the major championships.
It remains a very beneficial stepping stone for young players, as we've seen in Graeme McDowell's US Open triumph less than two years after a splendid Ryder Cup debut at Valhalla. But it has dropped some way down the pecking order for Harrington, while Paul Casey, Justin Rose and Luke Donald also see far greater benefit in competing in The Barclays FedEx Cup tournament in the US where they all made the cut. That's why they're not at Gleneagles.
And it's silly to be questioning their loyalty to the European cause. The fact that seven tournaments each year -- the four majors and three World Championship events -- are common to both the US PGA and European tours indicates the international nature of the current game.
Indeed to a significant degree, Europe's team will be battling against fellow US Tour members at Celtic Manor.
Still, there are players for whom the appeal of the Ryder Cup is undiminished. Among them are two of this year's vice-captains, Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley. Clarke's tearfully triumphant appearance at The K Club four years ago had all the ingredients of the perfect swansong. Yet he would love to be back in competitive action at Celtic Manor.
"Sure, The K Club was special but I still want to play in more of them," he said. "My desire for the game is as strong as ever and the Ryder Cup remains very much a part of that desire, otherwise I wouldn't have been trying desperately to make this team."
Those Europeans competing in the US this weekend, however, clearly think differently. In this context, Harrington has come in for quite a deal of flak, including a claim last weekend that he wouldn't be getting a wild card.
Since then, his absence from Gleneagles has been criticised by Edoardo Molinari and Sweden's Peter Hanson. "If the Ryder Cup is the goal of your season, then you come here (Gleneagles)," said the Italian, while Hanson claimed: "As a European player, if you're that close to the team -- and I know people are talking about Paul (Casey) and Pádraig -- then you should be here."
As for the rumour that Monty had already decided to overlook Harrington, Clarke said: "I don't believe it. Nobody other than the captain can know, and I'm sure he'll run his wild cards past us (vice-captains Clarke, McGinley and Thomas Bjorn) before making his decision. And he certainly hasn't done that yet." He added: "Though there are obviously a few strong contenders, it's possible Monty won't make his mind up until Sunday afternoon."
Today's first prize of €282,000 meant that going into the tournament, three players -- Ross McGowan, Simon Dyson and Alvaro Quiroz -- each had a chance of forcing their way into the team. McGowan's withdrawal from the tournament because of injury on Thursday put paid to his bid, while Dyson and Quiroz had to win today.
With four automatic qualifiers coming from a world points list and the remaining five from a European points table, the chances of last-minute shocks are less likely than they once were. We are certainly unlikely to have a repeat of the extraordinary happening in 1991 involving Eamonn Darcy.
On that occasion, Darcy opted out of the last qualifying tournament, the German Open, in the belief that he couldn't be caught for ninth automatic place in the table.
But, in his absence, David Gilford did enough to edge past him by the princely amount of £58.26, which became the margin in points between ninth and 10th positions. And when Jose Maria Olazabal, Nick Faldo and Mark James were named as wild cards by skipper Bernard Gallacher, Darcy was out in the cold.
Since the launch of a European team in 1979, the closest any player came to Darcy's misfortune was in 1985. And it happened to his good friend Christy O'Connor Jnr, who was 115.89 points behind the automatic 10th position when Jose Maria Canizares did the damage and another Spaniard, Jose Rivero, was preferred to the Galwayman as a wild card.
Against this background, it is interesting that Miguel Angel Jimenez, currently holding the last qualifying position on the European list, decided not to miss Gleneagles as he originally planned. This was because Hanson's win in the Czech Open last Sunday lifted him 26,000 points ahead of the Spaniard.
So, who is Monty going to pick this afternoon? From his primary candidates, Harrington, Casey, Rose, Donald and Edoardo Molinari, I would like to see him select Harrington, Rose and Molinari. It should also be noted, incidentally, that he has publicly acknowledged Bernhard Langer as a credible wild-card candidate.
Such a possibility was summarily dismissed by Clarke when I floated it during the 3 Irish Open at Killarney. A week later, however, a British scribe decided to take up the story and put the notion to a few leading players at Firestone, including Donald.
This is how Donald responded: "I am very surprised to say the least. Nothing against Bernhard, and particularly given the form he is in, but it is a world of difference between senior golf and the regular tour. That's a real stretch to think about picking him."
Donald presumably had in mind the shorter courses Langer has been playing on the Champions Tour in the US. And how much more difficult it would be for the German to cope with the length of Celtic Manor. Before commenting on such matters, a little homework would have informed him that while achieving the remarkable distinction of back-to-back victories in the Senior British Open and US Senior Open, Langer averaged drives of 283 yards.
Meanwhile, on the regular PGA tour, Donald has been averaging drives of 276.4 yards which place him a lowly 178th among his peers. Ah, but he's wonderfully accurate, you will counter. Not so. In fairways hit, he is a decidedly unimpressive 105th.
Still, Monty is unlikely to pick the 53-year-old, if only for fear of provoking an uproar from younger aspirants. But he will have no difficulty in overlooking Donald. Nor do I expect him to choose Casey, who is having a very average season and left much to be desired competitively when finishing tied third in the Open Championship last month with a final round of 75.
Rose, on the other hand, has recently won the Memorial and AT&T National tournaments in the US and proved to be a splendid partner for Ian Poulter at Valhalla. And Edoardo Molinari, who would be a natural partner for his brother Francesco with whom he captured the World Cup last year, is also a winner this season, with victory in the Scottish Open last month.
Harrington's credentials are obvious, with three major championships to his credit. Though his form this season has been decent rather than spectacular, he is deeply respected by Montgomerie who relished his skill as a partner at Oakland Hills in 2004.
Today's tournament, allied to Monty's notorious mood swings, may combine to cause surprises before the team is finalised. Either way, those leading lights consigned to the wrong side of the fairway ropes could face their biggest challenge in convincing us of their utter devastation at the prospect of having the first weekend in October free.