It now seems almost certain that Darren Clarke will be appointed Europe’s Ryder Cup captain, but the Ulsterman will have to wait until at least next month to receive the nod.
It had become something of a tradition for the European Tour to name their captain during the so-called “Desert Swing”, the three-week run of events in the Gulf which starts next week in Abu Dhabi. But because of the new selection process - first announced in August, 2013 - the decision has been put back.
A Tournament Committee meeting will take place at the Qatar Masters in two weeks’ time, but while a number of Ryder Cup “qualification and commercial” issues will be discussed, the identity of Paul McGinley's successor is in the hands of a five-man panel.
Largely due to all the unseemly publicity generated in the race for the captaincy two years ago - which featured McGinley being pitted first against Clarke and then against Colin Montgomerie - the choice was taken away from the 15-man Tournament Committee, which is primarily made up of current players.
It is understood that the Tour had wanted the selection panel - which comprises the last three Europe Ryder Cup captains, the Tour’s chief executive and one member of the Tournament Committee, to be nominated by the committee - to name the new man in January.
But, although McGinley, José María Olazábal, George O’Grady and David Howell will be in Qatar, Montgomerie is in America this month. Montgomerie could have joined the panel on a conference call, but there is an appetite for all members of the panel to be present. The earliest date for the meeting appears to be mid February, with the official unveiling to be staged at Wentworth soon afterwards.
It will be a huge surprise if Clarke does not become the second Irishman in as many matches to lead the blue and gold. Miguel Ángel Jiménez and Thomas Bjorn were originally considered strong alternatives, but both have spoken of their desires to qualify for the showdown in Hazeltine, Minnesota. Bjorn has made no secret of his playing intentions after his performance at Gleneagles, while, despite turning 51 on Monday, Jiménez also sees himself as a competitor.
When asked last week by Tengolf, the Spanish website, about the 2016 captaincy, Jiménez replied: ”I see myself in the mix. But what happens is that if you dedicate yourself to being captain your game is possibly going to deteriorate because there is so much to do. And I want to compete. So I do [want to be captain] and I don't..."
In contrast to this ambivalence, Clarke’s captain’s ambitions are unequivocal - “I would love to be captain at Hazeltine - it would be a huge honour,” he said - and even this does not convince the panel then the backing of Europe’s biggest superstars will surely haul the 2011 Open champion over the line. Rory McIlroy, Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood, Justin Rose, Graeme McDowell and even Sergio Garcia, Jimenez’s fellow countryman, have, to varying degrees, stated their preference for Clarke.
A well-trailed stumbling block could be Clarke’s relationship with McGinley. The pair roomed with each other when they were Tour wannabes and then became neighbours in Sunningdale. Yet they grew apart and McGinley reportedly felt betrayed when Clarke apparently put his hat into the ring for Gleneagles after allegedly promising he would not stand in his way.
When Clarke eventually pulled out, he spoke of Europe’s need for “a big character” to front up against Tom Watson, the five-time Open champion who was brought back as US captain, and those comments were taken as him backing a return for the 2010 captain, Montgomerie. However, after McIlroy’s wholehearted support in the days leading up to the Tournament Committee’s vote, McGinley was handed the role he had craved for so long and history now has the diminutive Dubliner as one of the Ryder Cup’s most lauded captains as after led Europe to a convincing sixth win in seven matches.
In the wake of Gleneagles, McGinley vowed not to let anything personal on his behalf affect the process and seeing as McIlroy proved so important in his own elevation then it is highly doubtful he will go against the wishes of the world No 1. For his part, Clarke has said that in the event of his appointment, he would seek out McGinley for advice. “If I was fortunate enough to be given the job, Paul would be my first port of call,” Clarke said.
If not Clarke, then who?
Miguel Ángel Jiménez
Would assume favourite tag if the continental voice on the Tour wins the argument that there should not be two Celts in succession. His English is limited, but he is loved in America and has been an assistant three times.
As chairman of the Players Committee, Bjorn is a main power broker and, having played for the first time in 12 years, may fancy the job. He has been an assistant three times and is extremely articulate.