Ryder Cup tables may turn with Europe light on experience
Darren Clarke is upbeat, but he has to go a long way down the list to find seasoned campaigners
On August 24 2008, Darren Clarke captured the KLM Open for his second European Tour triumph in four months. A week later, skipper Nick Faldo overlooked him as a fancied wild-card for what proved to be an ill-fated Ryder Cup venture at Valhalla.
Now in the captain's role, Clarke won't have forgotten the hurt of that rejection when he sets about finalising his line-up for the defence of the trophy at Hazeltine National from September 30 to October 2. He will also retain vivid memories of another setback on American soil where, as an accomplished match-player, he witnessed raw rookies wilting in the heat of battle at Brookline in 1999.
One imagines these experiences will have the effect of ensuring that he discharges his current duties in the most productive manner possible.
The fact that the omens for Europe remain remarkably strong is reflective mainly of an extraordinary dominance which has seen them win the last three meetings and eight of the last 10. Which is a stunning turnaround dating back to Oak Hill in 1995, when it was thought the US would comfortably extend a promising run sparked by victory at Kiawah Island in 1991 and continued at The Belfry two years later.
Indeed given the events of recent years, it's hard to imagine that halfway through the Oak Hill matches, seasoned American observers saw fit to suggest a possible strengthening of the opposing side, if the Ryder Cup were to survive. A few days later, we had the image of one local reporter from Rochester's Democrat and Chronicle tucking into his own slice of humble pie under the headline 'US against the world on back burner'.
In the wake of a thrilling European victory, he wrote: "Who needs Greg Norman, Nick Price and Ernie Els? Not Europe. There was a red, white and blue scare before this weekend's Ryder Cup. There was a fear that Europe was on the verge of going the way of Great Britain-Ireland and the hickory shaft. That the Them going against US needed to include every one else in the civilized world to keep both sides on a par. Quiet please."
Less than a decade later, the Americans were hearing a very different tune as Hal Sutton looked towards Oakland Hills as their skipper for the 2004 matches. "I don't want to hear that the Europeans want it more," he bleated, with more than a hint of exasperation. "I watched Fred Couples winning in Houston recently, tears streaming down his face after he won. I want my guys to play with that sort of feeling. If they don't, then my captaincy will have been a failure."
It hardly seems fair to note that Hal's heroes suffered a record defeat by 18 and a half to nine and a half.
There was no great mystery about the change in American fortunes. Lee Trevino, their 1985 skipper, nailed it when he said: "I don't care if it was Nicklaus, me, Palmer, Watson or Johnny Miller, if you put Europe's best five against our best five, it was a toss-up. Where we killed them was at the bottom. They did not have the bottom seven that could compete with our bottom seven. Now their bottom seven is much tougher. That's what has made the Ryder Cup competitive."
Yet we have continued to approach successive stagings with caution, in the belief that the Americans would eventually tire of being gracious losers. Though on the countdown to Hazeltine, there seem to be genuine fears that the tide may be about to turn.
For a start, it has stopped being a great Irish story, even with Pádraig Harrington as one of Clarke's vice-captains. As things stand, the chances are that Ireland will have just a lone playing representative in the person of Rory McIlroy, for the first time since Clarke made his debut at Valderrama in 1997.
Gone is that purple period from a decade ago when Clarke, Harrington and Paul McGinley played key roles in successive victories at The Belfry, Oakland Hills and, memorably, at The K Club. And the subsequently marvellous fighting qualities of Graeme McDowell look to be lost to the team.
Only two qualifying tournaments remain on either side of the Atlantic: this weekend's D+D REAL Czech Masters is followed in Europe by Made in Denmark, starting on Thursday next, while in the US, the Wyndham Championship is followed by The Barclays. On Sunday evening next, nine members of the European line-up will be finalised, along with eight of the American side, and two days later, Europe's three wild-cards will be announced.
Under a revised American process, however, skipper Davis Love won't be naming three of his four picks until the conclusion of the BMW Championship on Sunday, September 11. Then, in a move aimed at exploiting current form, his fourth wild-card will be announced after the Tour Championship on September 25.
The current, leading eight in America's qualifying table are: Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson, Jimmy Walker, Brooks Koepka, Zach Johnson, JB Holmes and Patrick Reed. Apart from the fact that it happens to include the reigning US Open (Dustin Johnson) and PGA champion (Walker), this octet is notable for having only one Ryder Cup rookie in Koepka.
As a bonus, Love has a formidable line-up of wild-card possibles in Brandt Snedeker, Bubba Watson, Olympic bronze medallist Matt Kuchar, Rickie Fowler, Scott Piercy and the former ten-million-dollar-man, Bill Haas.
Though Love captured last year's Wyndham, the 52-year-old has been there this weekend as an observer rather than defending champion. This is because of recent surgery on his left hip which will keep him out of competitive action for the rest of the year.
As to the way his team is shaping up, he said: "From one to 25 [in the points list] you keep getting solid play out of a lot of the guys. We have four, five, six guys right up there every week. After this weekend, we can solidify it a little bit better and start thinking about who might be picks."
McDowell, in decidedly patchy form of late, is in action there with Shane Lowry, who also plans to play in Denmark later this week. And the Offaly man has much ground to make up, given his current 14th position on the European points list.
The top nine in a combination of the European and world lists are: Rory McIlroy, Danny Willett, Henrik Stenson, Chris Wood, Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose, Rafa Cabrera Bello, Andy Sullivan and Matthew Fitzpatrick. Holding down the last automatic place, Fitzpatrick has been showing signs of pressure of late, but is committed to this week's finale along with Lowry, Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Tyrrell Hatton and Denmark's Soren Kjeldsen. Clarke is also in the field so as to keep a watchful eye on developments.
Meanwhile, a one-shot victory at the Travelers Championship moved Scotland's Russell Knox into 10th position in the World list and 12th place overall, clearly strengthening his challenge for a possible wild-card pick.
Clarke is predictably upbeat about European prospects. He even has an appropriate spin for the possible presence of five rookies, pointing out: "Those guys are there for a reason. One of them [Willett] is Masters champion. They are keen, young players, and every now and again the Ryder Cup brings a turnaround in the old guard."
Ever the pragmatist, however, Westwood is acutely aware of the opportunity those rookies can offer a shrewd old dog like himself. With 37 Ryder Cup battles under his belt, he said pointedly: "If you look at the balance of the team, there are a lot of rookies. It's difficult if you're playing on home soil with that many rookies, but going and playing in the States is even harder.
"It's a tough atmosphere to play in and it's always nice if you've got a few people on the team with a bit of experience." He added: "I just want to try and keep playing well and be in form should I get picked."
In the usual way of things, we may anticipate sufficient red herrings flying about during the coming week to fill an Agatha Christie novel. It's something we've come to expect at this time every two years. And remarkably, its appeal shows no sign of dimming.
Sunday Indo Sport