Friday 19 January 2018

Wild-card choices to force Clarke's hand

Ryder Cup skipper's biennial balancing act has often been unkind to Irish contenders

‘Clarke knows about match-play. In 1990, his last year as an amateur, he set standards which we haven’t witnessed since, even from Rory McIlroy’. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
‘Clarke knows about match-play. In 1990, his last year as an amateur, he set standards which we haven’t witnessed since, even from Rory McIlroy’. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Dermot Gilleece

Since their introduction in 1979, Ryder Cup wild cards could be seen as an ideal device for settling old scores, for righting old wrongs or for indulging old friendships. Whatever the motivation, Irish candidates have had a pretty thin return from the process over the years, with only four beneficiaries out of a total of 40, so far.

Pádraig Harrington was a three-time Major champion when honoured by Colin Montgomerie in 2010; Darren Clarke proved to be an inspired pick at The K Club in 2006 and Christy O'Connor Jnr was spectacularly successful for Tony Jacklin in 1989. And Des Smyth was chosen as reigning European Match Play champion of 1979.

With his own wild-cards for Hazeltine National on September 30 to October 2, current skipper Clarke is set to complete this year's European line-up on Tuesday. And my belief is that by way of countering the inexperience in his automatic nine, he will name Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and a revitalised Luke Donald who has an impressive 73 per cent success record in four appearances. Graeme McDowell's chance would appear to have gone with a second-round 76 on Friday leading to a missed cut at The Barclays.

This would mean a third wild-card for Westwood, who would still trail the record four shared by Jose Maria Olazabal and Nick Faldo, followed by Jesper Parnevik and Ian Poulter with three apiece. Most of these arose from commitments to the US PGA Tour before the world qualifying points list was initiated for 2004.

Though at times an unbecoming spectacle, recent Ryder Cup stagings have unquestionably given match-play tremendous spectator appeal, especially in the US. The need was outlined admirably in 1969 by a leading British scribe, who wrote: "The tradition of competitive match-play is worth preserving because match-play is in many ways a superior form of competition to the arid card and pencil variety."

He went on: "The experiences of television, that omnipotent Cyclops whose hand of friendship so often conceals a garrotte in sport, has virtually banished match-play from the United States. In this country, match-play still flourishes, but since British golf inevitably follows at a decent interval the fashions set in America, we should be concerned that match-play does not disappear from our green and pleasant fairways."

Clarke knows about match-play. In 1990, his last year as an amateur, he set standards which we haven't witnessed since, even from Rory McIlroy. Following an early-season triumph in the Spanish Amateur Championship, the Dungannon native dominated home terrain that summer, winning 19 consecutive matches - six en route to victory in the North of Ireland at Portrush, another six when winning the Irish Close at Baltray, and, in between, a triumphant run of seven in the South of Ireland at Lahinch. All in the space of less than six weeks.

Ten years later, as a two-time Ryder Cup representative, he became the first Irish winner of the Accenture World Match Play at La Costa, where he outclassed top-quality opponents in Paul Azinger, Mark O'Meara, Thomas Bjorn, Hal Sutton and David Duval, before beating Tiger Woods by 4 and 3 in the 36-hole final. And that at a time when El Tigre was at the peak of his formidable powers.

Meanwhile, memory remains vivid of the scene in the media centre at Portmarnock during Irish Open weekend in late-August 1979, when Smyth and Peter Oosterhuis were announced as Europe's first Ryder Cup wild-cards for the matches at The Greenbrier, West Virginia, three week later. It was a huge disappointment, however, when Christy O'Connor Jnr, from 10th position in the final table, was overlooked as a wild-card for the 1985 team, leaving Ireland with no representative in that historic breakthrough.

Skipper Jacklin insisted that there was no question of making things up to O'Connor by giving him the nod in 1989. "There was a lot of talk about the fact that Christy was passed over [in 1985], but I believe my choice of Jose Rivero was vindicated by subsequent events," he said. "I'm very happy that Christy has got in this time."

Two years later, there was an even bigger rumpus when Eamonn Darcy opted out of the final qualifying event on the assumption that he was safely in the team for Kiawah Island. He was overtaken, however, by England's David Gilford who finished a miserly £58 ahead of him. Darcy later claimed that the captain, Bernard Gallacher, had promised him a wild-card if things went wrong. In the event, Mark James got the spot. And Europe lost.

As it happened, other ill-conceived wild-cards also tended to be costly. Like when James, as the 1999 captain, approached Faldo in a Munich hotel after the third round of the final qualifying event. On that fateful Saturday evening, he is alleged to have informed the 11-time representative: "Even if you win the tournament this weekend, you are unlikely to get a pick."

Which stirred in Faldo the bitter thought: "I hope he's got some more motivating lines for the actual team." In the event, Europe's most successful player finished with a 67 in Munich but Andrew Coltart got the nod though the choice should probably have been Bernhard Langer, who was 14th in the qualifying table.

Brookline will be recalled as the setting where James notoriously binned a good-luck note from Faldo as further evidence of an old score settled.

One imagines Clarke being a lot more tactful, especially at this stage of his golfing life. But his long-time friendship with Westwood poses an obvious difficulty, not least in view of the Englishman's decidedly moderate form since being tied second behind Danny Willett in last April's US Masters.

An enduring image from the 1995 matches at Oak Hill, is of Curtis Strange, a controversial pick by his good friend Lanny Wadkins, sitting dejectedly, head bowed and left hand covering his face, as the US team applauded Europe's triumph. At the scene of his 1989 US Open triumph, Strange had lost a crucial singles to Faldo.

Having squandered a one-hole lead with bogeys on the last three, he stared blankly into nothingness, consumed with despair. Then, contemplating the public's reaction to his failure, he mused: "It's a frightening thought what I'll face tomorrow."

By that stage, the Ryder Cup had become very different from the social gathering Jack Nicklaus imagined it should be, even after his suggestion of broadening the British and Irish concept to embrace the whole of Europe, was adopted. Such high-minded ideals bordered on the naïve, especially in the context of a side fired with intense rivalry by Seve Ballesteros.

Either way, this was the Nicklaus view prior to the 1989 matches: "Suddenly it's a confrontation. There's nothing wrong with competition in the matches. I think that's great. And the European dimension has made it a fairly equal competition.

"But the thing I fear is that it will lose the reason it came into existence - to promote goodwill. It's just a good event. Maybe I'm a traditionalist but I think the Ryder Cup is part of the foundation of this game and that it doesn't really matter who wins."

Regarding the decision to go European, Peter Alliss said: "I understand why it was done and I accepted the will of the majority when they won the vote. But the decision went absolutely against the spirit of the Deed under which the Ryder Cup was established. It was about honour - the ultimate honour of playing for your country - and not for money. Now it's about money. I find that rather sad."

Nicklaus and Alliss were talking of another world, which no longer exists.

When it comes to serving golf and mammon, nobody does it better than the European Tour in their promotion of a fiercely competitive Ryder Cup with the capacity to generate serious loot.

And Clarke's function is to secure the future of this biennial money-spinner, just like Paul McGinley did before him.

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