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Monty the dark horse in Ryder Cup race full of intrigue

Colin Montgomerie, Thomas Bjorn, Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley will be at the epicentre of Europe’s Ryder Cup captaincy debate next week. But could another name emerge at the last minute?Europe will almost certainly name its 2014 Ryder Cup captain next week as the European Tour moves to put a man in place and begin the search for sponsors for what could be a challenging staging at Gleneagles.

According to sources close to the European Tour, the powers at Wentworth are keen to delay no longer and get the marketing campaign up and running and appoint the man to do battle with Tom Watson, who the Americans appointed last month as the man best equipped to wrest back the trophy in Scotland in 625 days’ time.

Talk that the decision could be put off for a month is no longer on the agenda but while it appears clear which candidate or candidates will be at the centre of discussions when the Tournament Players Committee sits down in Abu Dubai next Tuesday, no-one is ruling out a surprise.

On the face of it, Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley are the leading contenders with Colin Montgomerie coming up fast on the rails following Clarke’s recent statement that “whoever it is standing on that stage opposite Tom Watson needs a huge presence.”

While he is still the favourite with at least one bookmaker to land the job (the odds continue to change daily, as you can see here), Clarke is playing catch up with McGinley despite muddying the waters with his recent call for a “huge presence” in the shape of Colin Montgomerie.

Clarke’s problem is two-fold. Not only has the majority of the side that won at Medinah expressed a preference for McGinley, the recent changes in the make up of the 15-man committee which will vote on José María Olazábal’s successor do not favour the Ulsterman’s hopes.

It appears to be McGinley’s captaincy to lose but much will depend on the agenda set for the meeting and how seriously the Tour and the Committee views the wisdom of pitting an experienced old hand against five-time Open champion Watson.

Despite his insistence following his successful 2010 captaincy that he would not be back unless it was as a player, Montgomerie appears keen to take the post for a second time if it is offered to him.

According to an agency report by Mark Garrod from this week’s Volvo Golf Champions, the Scot said: “I am excited and honoured and very flattered really that my name’s been put in the frame…

“I’ve always said that we need the best man for the job, whoever that is. And if we’re going for the best man for the job then that doesn’t say you shouldn’t do it again.

“I thought it was between Darren and Paul until Darren said something, then my name was mentioned.

“I’ve never canvassed, as I didn’t last time. I’ve not spoken to anybody about this. But I’ve always felt that if I was asked I would do it and that’s still the case.”

The name of 2004 captain Bernhard Langer has also been mentioned but as Committee Chairman Thomas Bjorn told reporters in South Africa, there is no appetite to make a knee-jerk decision in the light of the Watson appointment.

“I was asked if it was a desperate thing (by the Americans). No, I think it’s pretty good idea by them, but it’s different.

“Yet we seem to be able to win with the system that we have (five of the last six matches have gone Europe’s way). Why should we change it and why should we change our view on who should be captain?

“I don’t want us to react to Tom Watson being their captain. I want us to appoint who we think is the right man for the job.”

Pádraig Harrington has re-doubled his efforts to support the McGinley case in recent weeks, insisting that Montgomerie would be insane if he went for a second captaincy.

“There’s not a chance, after what he went through last time, that Colin would ever take the captaincy again,” Harrington told Reuters last weekend.

Either Harrington doesn’t know Montgomerie (unlikely) or he knows that there is little appetite among European Tour mandarins and players to see the controversial Scot recalled to the helm.

The question, it would appear, is simple.

Does Europe need to choose a “big” name, other than Clarke, to combat the Watson factor - ie Montgomerie?

Or should they choose someone who is regarded by many of the players as simply the best man for the job following two successful Vivendi Seve Trophy captaincies, two successful Ryder Cup vice-captaincies and three Ryder Cup wins from three appearances as a player - ie McGinley?

It’s certainly on the agenda, as Peter Lawrie, one of the new members of the 15-man committee alongside Francesco Molinari, pointed out in the Irish Independent last month.

“What is happening in America (with Watson) has really come out of the blue and maybe we’d need a name, a really big personality, to go up against a name.”

How McGinley’s appointment might affect the succession stakes is also a factor. If he were appointed for 2014, Clarke would become the favourite for 2016. But where would that leave three-time major winner Harrington, who would still only be 45 when the matches go back to America?

A continental European would seem a logical choice for 2018 in Paris with Players Committee Chairman Bjorn, Miguel Angel Jimenez or a Frenchman such as Jean Van de Velde or Thomas Levet potential captains. Harrington could then take over in 2020 at Whistling Straits, where the Irish tricolour flies outside the clubhouse.

Recent media coverage in the UK has certainly been favourable to the McGinley cause.

Writing in The Times this week, (the piece was headlined “The Ryder Cup captaincy mess after Medinah”) golf correspondent Peter Dixon said:

Any talk that Europe need to appoint a captain of the stature of Tom Watson looks like a smokescreen, another way of taking the attention away from McGinley. In truth, such a profile is an irrelevance once play gets under way.

Of the past three captains — big names all — none of Sir Nick Faldo, Colin Montgomerie or Olazábal shone. Faldo was found wanting at almost every level, while it could be argued that the last two, who were fine ambassadors off the course, got lucky on it, so outplayed were their pairings early on.

There is nothing to suggest that McGinley would not make a good captain. In fact the evidence points to the opposite. Clarke, who still has bridges to mend after damning the PGA Centenary Course at Gleneagles — “It’s unbelievable they chose to stage the 2014 Ryder Cup on this course,” he said at the Johnnie Walker Championship in 2007 — seems the perfect choice for the US in 2016, where they appreciate his larger than life, Guinness-drinking persona. Will that make a good captain, however? Time will tell.

It is said that there is more money to be made as captain of a “home” team. In Clarke’s case, however, his desire to do the job sooner rather than later probably lies in the fact that, with his game on the wane, Hazeltine in four years’ time seems an awful long way away. That should not matter. The committee must be true to itself and choose the best man for the job. Nothing less will do.”

His News International colleague, David Walsh, took a similar tack in this The Sunday Times piece just before Christmas:

“If the decision was based on Ryder Cup records, Clarke would be the clear favourite and if one then factored in his playing record, he would move further ahead of his rival. But this is a job that doesn’t have a great deal to do with what a man did during his playing career. Rather it is about leadership, tactical acumen and ability to empathise with a group of the world’s best players.

Two of Europe’s most senior professionals, Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington, believe that Europe would be making a serious mistake if they allowed the selection of Watson to influence the choice of the man who will oppose him.”

Bjorn reiterated that view in Durban this week, pointing out that the European Tour’s chief executive George O’Grady, Director of Tour Operations David Garland and Ryder Cup director Richard Hills will sit down to canvass the views of as many of the 2012 Ryder Cup winning team as possible ahead of the Tuesday meeting in Abu Dhabi:

“With every other issue I know how the Tour is thinking and I sometimes have to guide the committee in the right direction, but on this I can just say (to his fellow players) ‘this is for you to decide’.”

In which direction he will be asked to “guide” the Committee is unknown right now. But given the yards of newsprint dedicated to talk of “vested interests” amongst the committee men, the process must be above all reproach following the embarrassing denouement and talk of a betting coup in early 2009, as Mark Garrod’s story from Durban explains in detail:

As chairman Bjorn will vote only if there is deadlock it may be that a decision is deferred, but if the captain is picked on Tuesday Bjorn says the announcement will be made straightaway.

Four years ago Montgomerie’s name was suddenly put forward by fellow committee member Henrik Stenson and almost before he knew it he had been voted in.

Making that public was delayed, but the word got out and bookmakers reacted accordingly.

“We were asked to keep quiet, but the rumour mill spread and I became 1/50 from 50/1,” Montgomerie recalls.

“Nothing to do with me - I don’t know how to place a bet.”

The Tour was not happy and want no repeat.

Bjorn is also keen to avoid any bitterness.

“Paul and Darren have been two of my best friends on Tour all the years I’ve been out here.

“It’s not easy and I’ve told both of them they’ve just got to go with what happens. It’s for other people to decide. If you miss out it’s because it’s not the right time - if you get appointed it’s because it is the right time.

“We’ve always had the view that it’s an honour to be appointed, but it’s nobody’s right. If you take that view you can’t be upset about it and that’s the attitude you should go in with. No expectations.”

The entire process has all the intrigue of an episode of the Borgias. What one wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall in that Committee room next week. For the record, here’s the list of the 15 men charged with making the decision. How many of them will have to leave the room during the captaincy discussion, is unknown:

  • Thomas Bjorn (chairman)
  • Felipe Aguilar
  • Paul Casey
  • Darren Clarke
  • Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano
  • Joakim Haeggman
  • David Howell
  • Rafael Jacquelin
  • Miguel Angel Jimenez*
  • Peter Lawrie
  • Robert Karlsson
  • Paul McGinley
  • Francesco Molinari
  • Colin Montgomerie
  • Henrik Stenson.

*Jimenez is currently out of action with a broken leg and his presence in Abu Dhabi is doubtful.