Brian Keogh in Tucson
When Colin Montgomerie blanked Nick Faldo during last year’s ill-fated Seve Trophy at The Heritage, even the most sanguine of optimists would have had a hard time envisioning that oddest of odd couples popping the champagne corks on the 18th green at Valhalla in celebration of another European Ryder Cup victory.
The biennial clash is still seven months away yet Montgomerie’s chances of bear-hugging Faldo in Kentucky are looking slightly rosier again in the light of his heroics in Arizona.
Having downed Americans Jim Furyk and Charles Howell III in successive rounds, Faldo took due note of the 44-year-old Scot, who was one of 19 European players to attend an informal Ryder Cup meeting in a Tucson hotel last Tuesday night.
But the six-time major winner was at pains to point out that with up to 24 players bidding for just 10 automatic places on his team, Montgomerie will have to sweat and jostle for his place just like the rest.
“There is a long way to go but the best thing is we've got at least 24 guys going for 12 spots, so no-one can back their way into this team,” Faldo said at Dove Mountain’s Gallery Golf Club. “It is going to be really competitive and they have their own fierce battle just to make the team. The depth in Europe stronger than ever, it's really impressive right now.”
Padraig Harrington has predicted that the side could contain as many as six rookies and the 36-year-old Dubliner was dismayed to discover that he was the fourth oldest player at a 90-minute get-together where just two bottles of wine were consumed.
“Me and Jimenez were the only ones drinking,” said Faldo with a grin. “The European Tour got away mega-light in terms of budget. Wouldn't have happened ten years ago, they're all drinking water now. Guys understand diet is part of the whole performance thing.”
As performances go, Montgomerie has dusted off something from the vintage rack this week, sending a clear message to Faldo that when it comes to matchplay, he hasn’t lost his happy knack of stuffing top American players.
Just three of that 19 -strong European contingent made it through to last night’s third round, but Montgomerie was still there with Paul Casey and Henrik Stenson and Faldo was looking forward to watching him take on Harrington’s nemesis Stewart Cink in a game with a true Ryder Cup feel.
“With this event offering so many points it offers a great opportunity for the three to gain a huge chunk of points for making the team,” Faldo said. “Monty was very good against Howell, as we all know he loves match play, and he has a great chance now to gain a big leap on the rest of the guys. Keep going and he has a chance to make life easy for himself for the rest of the season.”
Faldo took notice of the yardage of putts holed by Montgomerie in the first two rounds but pointed out that it was “way too early with regard to considering him for a pick.”
“I'll be looking for two players who suit the team, who suit Valhalla, who are on in their games, short games, putting and so on,” said Faldo, who is not play the Masters this year. “It's much too hard for me now. But I will still be at all the majors, so I will have a close-up of what is going on.
“There's going to be a sweat line, isn't there, from eight to 15 who are going to jostling. Some going in some going out, and that's what I'll review. I might pick two on the bubble or use other things to decide my picks.”
Montgomerie knows that Faldo is under huge pressure to produce another big European Ryder Cup performance and badly wants to play his part.
“I think we all accept that Nick is in a very difficult position,” said Montgomerie, who has had a car waiting to take him to Phoenix airport each evening and been delighted to postpone the trip. “The last two teams won by record margins, and how on earth do you follow that? We have seen Paul Azinger basically rip up the rule book regarding the American captaincy and start again, so we know how keen he is to change what has been going on.
“Nick's doing everything he can. He spoke briefly to most players individually and addressed us all for a few minutes. I wouldn't have said he was trying to gee us up or anything like that. He knows we don't need geeing up for the Ryder Cup. If we did there would be something wrong.”