Darren Clarke named Martin Kaymer, Lee Westwood and Thomas Pieters as his three captain’s picks at Wentworth yesterday, signalling the start of open season on Ryder Cup captains on both side of the pond.
As the second guessing began, it took some simple logic from Pádraig Harrington to explain why Clarke did what he did rather than baldly picking the top 12 Europeans.
"I think people get very confused when they look at captain's picks and they think that the 12 best players should be picked for the team," Harrington told Newstalk's Off the Ball.
"Well, if that was the case, we'd have no selections, we'd just have a pure order of merit,"
Harrington, added that it was about finding a blend of players that dovetail well, not a list of 12 qualifiers.
Of the top 12 (available) European players in the world rankings, nine made the team. Paul Casey was unavailable.
Perhaps only Shane Lowry and Alex Noren should be asking themselves which they didn't qualify on merit.
Top European players in the Official World Golf Ranking this week (in bold, qualified for team, bold italics, picked):
- Henrik Stenson
- Rory McIlroy
- Justin Rose
- Danny Willett
- Sergio Garcia
- Russell Knox
- Rafael Cabrera Bello
- Chris Wood
- Paul Casey *unavailable
- Shane Lowry
- Alex Noren
- Thomas Pieters
- Andy Sullivan
- Soren Kjeldsen
- Lee Westwood
- Matthew Fitzpatrick
- Martin Kaymer
- David Lingmerth
- Tyrrell Hatton
- Francesco Molinari
- Bernd Wiesberger
- Luke Donald
- Joost Luiten
- Graeme McDowell
- Thorbjorn Olesen
While Clarke's opposite number Davis Love III will stagger the addition of his four picks over the next month, Clarke now has to live with his decision to pick the winless but experienced pair of Westwood and Kaymer over two-time PGA Tour winner and world No 20 Russell Knox.
The Ulsterman explained that while Luke Donald and Graeme McDowell were considered at one stage, Pieters got the nod by a hair thanks to his spectacular play recently.
Clarke was already smitten by the Belgian after witnessing his opening 62 in Denmark — "without holing anything" — at close quarters.
The trio join Rafa Cabrera Bello, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Sergio Garcia, Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson, Andy Sullivan, Danny Willett and Chris Wood in Clarke’s 12-man line up to face Love III’s United States team, as Europe seeks a record fourth consecutive victory from September 30-October 2.
Englishman Westwood will make his tenth appearance in the biennial contest, joining Christy O’Connor Snr and Bernhard Langer on that mark, just one behind Sir Nick Faldo’s European appearance record.
Germany’s Kaymer will also be aiming to extend his unblemished record in Minnesota after featuring in each of the last three European victories.
Clarke said: “In Lee and Martin, I've got two former World Number Ones and guys who bring a wealth of experience to the team. It's just not about playing, it's about the dynamic of the team room and that's involved in it.
“And then I've always been a huge Thomas Pieters fan from when I first witnessed how he hits the golf ball and how he plays. The manner which he's played golf these past few tournaments - fourth in the Olympics, to go to the Czech Masters and get beaten with a birdie on last green; and then last week to do what he did, to birdie the last three holes to win the tournament in the fashion that he did – that just impressed me so much that I found it impossible to leave him off the team.”
Gutted not to be on the @RyderCupEurope team but can't argue with the captains picks. Look forward to cheering on the lads in a few weeks.— Shane Lowry (@ShaneLowryGolf) August 30, 2016
Since making his debut in the 1997 contest at Valderrama, Westwood has been an ever-present in the Ryder Cup, having played a part in seven winning European teams during that period. The 43 year old has contributed 23 points to Europe’s cause, winning 20 of his 41 matches, and requires just two points at Hazeltine National to equal Faldo’s Ryder Cup record haul of 25 points.
Westwood said “I’m incredibly proud. When I look back over my career, The Ryder Cup has provided most of the very special moments and it is something that I love looking back on. Darren knows first- hand what I can do in The Ryder Cup and what I can bring. It was great to get the call yesterday and get a pick. Darren and I are very close and I didn't want to have to put him in a position to pick me - I would have liked to have played my way on – but obviously I was very relieved and thrilled at the same time to get the pick.”
Like Westwood, Kaymer has an impressive Ryder Cup pedigree, and he played a hugely significant role at Medinah in 2012 when the biennial contest was last played on American soil, famously securing the point which ensured Europe retained The Ryder Cup.
The 31 year old, who had contributed 2½ points from four matches in his debut in Wales in 2010, holed a nerve-testing eight foot putt to win his singles match against Steve Stricker and complete one of the most famous comebacks in Ryder Cup history. He then contributed two points from four matches at Gleneagles two years ago, including an impressive 4 and 2 singles victory over Bubba Watson, as Europe retained the trophy.
Kaymer said: “I had two goals this year, the Olympic Games and making The Ryder Cup team. Fortunately Darren helped me with one, and the other one I did on my own.
“It is a relief, but now the time starts again to prepare for the biggest event in our sport. I'm really excited because it gives you a little bit of motivation again, even though it's almost the end of the year, because it's still a massive highlight coming up, especially playing in America.
“It was a short phone call with Darren but I was just very glad for the words he chose, which were very nice. I can promise that I will play with everything that I have because it means a lot to me.”
The experienced pair will be joined by Pieters, who becomes just the second Belgian after Nicolas Colsaerts to represent Europe in The Ryder Cup. Colsaerts was also a captain’s pick on American soil at Medinah four years ago, making a stunning debut alongside Westwood in the fourballs, firing eight birdies and an eagle to defeat Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker, and Pieters, who finished 11th on the World Points List, will be looking to make a similar impact as one of six rookies in Clarke’s team.
After winning twice in 2015, at the D+D REAL Czech Masters and KLM Open, the latter at the start of the Ryder Cup qualification campaign, Pieters ended the points race in impressive fashion, finishing fourth in the Olympic Games before coming runner-up in his defence in the Czech Republic and then going one better for this third European Tour title last week in Denmark.
Pieters said: “The last couple of days have been a little bit crazy, especially closing out the tournament like I did on Sunday, I was just really proud of myself winning another tournament - you try to win tournaments every week and to do it at that point, with a little bit of pressure on me, was very satisfying.
“Getting into The Ryder Cup was a huge motivating factor but I wasn't telling anybody and I was just keeping it to myself because that's the kind of guy I am. I just like to let the golf do the talking. I've been playing well for a while, but the results just weren't there, so I just had to step it up a little bit at the end.
“I can't wait to actually tee it up and give it a 110 per cent and earn points. It feels pretty cool to be in the team. It has sunk in and I just can't wait to get on that plane and be with the team the whole week.”
Knox is understandably devastated, telling Jock MacVicar in the Scottish Daily Express: “I’ve never wanted to prove someone wrong so badly in my life.
“It’s not sour grapes. Darren had an extremely difficult decision and all of those three guys were worthy of a pick. But when Darren called me, it was obvious within one second that it wasn’t going to be good news.
“It was a very short phone call. I didn’t feel like I needed to ask any questions or give my opinion on anything. It was obvious he had made up his mind, and that was final.
“I have to use this as a springboard to try to win the FedEx Cup.”
There has been comment in some places that Knox's decision not to take the advice of Clarke and vice-captain Thomas Bjorn and play in the Wyndham Championship, and potentially qualify on merit, was part of the reason for his exclusion.
Clarke revealed it came down to Pieters or Knox, as neither Luke Donald nor Graeme McDowell had shown enough form in recent months. Knox was told he had missed out on Monday night.
"It was a really difficult phone call for me to make,” Clarke confessed. “It certainly was the hardest part of the job I’ve had to deal with so far.
“I know how disappointing it would be. In 2008 I won two weeks before the qualifying finished before the team was announced for Valhalla. It was my second win of the year and I didn’t get a pick.
“Some will say Thomas deserved the pick. Others will say Russell did. But, as captain, I have to make that call, and I believe Pieters just did it by a hair.”
Before making his final choice, Clarke revealed he spoke at length on Monday night with his five vice-captains – Thomas Bjorn, Sam Torrance, Paul Lawrie, Padraig Harrington and Ian Poulter.
He said: “The discussion was long and thorough. We all came out with the agreement that Thomas merited the final pick.”
The six had a WhatsApp group during the qualifying process.
Last week, Knox gave an interview to Golf Digest, written by Scottish golf writer John Huggan, that BBC Scotland's Tom English felt could have been key as he contained quotes that might have been interpreted by Clarke as arrogant.
“As I said to someone recently, my big problem was not getting the points for winning in China,” he admitted. “I’d be in if they counted. So there is a moral obligation to pick me, I guess. I don’t want Darren to pick me because of that though. His goal is to pick the three best players who did not make the team. And I have a hard time not thinking I am one of those right now.
"What I also have going against me is that I am maybe not super-close with a lot of guys on the team. But if all he does is list those he thinks are playing the best right now, I don’t know how I can’t be in the top 12. I know people are assuming I am the third of the three picks if he goes for Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer. But I should really be the first."
Vice-captain Harrington explained on Newstalk yesterday that Clarke's objective was not "to pick the three best players who did not make the team."
And he also discussed the mindset when picking a Ryder Cup team.
"I think people get very confused when they look at captain's picks and they think that the 12 best players should be picked for the team Well, if that was the case, we'd have no selections, we'd just have a pure order of merit," Harrington said, adding that it was about finding a blend of players that dovetail.
McIlroy will be the only Irish player in the team and neither Graeme McDowell nor Shane Lowry had any complaints given that neither has shown Ryder Cup form recently.
Lowry tweeted: "Gutted not to be on the @RyderCupEurope team but can't argue with the captain's picks. Look forward to cheering on the lads in a few weeks."
McDowell wrote: "Gutted not to be part of @DarrenClarke60's @RyderCupEurope. Simply have not put up the numbers. Massive congrats to picks esp. @Thomas_Pieters. No one will be pulling harder for #TeamEurope than me and sitting out will give me the drive and motivation I need to play more @rydercup"
Addressing Lowry's absence — something that seemed unthinkable when he hd a four shot lead going into the final round of the US Open — Harrington said the Offaly man would have been picked if the team was picked the Monday after his runner up finish at Oakmont, adding he was "comfortably good enough to be playing in the Ryder Cup."
Speaking to Newstalk's Off The Ball, Harrington re-iterated a point made by Paul McGinley at the start of the season about Lowry's decision to play both tours and the challenges that would present.
"He's made a choice to go to the States which means he get caught between two stools - he's not on one tour and he's playing new golf courses in the States.
"If it was Shane that turned up in Denmark and if it was him who was winning the tournament and not Thomas Pieters, he would have forced his way into the team at the end of it.
"If the team was picked in June after the US Open, of course Shane would have been picked."
Harrington added: "You've got to say Thomas Pieters forced his way into the team. He's potentially a world No 1 player. This is a big star for the future.
"The rest of the team are clamouring to partner up in foursomes and fourball. Put it like that. Everybody wants to play with Thomas Pieters. This is a guy who's going to win points for other guys."