Europe can win Scot-free
SEVEN DAYS from now, Nick Faldo will complete the first-ever tartan-free European Ryder Cup side when, ironically enough at Gleneagles, the six-time major champion will add his two captain's picks to the 10 automatic qualifiers who will defend the trophy against the Americans at Valhalla next month. Perhaps just as depressingly, this will be the first team from this end of the Atlantic to line up for the biennial battle devoid of a Caledonian presence since 1937.
Of course, such a sad state of affairs has been coming for a while. In this admittedly still-young century, Scotland has contributed but one man to golf's most pressure-packed event. Indeed, since Great Britain & Ireland morphed into Europe back in 1979, only nine Scots have played for their continent. And now, with the ageing Colin Montgomerie seemingly in free-fall, we are devoid of golfers good enough to take on an American side that looks mediocre at best.
The more optimistic will take refuge in the notion that the steadily improving Alastair Forsyth is a likely contender for 2010 at Celtic Manor, or that young guns like Richie Ramsay – a recent winner on the Challenge Tour – and Marc Warren (sadly off-form this year) will step up two years hence. But, Forsyth apart, these are true long shots. At least for the moment, Scottish golf is all but becalmed at the highest level.
None of which, one imagines, will bother Faldo even a little bit. The breakdown of his side by nationality is hardly a factor worth fretting about. Over the past 15 years or so, a feature of the various European teams that have so dominated their opponents – one defeat since 1993 – has been their sense of togetherness. With cosmopolitan has come competitiveness.
For all that, as things stand the two men likely to occupy Faldo's well-padded envelope are both compatriots of his: Paul Casey and Ian Poulter. Of those currently outside the all-important top-ten, the two Englishmen have the most going for them.
Casey, given that he wasn't going through a burst of Monty-like form – and he isn't – was always going to be worth a captain's punt. Long off the tee and prone to making strings of birdies at moments least convenient to opponents, the 31-year old from Weybridge was one of the relatively unsung stars of the last matches at the K Club. His hole-in-one at the short 14th on the second day garnered the headlines, but his play in the singles was far more impressive. Against one of the toughest men on either side, Jim Furyk, Casey dipped under par eight times in 17 holes to see off a game adversary.
Poulter also showed the world something special at Royal Birkdale this past July. Although Padraig Harrington's eventual Open victory, courtesy of his exquisite play down the stretch, was comfortable enough, the putt Poulter made on the 18th was more than impressive. Thinking he had to make it to have a chance of winning the biggest prize in world golf, the 32-year-old from Hitchin knocked it in. For all his technical limitations, Poulter has heart, buckets of it.
Still, there is no guarantee that things will stay as they are. With the last two places in the side so closely contested, the likes of Soren Hansen and Oliver Wilson are more than vulnerable to late bursts from Martin Kaymer, Nick Dougherty, Ross Fisher or even the relatively unsung Soren Kjeldsen (whose record at Gleneagles will offer the Dane encouragement). But, let's be honest, these men are basically interchangeable parts. Perm any two from that group of six and it would make only a negligible difference to the overall quality of the side.
Which brings us to the two X-factors, Montgomerie and Darren Clarke. Both (especially Monty) have more than acceptable Ryder Cup records, but neither has played at anything like his best over the 12-month qualifying period. And working against their chances is the fact that more qualified individuals – see above – need nods of approval from Faldo.
Monty first. It is hard to find any real reason other than sentiment to back the 45-year-old for a captain's pick. Yes, he has played some truly great golf in European colours since his debut in 1991. Yes, he has inspirational qualities that add an intangible thrust to his impressive statistics. Yes, he has that unbeaten record in eight previous singles matches.
But the fact is that Monty hasn't played well enough to make the Walker Cup side this year, never mind the Ryder Cup. And his putting, relative to those he is attempting to beat every week, is awful. It is a truism of Ryder Cup selection that you never pick bad putters and Monty is a bad putter getting worse rather than better. To select him now would be both an enormous risk and a huge insult to those who have so out-classed him during the qualifying period.
Clarke has more of a chance of making his sixth Ryder Cup appearance at Valhalla, but only if Casey or Poulter play their way on to the team before next Sunday evening and the big Ulsterman shows any sort or form. Shorn of Monty, the side perhaps needs a big personality in the team room and Clarke amply fills that role.
The best news, however, is that none of it should matter. Not since, oh, 2006, has the European side looked so markedly superior to the team it will have to beat. That proud recent record looks set to continue, Monty or no Monty, Scot or no Scot.
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Tuesday 18 June 2013
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