Darren Clarke between a rookie and a hard place

Darren Clarke, right, and European Tour communications director Scott Crockett chat with Clarkes third wildcard pick, Thomas Pieters, via video link during a press conference at Wentworth Golf Club. Picture: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

Darren Clarke, right, and European Tour communications director Scott Crockett chat with Clarkes third wildcard pick, Thomas Pieters, via video link during a press conference at Wentworth Golf Club. Picture: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

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The Ryder Cup has turned into a numbers game – or so it seems. The Americans have launched a campaign aimed at making their fans a “13th Man” at Hazeltine while Darren Clarke is hoping the “15th Club” can help Europe come out on top in Minnesota.

The latter is an English-based data company that Clarke has been using to compile the statistics in bidding to claim an unprecedented fourth European victory in a row, with his options for possible pairings, now 12 positions in the team have been filled, becoming clearer.

“I’ve been scribbling pairings for a year and a half,” said Clarke, speaking at Wentworth last week, after adding Martin Kaymer, Thomas Pieters and Lee Westwood as wild cards to the nine automatic qualifiers, namely Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Danny Willett, Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia, Rafa Cabrera Bello, Chris Wood, Andy Sullivan and Matt Fitzpatrick.

“Now I have got some names that I need to rub out and change bits and pieces.”

Having won all three matches they played together at Gleneagles two years ago, it would seem that Open champion Stenson and Olympic gold medallist Rose are one obvious pairing, though having six rookies in the team means Clarke will have to use his experienced players wisely on the opening two days.

He said: “Myself and the vice captains (Thomas Bjorn, Padraig Harrington, Paul Lawrie, Ian Poulter and Sam Torrance) have had a WhatsApp group the last two or three months and we are a long way down the line. We will gladly take on board the information from my stats people but as a guide, not a definitive direction. We will make the decision on our gut feelings, as well as the information we have.”

The Ulsterman said it would be a “big call” to put two rookies together but isn’t ruling out that possibility, especially when one of those newcomers is Danny Willett, the current Masters champion.

He said: “I’m not going to sit here and say ‘No, I won’t play them together’ because I may be forced into doing it. Ideally, it’s not a scenario you would want to find yourself in but, with half the team made up of rookies, that may well be something that we have got to look at. If it is the case, I have a massive amount of belief in the rookies we have. I would have confidence in them going out there and getting a point.”

There can be no denying that, based on the strength of the fields they beat to record the victories that put both of them in contention, Russell Knox had a more justifiable claim for the last of those wild cards than Thomas Pieters.

Clarke used a football analogy to justify his decision to go for the young Belgian, though, and believes it can help him come up with the same winning formula as Colin Montgomerie, Jose Maria Olazabal and Paul McGinley in the last two matches.

“Making picks is not just about stats,” he insisted. “Form is important, but it’s about the whole team dynamic, what goes on behind the scenes. It’s not straightforward. If that was the case, you would go straight down off the world rankings. That’s not the European way. That’s not what we do. It’s about a mixture of things. My thoughts on potential pairings with all my vice-captains and that sort of stuff, I consulted with lots of previous Ryder Cup captains to try and gain a little bit more of an insight and to see what they were thinking of whenever they were making picks, in case I was doing anything that might not have fitted in. But every one of them were 100 per cent behind me and very, very helpful. Their thoughts on their picks were exactly the same as mine.

“The playing bit is important, but you need more. If if was just the playing bit, would you have Real Madrid or whoever having the 11 best players in the world, Manchester United having the 11 best? Playing as a team is important and the European team ethos is what has enabled us to be as successful as we have and that’s what I’m trying to do. It’s going to be something totally different (for the rookies), but the experienced guys will do what we do in the European way by looking after the first-time guys.”

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