THERE’S just no getting away from the Ryder Cup. Four days after Europe’s “Glory at Gleneagles”, it was a common thread at the top of the leaderboard in the first round of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and a topic of conversation – albeit a short one – with Darren Clarke, too.
Hot on the heels of Paul McGinley leading Europe to an eighth win in ten matches against the Americans and then ruling himself out of contention for a second stint, Clarke has emerged as strong favourite to take the job for the next episode at Hazeltine in two years’ time.
Rory McIlroy, Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood have all thrown their weight behind Clarke as captain in Minnesota, with the job of choosing that person lying in the hands of McGinley, his two predecessors, Colin Montgomerie and Jose Maria Olazabal, European Tour chief executive George O’Grady and a representative of the tournament committee.
After signing for a one-under-par 71 at St Andrews, Clarke was reluctant to talk about his name being linked with the captaincy, insisting this was a time for Europe to be basking in the glory of a 16½-11½ triumph in Perthshire rather than speculating about the next captain. Nonetheless, he said enough to indicate that he’d jump at the chance if the post was offered to him, a decision likely to be made during the European Tour’s Middle East Swing early next year.
“Let’s not go that route, guys,” said the 2011 Open champion when asked about the coveted captaincy, for which he seemed a contender at Gleneagles until it became pretty obvious that McGinley, having been groomed for the job through Seve Trophies and as a vice-captain, was likely to get the nod.
“It’s not up to me to discuss it. It’s up to the committee,” added Clarke. “Whilst I would be delighted to be offered the post, it’s the committee’s decision. An awful lot has been made about it, but we should be celebrating how well Paul and his team did without all this stuff going on. The committee’s there to decide who is the best man for the job.”
While Clarke’s relationship with McGinley was soured over events surrounding the Gleneagles captaincy, McGinley has vowed to be “professional” in his involvement in the aforementioned process, which, in truth, will probably only involve two others – Thomas Bjorn and Miguel Angel Jimenez – as contenders.
Having had his eyes opened as one of McGinley’s five captains at Gleneagles, Padraig Harrington reckons he needs to experience captaincy first in either the Seve Trophy or Eur- Asia Cup, so he’s unlikely to be in the frame until the 2018 match in France.
“I loved it, but it’s much harder than you think,” said the three-times major winner after turning back the clock with a six-under-par 66 at Carnoustie, where, of course, he won the Open Championship in 2007.
“I have pages of notes from last week to remind myself in the future and I’d like to try it out at the Seve Trophy. I think that’s a good idea because there’s a lot of work involved in that Ryder Cup and there’s only one chance so you’d better do a good job if you get that chance. So you have to make sure you are ready for it.”
Harrington hasn’t won since the 2008 US PGA Championship. He’s slipped to 324th in the world rankings and sits 104th in this season’s Race to Dubai. None of those statistics bore much relevance yesterday as the 43-year-old reeled off five birdies in the first six holes before moving to eight-under with an eagle-3 at the 14th. Dropped shots at the last two holes denied him joining Englishman Oliver Wilson in earning a share of the course record, but Harrington was still encouraged by his day’s work.
“My game hasn’t been very good, but I turned the corner a few weeks ago,” said the winner of this event in 2002. “Since I put a new Wilson putter in the bag I’ve been much more relaxed on the greens.” The current world rankings don’t concern him. “Why would you look at that?” he asked in reply to it being pointed out that he was outside the top 300. “You never look when you’re going backwards.”
His goal is to climb back into the top 15 in time to be involved when golf makes its long-awaited return to the Olympics in Brazil in 2016. “You wouldn’t believe what I believe in my head,” he said. “I think I’m better than ever, so watch this space. I’d just love to be an Olympic athlete, it would be very special. That’s where I’m focussed and I’ve got two years to do that. It makes no difference where I am in the world now because I’ve got 21 months of results counting from here on. So I’m starting at zero and working my way up.”
That’s what Wilson is trying to do, too. Since playing in the 2008 Ryder Cup at Valhalla, his career has hit the skids, slipping to 792nd in the world. Playing here on an invitation, the 34-year-old signed for nine birdies as he joined two Scots, Alan Tait and Colin Montgomerie, in sharing the Carnoustie course record on a day when the Angus course, for once, provided the lowest scoring among the three host venues.
One player unable to take advantage of a favourable draw – today’s weather could turn frisky – was world No 1 McIlroy. “After the crowds we were playing in front of last week, it was a little flat and quiet out there,” said the Ryder Cup man after his peaceful one-over-par 73.