IT WAS 26 years ago, having just arrived at a hotel in Llanelli ahead of covering the now defunct British Youths’ Championship, that I first came across the man likely to be appointed today as Europe’s next Ryder Cup captain.
The crowd surrounding him – it included Andrew Coltart, who came close to winning that week at nearby Ashburnham – attracted my attention and, on asking, I was told it was a young Ulsterman called Darren Clarke.
Even then – and not necessarily because he’d enjoyed a scintillating career to that point – you felt there was someone with a big personality in the room. It, coupled with a major title as well as a rich Ryder Cup career, will almost certainly earn Clarke the nod over Miguel Angel Jimenez when a five-man selection panel convenes at Wentworth this morning to pick Europe’s captain for the 2016 match at Hazeltine.
Effectively, it’s down to the three most recent captains – Paul McGinley, Jose Maria Olazabal and Colin Montgomerie – to make that decision. If they all agree on the same man, it won’t matter what either David Howell or George O’Grady have to say. If there’s division in the ranks, Howell, a former Ryder Cup player and appointed to represent the European Tour’s tournament committee, will weigh in with his opinion and, if needed, the casting vote will go to O’Grady, the Tour’s chief executive.
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The latter seems highly unlikely given that most bookmakers are no longer offering odds on Clarke getting the nod, but let’s look at what McGinley, Olazabal and Montgomerie might be thinking about their votes. Of the trio, Olazabal probably faces the biggest dilemma. On the one hand, he’d be keen to side with Jimenez, his fellow Spaniard. On the other, Clarke was one of his vice captains at Medinah in 2012. There’s a chance – perhaps even a strong one – that he’ll be swayed most by the former.
What about Montgomerie? He played on the same winning team as Jimenez in 2004, had him in the side he led to victory in Wales in 2010 and now has the pony-tailed 51-year-old as a fellow Champions/Senior Tour player. However, the Scot labelled Clarke as the “favourite” following last September’s match at Gleneagles, having had him in his backroom team at Celtic Manor after repairing a relationship that had become strained in the wake of the infamous “Jakarta-gate” affair.
That could make it 1-1, which would then make McGinley’s choice pivotal before Howell, who is likely to be in Clarke’s camp given the pair have a long relationship as members of Chubby Chandler’s ISM stable, and O’Grady get involved.
At one point, it would have been a cast-iron certainty that McGinley would back Clarke but not any more. Make no mistake, he was extremely annoyed when Clarke, after withdrawing his own name for the Gleneagles event, then pledged his support for a Montgomerie return.
A chance for revenge then? Tempting, of course. But that’s not McGinley’s style. He did everything with his own captaincy in a professional manner and we can expect exactly the same from him now. It’s about picking the right man for the job. The right man to know exactly what Europe’s formula for success has been in the event lately. The right man to ensure there is no straying from that and not trying to reinvent any wheel.
In fairness, Jimenez wouldn’t be a poor pick. Not at all. Indeed, there has to be strong possibility of him being in the reckoning again for the 2018 match in France, though Padraig Harrington and perhaps even Lee Westwood could be contenders for that one, too.
But, on this occasion, it seems almost inconceivable that Clarke can’t be given the nod, partly because, as was the case with McGinley two years ago, he appears to have player power pulling for him and that, of course, has been such a big part of Europe’s success against the Americans in this encounter.
According to world No 1 Rory McIlroy, Clarke is the “perfect man to lead the team there (in America)” and he’s right, though again Jimenez can now tick that box after raising his profile Stateside with two wins on the Champions Tour.
Whoever gets the nod has a hard act to follow because McGinlay was brilliant. Perhaps even the best Ryder Cup captain there’s ever been. It therefore, requires a big personality and having not seen anything in the intervening period to suggest the opinion I formed more than a quarter of a century ago in South Wales was wrong, Darren Clarke is our man for Hazeltine.