A GUTSY Stephen Gallacher fell agonisingly short of securing an automatic spot but boosted his chances of earning a wildcard when Paul McGinley, the European captain, puts the finishing touches to his Ryder Cup team at Wentworth tomorrow.
Needing a top-two finish in the Italian Open, the final qualifying event for the European side, the 39-year-old came within a shot of taking the last automatic berth from Irishman Graeme McDowell.
Out in 30, Gallacher held second spot in Turin and went on to close with a bogey-free 65 for a 17-under-par total, having left himself with a mountain to climb after opening with a level-par 72.
His stunning effort proved in vain, however, as Englishman David Howell, having made a sudden thrust with seven birdies in nine holes, signed off with a 63 to pip the Scot for second spot as the pair finished behind South African Hennie Otto.
It meant McDowell held on by his fingernails to join Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Victor Dubuisson, Jamie Donaldson, Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose, Martin Kaymer and Thomas Bjorn, leaving Gallacher to sweat it out for 24 hours as attention turns towards McGinley’s three wild-card picks.
It is widely believed that one of those will go to Ian Poulter, Europe’s new Ryder Cup talisman, with McGinley admitting that two other Englishman, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, were also in the frame along with Gallacher and Italian Francesco Molinari.
“It was a tall order, but I am proud of myself the way I have played,” said Gallacher after securing a second successive top-ten and tenth in total in the year-long qualifying campaign. “It comes down to someone else’s opinion [now]. I wanted to qualify myself just to take that away. There are four or five guys that are worthy [of a pick] so it’s just what Paul sees.”
Six shots behind Otto at the start of the final round at Circolo Golf, Gallacher was a man on a mission as he rolled in putts from 18 feet and 25 feet at the opening two holes then picked up further birdies at the fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth in a remarkable front-nine display.
Coming home, he was only able to make one further gain – at the 12th – but, at the same time, the three-times European Tour winner holed some testing par putts, including the 15th, 16th and 18th, as he battled manfully to get that second spot.
“At the end of the day, I haven’t done enough,” added Gallacher. “We all had the chance at the start of the year and there are nine guys in the team at the moment who have qualified. There are three picks to come and I just hope that I have done enough to get one.
“I was still trying to win the tournament as well and it was strange knowing that second could do it, but I gave it my best shot and I hope Paul likes what he sees.”
As McGinley mulls over his options ahead of an announcement that will be made at 12:30pm at Wentworth tomorrow, it will not escape his notice surely that, in addition to the fact Gallacher came within a whisker of making the team at Gleneagles, the player has also recorded seven top-ten finishes over the PGA Centenary Course at Gleneagles in his last 12 appearances in events at the Perthshire venue.
“Stevie’s performance this week will be strongly in his favour when it comes to making the picks,” admitted McGinley, speaking in Turin after witnessing the dramatic conclusion to the qualifying race. “But there is a lot of emotion here at the moment and we have to put a bit of cold water on that.
“There are a lot of stats to be looked at and a lot of players to be looked at. There is still golf going on in America [both Poulter and Donald are playing in the Deutsche Bank Championship in Boston, where the final round takes place today] which will be influential in terms of the picks as well. So, in the cold light of day, I will sit down with [vice-captains] Des [Smyth] and Sam [Torrance] and assess everything.
“Stevie will look back with huge pride on what he has done today. His performance will have an influence on the picks but, at the same time, he is not guaranteed, there are other players to assess as well. He has a lot of things in his favour but let’s not get carried away, other players do as well. He has put in a terrific performance but I like to assess things in a cold way. There is more to it than just the emotion of Stevie’s performance. I have got to do what is best for Europe.
“In one way, it is great news and Stevie has been unlucky in this regard; this has been the toughest European team to qualify for in terms of the points you have to amass. I will rely on Des and Sam, I am looking forward to hearing their opinions. The toughest part of my job so far is coming in the next 24 hours.”
The two men who pipped Gallacher, albeit it is in different senses, believe the Lothians man should be picked by McGinley. “He certainly made a brilliant effort to grab the last automatic qualifying place and only came up a fraction short,” said McDowell last night. “To me, Stephen is somebody who would bring a lot to a Ryder Cup team. He’s a big hitter, he’s upbeat and a positive personality. As far as rookies go, he wouldn’t be a problem. If I was captain Paul McGinley, I’d be thinking long and hard about putting him on the team. I think he would bring a lot to the dynamic of the side.”
Howell, who joined Gallacher on the Dunhill Links roll of honour after his win at St Andrews last October, added: “It was a supreme effort. If the captain needs any nudge that a player is in form and can play well under pressure, then Stevie has done that this weekend.”