IT WASN’T tokenism. And it certainly wasn’t an old pals’ act. Stephen Gallacher was handed one of Paul McGinley’s wild cards for the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles for one reason – because he had earned it.
“I’ve not done Stevie a favour; he did himself a favour,” said the Irishman after picking the Scot along with two Englishmen, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood, to complement his nine automatic qualifiers for this month’s match in Perthshire.
It came as no surprise that Poulter had been the first name on McGinley’s list, the European captain admitting he was unconcerned about his less than dazzling form in the final few weeks of the year-long qualifying campaign.
“Poulter is always buoyant and up for the challenge and his performances in the Ryder Cup have been huge,” said McGinley. “He’s never usually shown a lot of form going into Ryder Cups in the past, so I wasn’t that perturbed about not seeing a lot of form from him.”
That McGinley admitted Gallacher had been the “second easiest decision” for him among those to get the nod from him, along with vice-captains Sam Torrance and Des Smyth during their deliberations at Queenwood Golf Club on Monday, sent out the strongest message of all as far as the selection of the Bathgate man was concerned.
In an interview with this correspondent during last month’s US PGA Championship at Valhalla, McGinley hinted that the “odds were against” Gallacher making his team – and that was before the three-times European Tour winner missed the cut in Kentucky then followed it with another early exit from the Wyndham Championship the following week.
In fairness, McGinley could not be blamed for offering such an opinion at that time – and all credit to him for being honest – because the players Gallacher was vying with for the wild cards were tried-and-tested Ryder Cup men in Luke Donald, Westwood, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Francesco Molinari.
Even after Gallacher bounced back from those missed cuts to finish joint-seventh as Welshman Jamie Donaldson won the Czech Masters to secure automatic qualification, he was probably still short of the mark in what he needed to show McGinley to be picked ahead of those four individuals.
The pendulum started to swing the 39-year-old’s way, though, last Friday afternoon – the day he showed the world just how much he wanted to play in the Ryder Cup and, even more so, one on home soil.
In the various interviews he conducted at Wentworth yesterday, McGinley spoke more about Gallacher’s performance in the Italian Open than anything else – and that included Poulter’s inspirational performance that set up Europe’s record-equalling last-day fightback at Medinah two years ago.
Needing to finish in the top two in Turin to take the last automatic spot from Graeme McDowell, Gallacher started out his second round 15 shots off the lead and was actually outside the cut at one point. An early exit and it was game over.
To come home in 30, an effort that not only secured his place at the weekend but dragged him back into the tournament, was some effort, as was the closing 65 – it included a front nine of 30 – that would have secured second spot for Gallacher but for a closing 63 by David Howell.
“His performance last week under massive pressure is deserving of massive credit, particularly on Friday afternoon,” admitted McGinley, who had been in a similar position himself in the final counting event in 2004 and managed to hold off Swede Freddie Jacobson for one of the automatic spots for Oakland Hills in Detroit.
“To go out after looking at the leaderboard and see first is 15-under-par and 12-under-par second (Gallacher was level-par), you think ‘my god what a deficit to claw back’, but he did and all credit to him. He pushed himself over the line. He deserves a spot in this team and should be very proud of what he’s done.”
Much had been made of McGinley being big on stats and there probably wasn’t a day in the qualifying campaign that he didn’t have tabs on one player or another. No-one needed to remind him, either, that Gallacher has an outstanding record on the PGA Centenary Course, stage for Scotland’s first Ryder Cup in more than 40 years. In the end, though, he admitted his picks had come down to gut instinct.
“I am a great believer in horses for courses and the examination paper Gleneagles poses – it’s very different from the one Medinah posed – and, Stephen, who we’ve always known how strong a player he is, has a great record around Gleneagles, which is important, too,” said McGinley. “It (having a Scot in the team) also gives the team that little extra and it will galvanise the crowd. That was important, but it was a small percentage when it came to our decision-making.
“But I’m not picking him for that and I’m not picking him because he’s Scottish. The biggest factor was Stevie stepping up to the plate. More than anything else was his ability to stand up when it mattered in the last counting event, to produce the performance that he did. He shot the second best score on Sunday, 65, next to David Howell doing his heroics, holing every putt and pipping Stevie by one shot.
“To do that under extreme pressure is something I can relate to back to 2004. I know how I felt, how my stomach was. I couldn’t sleep at night. I know how much it meant to be on that team so all credit to him – he’s on the team on merit.”
Gallacher will be one of three European Ryder Cup rookies at Gleneagles, the others being Donaldson and Frenchman Victor Dubuisson. McGinley is confident all three can handle the event’s pressure-cooker atmosphere, pointing to last week in Gallacher’s case.
“Based on what he did in Italy, he’s going to be able to handle Gleneagles,” insisted the captain. “Thirty five miles up the road from his home, he’s going to stand there and hear everybody cheering him from the host country. He’ll feel proud and so he should.”