IT WAS elbow room Paul McGinley was looking for when he increased the number of wildcards available to him for the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles from two to three.
“I’ve done that to give myself a little bit of extra flexibility when it comes to making my selections,” said the Irishman at the time. “Hopefully, this will ensure that I have the right players to face the examination paper.”
By sheer definition, the three names McGinley will announce at 12.30pm today at Wentworth are his call, after he spent yesterday talking over things with his two vice-captains, Sam Torrance and Des Smyth.
The scenario facing the European captain, however, is exactly the one he put such a contingency in place to allow him to deal with the proper way, meaning that Stephen Gallacher can feel quietly confident about securing one of those spots.
It was always likely that two of the wildcards would go to experienced Ryder Cup campaigners. Ian Poulter’s name is almost certainly on one of those, having shown in previous appearances in the event, notably the Miracle at Medinah two years ago, that he becomes almost superhuman on this particular stage.
It’s a toss up for the other one between Lee Westwood and Luke Donald, with the former believed to be favoured for that ahead of his compatriot, which can only really be based on his greater experience. But, even more so than a week ago, Gallacher’s credentials to make his Ryder Cup debut are rock-solid.
Having watched Welshman Jamie Donaldson secure his automatic berth in style by winning the Czech Masters, McGinley challenged Gallacher to “burst through the finishing line” himself as he chased the top-two finish required in the Italian Open to take the last spot from Graeme McDowell.
That he failed by a shot, having started out his second round 15 off the lead and was still four off second with a round to go, was just as impressive as Donaldson’s timely effort and also answered one of the concerns some cynics may have had about the 39-year-old with a gun at his head.
They’ve pointed to putting, arguably the aspect more than any other that decides a Ryder Cup, being a weakness in the Bathgate man’s game and, admittedly, there have been times when Gallacher has struggled to get the ball into the hole in his professional career.
Not on Sunday, though, when the heat was on and just as impressive as some of the birdie putts that dropped on the back nine were a handful of par-savers coming home.
With his last throw of the dice, Gallacher jumped up to tenth in the standings – one outside the automatic spots. That guarantees nothing, of course, as evidenced by the fact there has hardly been strong support for Donald, the player previously in that spot in the past week or so. That, however, isn’t the only thing in Gallacher’s favour, which is where McGinley’s “elbow room” comes into play.
Gallacher’s record at Gleneagles, for starters, has to hold even more sway now, especially as it’s quite possibly the best of any European player on any course.
He has claimed seven top 10s on the PGA Centenary Course since 2001. Twelve months ago, playing it with the changes having been made by Jack Nicklaus specifically for the Ryder Cup, he made a play-off in the Johnnie Walker Championship. McGinley, if I remember right, once said he was as a “horses for courses man” and now he’s got the perfect chance to prove that theory can pay dividends.
The message he sends out today could also have ramifications for future qualifying campaigns and, once again, I reckon that’s where he wanted that extra flexibility. Europe could, without question, hold on to the Ryder Cup at the end of the month by adding Donald, Poulter and Westwood to a side that already contains Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose, Martin Kaymer, Sergio Garcia, Victor Dubuisson and Thomas Bjorn, in addition to the aforementioned McDowell and Donaldson.
At a time, however, when there is almost a division between players competing primarily on the European Tour or the PGA Tour, there surely has to be some extra recognition given to the guys chiselling away at the coalface on this side of the Atlantic, where, in the main, the prizes are not as big as they are week in, week out in America.
Sure, Gallacher has played a fair bit himself in the States this season and, no doubt, will continue to do so as long as he remains in the world’s top 50. He came “home” to make his final Ryder Cup push, though, on European soil and you can bet your bottom dollar that a number of his fellow players, not just Scots I hasten to add, will be up in arms if his name isn’t on that team list today.
It’s a tough decision for McGinley, but not as difficult, surely, as it would have been a week ago. Gallacher had a lot more than just the Scottish nation standing up and taking notice of his efforts in Italy and that, of course, is rare in any sporting sphere. The Lothians man put his heart and soul into the year-long qualifying race, conducting himself impeccably in the process. His reward should be forthcoming today, with Poulter and, probably, Westwood the other two picks.
With US captain Tom Watson unveiling his three choices at midnight, another milestone has arrived on the journey towards Scotland staging its first Ryder Cup since 1973.