wHAT a script. With one event to go in Europe’s qualifying race for the Ryder Cup, it’s the man who lives less than 40 miles from Gleneagles who has a final chance to get in automatically and avoid giving Paul McGinley the mother of all headaches.
Stephen Gallacher needs to finish in the top two in the Italian Open on Sunday to leapfrog Graeme McDowell and join Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Victor Dubuisson, Jamie Donaldson, Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose, Martin Kaymer and Thomas Bjorn as one of the nine qualifiers for next month’s contest in Perthshire.
Anything less and the last of those coveted spots will go to McDowell, leaving Gallacher having to rely on a wild card in his bid to play in a first Ryder Cup – a special event for his family and home club Bathgate due to past exploits, both as players and captains, by Stephen’s uncle Bernard and Eric Brown.
On some occasions in the past, Gallacher would have done enough already to know he was in, no matter the outcome in Turin this weekend. Two years ago, Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts went into the final event, the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles, in exactly the same position – just outside the automatic berths and needing a top-two finish. He finished 19th behind Paul Lawrie yet still earned a pick, even though only two were on offer to Jose Maria Olazabal.
Gallacher’s fate remains in his own hands and he’ll certainly have been inspired by watching Donaldson sealing his spot on Sunday by winning the Czech Masters in Prague, where the Scot also gave an excellent account of himself as he bounced back from back-to-back missed cuts to record a seventh top-10 finish this season.
However, if it comes down to Gallacher needing a pick, what are his chances? Zero, according to some of my colleagues south of the Border, because they believe wild cards should go to Ian Poulter, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, all of whom have come up short as far as automatic qualification is concerned.
Poulter is a certainty to be on McGinley’s list when he announces his choices at Wentworth next Tuesday, having earned the right to be on this team due to the way he inspired Europe to pull off their record-equalling last-day fightback to win at Medinah two years ago. In a way, though, he’s also a lucky man to know he’ll be picked because, since a top-20 finish in the US Open, he’s missed three cuts and failed to get inside the world top 50.
Donald, tenth in the rankings, and 16th-placed Westwood have been inconsistent as well this season, yet McGinley knows he’d be foolish to overlook Ryder Cup pedigree and that pair have it in abundance. Donald’s four appearances in the biennial bout have all been on winning teams while Westwood has been on six successful sides in his eight matches. Both also won their singles in Chicago.
Based purely on experience – and the atmosphere of a Ryder Cup, after all, is unique in golf – it would be easy for the captain to select the English trio. At the same time, though, it’s to be hoped that other factors will be taken into account. Knowledge of the PGA Centenary Course, for example.
Donald has never played the Jack Nicklaus-designed layout competitively, while Poulter and Westwood last teed up there in 2003 and 2008 respectively. Gallacher has an excellent record on that particular course, having recorded seven top 10s in events over it since 2001. In the most recent of those, he was pipped in a play-off by Tommy Fleetwood just 12 months ago after closing with rounds of 64 and 67.
There’s real substance to Gallacher’s case if it does come down to him needing a wild card and even those shouting for Donald and Westwood to be on that list along with Poulter know it. Two years ago, when Colsaerts was picked, Padraig Harrington’s run of playing in every Ryder Cup since 1999 was ended. That wasn’t disastrous for Europe and neither would it be if either Donald or Westwood miss out.
This is not about trying to see a Scot in the team for the sake of it. McGinley knows that and he’s also aware that I wouldn’t be beating this drum if it wasn’t justified. Anyone going into the last counting event still in with a chance of qualifying automatically has to be in with a wild card shout.
Is there anyone else still capable of throwing a spanner into the works? Francesco Molinari, lying 14th on the list, would become a genuine contender to make his third straight Ryder Cup if he won on home soil this weekend. And what about Marc Warren? If he made it two triumphs in three weeks, he’d really throw the cat among the pigeons, especially as he’s won on the Ryder Cup course.
In truth, I wouldn’t want to be in McGinley’s shoes, although, at the same time, I am confident he will make the right decision for Europe’s cause, even if that happens to be one that means disappointment for the host nation in terms of a Scottish player being among his 12 charges.