“It wasn’t that long,” revealed Clarke of the phone call he made to Knox on Monday night to tell the 31-year-old that he’d been overlooked among his three selections in favour of two experienced Ryder Cup campaigners – England’s Lee Westwood and German Martin Kaymer – and a newcomer to the biennial event, Belgian Thomas Pieters.
“But it was a really, really difficult phone call for me to make, as hard a phone call as I’ve ever had to make in golfing terms. Partly because I knew how much of a disappointment it would be.
“In 2008, I won two weeks before the qualifying finished before the team was announced and it was my second win of the year and I didn’t get a pick.
“So I know how much I was hurting at that stage.”
Knox is hurting like hell and who can blame him? He is sitting 20th in the world, won twice on the PGA Tour in the last ten months and has a chance of finishing the PGA Tour season as the FedEx Cup winner. In addition to all that, he is currently the sixth highest-ranked European player on the global rankings and sits comfortably ahead of Pieters (41st), Westwood (46th) and Kaymer (50th) in those standings. With credentials like those, he’d have earned a spot on just about every previous Ryder Cup team, just not this one unfortunately.
In the final reckoning, he lost out to Pieters due to Clarke and his five vice-captains believing the 24-year-old brings something extra special to the table, having delivered a timely nudge, of course, as he opened with a 62 in the captain’s company in the Made in Denmark event before closing with three birdies to win that event, the final one in the qualifying campaign, on Sunday.
It was no surprise that Clarke was effusive in his praise of Pieters, but, at the same time, there was no denying that he didn’t take the decision to overlook Knox lightly, even if the Invernesian perhaps didn’t do himself any favours by not playing in the Wyndham Championship, which offered him a chance to qualify automatically, despite the captain suggesting he should do so.
“I found it really hard to call Russell and give him the bad news,” added Clarke, speaking on a sun-kissed day at Wentworth as he fitted the final pieces to a team that he hopes can deliver an unprecedented fourth Ryder Cup victory in a row and ninth in the last 11 matches. “Certainly the hardest part of the job that I’ve had to deal with so far. Some people say he deserved the pick, some will say Thomas Pieters deserved the pick. As captain, I have to do make that call on what I believe to be right.
“Russell was a gentleman. He said, ‘Darren, I understand. I’m disappointed but I understand’. He was fantastic, as Russell would be. It was certainly a very, very difficult call. But he took it in the manner in which you would expect of him. He was very good.”
For Knox, the first priority will be to try to get over his disappointment by attempting to win the FedEx Cup, sitting seventh heading into the second of the four events in the PGA Tour’s Play-Off series – this week’s Deutsche Bank Championship in Boston. As for the Ryder Cup, his next chance to get on the team will be the 2018 match in France and Clarke’s message to the Scot for that and other future contests focused on making sure he qualifies automatically.
“Yes, it did become a motivation for me,” he said of being overlooked by Nick Faldo for the 2008 contest at Valhalla. “It was disappointing because I thought I had done enough, as Russell probably thought he had done enough. It’s one of those things when you strive for something and you don’t get there, it’s very disappointing.
“But the way I looked at it in 2008 was logically. I did not make the team automatically, and if you do not make the team, you are at the mercy of the captain’s thoughts. That’s the way it is. That’s just the hard facts about the whole sort of thing and that’s how I looked at it.
“I then made my focus to play my way on to the next team and not leave it at somebody else’s choice. But that’s the way our team is. That’s what the three wild cards are there for.
“It’s one of those harsh realities of you make a Ryder Cup or you don’t make a Ryder Cup. You could go back through all Ryder Cup history and you’ll find people in Russell’s position that thought they should have been on the team that could have been on the team but the only way to make sure you’re on that team is finish in the top nine. At the same time, you’d say, well, he would have been on the team if his WGC points had counted. But they didn’t. So you can think about it from many different ways, but you know, my advice would be for Russell just to continue playing the way he is and make the team on merit the next time.”
He might well have done that on this occasion, of course, if he’d added the Wyndham Championship to his schedule. “Well, I thought he might have done,” said Clarke on that decision. “I spoke to him the day after he won at Travelers and suggested to him that he might want to go and play, and you know, he decided not to do that. He wanted to be fresh for the FedEx, and that was obviously very, very important to him and that’s fine. You know, if he had gone to Wyndham, maybe we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now; maybe we would. We don’t know. But certainly if Russell had gone to Wyndham, he may have forced his way into the automatic spots, which would have changed the conversation.”
The debate over Clarke’s decision will rage on until the event comes around. It will only be until after the final putt is holed on 2 October, though, that he will be proved right or otherwise and no-one can really take umbrage over his choices until then.