In fairness to the big Ulsterman, you really wouldn’t want to be in his fancy shoes as he prepares to take centre stage in the Wentworth ballroom to announce his three selections for next month’s match at Hazeltine in Minnesota.
Tough decisions are part and parcel of the job, though, and Clarke, pictured below, is fully entitled to pick the players he feels can bring most to the table in an event that is easily the one that comes with more pressure than any other in golf.
That’s why we can expect two of those wild cards, surely, to be handed to Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood, especially after five rookies – Danny Willett, Rafa Cabrera Bello, Matt Fitzpatrick, Andy Sullivan and Chris Wood – qualified automatically along with Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia.
Sure, there are players who have performed better than both Kaymer and Westwood in the year-long qualifying campaign, but, at the same time, they’ve not been far away from finding top gear and, what’s more, it would be a huge gamble by any European captain to head into a Ryder Cup on US soil with a team that was top-heavy with rookies. The last time that happened was at Brookline in 1999, when Mark James paid the price for not trusting some of the newcomers in his team by sitting them out until the singles and, as a consequence, watched helplessly as the Americans came out on top following a last-day fightback.
Clarke’s team needs the likes of Kaymer and Westwood in it to get the right blend, so, really, no eyebrows should be raised about them being picked and, remember, Europe have developed a nice knack of getting these decisions right, as eight wins out of the last ten matches clearly illustrates.
In contrast to those two decisions seemingly being straightforward, the final one has given Clarke an even bigger headache than the infamous one he suffered – rightly so, in fairness – the morning after he was crowned as Open champion at Royal St George’s in 2011. And this is where it could spark controversy, I’m afraid.
Like many others, I was blown away by the performance Thomas Pieters produced to win the Made in Denmark on Sunday and I can certainly see now how lots of people have been tipping him to win majors and possibly rising to world No 1. Having also finished fourth in the Olympics and second, as the defending champion, in the Czech Masters the previous two weeks, the 24-year-old is the hottest player in European golf and, therefore, definitely merits full consideration by Clarke and his vice-captains.
He doesn’t deserve to be picked ahead of Russell Knox, though, and I’m certainly not saying that just because one is a Scot. Yes, Pieters has muddied the waters for the European captain with his late thrust, as, to a lesser extent, has Luke Donald. But does Clarke have one valid reason to overlook a player sitting 20th in the world after landing a brace of wins in the last 10 months that were bigger than the three victories Pieters has chalked up on the European Tour over a slightly longer period? Apparently, both Clarke and one of his vice-captains, Ian Poulter, contacted Knox to try to encourage him to play in the Wyndham Championship a fortnight ago, when he still had a chance to get into the team automatically, but the Invernesian opted to stick with the schedule he’d mapped out and, in fairness, he’s in with a chance of winning the FedEx Cup so that clearly came into consideration. It was possibly a mistake, but that decision alone definitely isn’t enough to stop Knox being picked and you can certainly see where someone like Jordan Spieth is coming from when he said it would be “ridiculous” if Knox isn’t at Hazeltine based on the impact he has made at the highest level in the game.
In short, Knox has done more than enough to merit a pick, especially when you consider that he’d have made it under his own steam if the points had counted from becoming the first Scot to win a World Golf Championship with an impressive victory in the HSBC Champions in China last November, yet it appears he is set for a disappointment. Not at the expenese of Pieters, I hasten to add, but the aforementioned Donald.
Despite finishing 11 places below Knox on Europe’s world points list and never really getting close to being in the mix for an automatic place, it appears the Englishman is set to get the nod from Clarke because his odds tumbled dramatically yesterday afternoon, to the extent that one leading company quickly suspended betting when he became a 1/100 shot, which, of course, is pretty much a certainty.
Why Donald? Well, he has played on four winning teams, had a 100 per cent record in foursomes until the 2012 match at Medinah and could probably be paired with every other player in the team. Two top-tens in 25 events isn’t a very strong base, though, to be making such a bold pick and, if that is indeed correct, then both Knox and Pieters will take a fair bit of soothing given their eye-catching achievements in comparison.
Until today’s 12:30pm press conference, we won’t know for certain, of course, but if it is bad news for Knox, then let’s hope it doesn’t dent his confidence or change the way he is. After all, he has made a big impression on the game, both on and off the course, and we should be proud to have him flying our flag.