John Huggan: Some mistakes in Ryder Cup picks

At last all the names are on the team sheets but have McGinley and Watson backed the right horses, asks John Huggan

At last all the names are on the team sheets but have McGinley and Watson backed the right horses, asks John Huggan

OK, NOW that we know the various identities of those who are actually going to be playing and those who will be dishing out the drinks, we can get down to the serious business of speculating about what may or may not happen on the golf course at Gleneagles later this month. With the names of the barmen/cart drivers/assistant captains and the wildcard picks safely in the public domain – and hopefully an end to the relentless stream of meaningless announcements re “official” products that only serve to underline the undercurrent of grubbiness and greed that underpins Ryder Cups in the 21st century – there is little left to be done before the off.

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Still, it would be remiss not to comment on all that went on over the past few days. For one thing, we should all by now have realised that much of what the non-playing captains have to say in the days, weeks and months leading up to their oh-so-important nominations is, shall we say, less than accurate.

Take Paul McGinley, the genial Irishman charged with leading the Old World into the biennial battle with those pesky colonial types. For more than a wee while, the 47-year-old Dubliner has assured us that his three additions to the nine automatic qualifiers would all be “men in form”. How everyone was playing in the run-in to his final decision was going to largely determine whom he picked. Or so he kept saying.

In the end, he applied that piece of unarguable logic to only one of the three men selected: Stephen Gallacher. The mostly solid and sometimes brilliant golf played by the 39-year-old Scot over the past few months was more than enough to convince most observers of his worthiness. And his inspired play one week ago in Italy, when he came one shot shy of knocking former US Open champion and new father Graeme McDowell from the last guaranteed spot in the side, only served to confirm that widely-held impression.

But what of McGinley’s other two picks, Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter? To say both have fallen some way short of their normal standards is an obvious understatement. In fact, each has – relative to their elevated talent levels – mostly played a right load of old rubbish. Poulter has been especially inept, but Westwood, apart from the odd flurry, has been almost as bad at times.

So, much as it pains this column to aim even the mildest of criticism at the enormously likeable McGinley, it must be concluded that Europe’s leader has been, at best, disingenuous when supposedly filling us in on his continuing thoughts throughout the qualifying process. Good cases can be made for the inclusion of both Westwood and Poulter, but the quality of their current form is not the best of those arguments.

What McGinley should have said is that Poulter was always going to be picked because of the superhuman feats he performed at Medinah two years ago. And that only an overwhelming alternative was ever going to knock the experienced Westwood – eight previous Ryder Cup appearances, six of them victorious – from his 12-man squad. That would have been both a lot more honest and a lot fairer to others harbouring hopes of selection.

Of those who won’t be ordering refreshing beverages from – deep breath – the myriad assistant captains (Sam Torrance, Des Smyth, Jose Maria Olazabal, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Padraig Harrington), Luke Donald was widely held to be at the head of the “unfortunate” queue. Again though, that view had more to do with the relatively distant past than it did more immediate form. In the midst of a fairly radical swing change, the Englishman has struggled with all parts of his game in 2014. Even his once-peerless short game and putting stroke have been less than stellar over the past few months.

Still, McGinley wasn’t exactly spoiled for choice elsewhere. Francesco Molinari was the other name mentioned – apart from the not-at-the-races senior pair of Bernhard Langer and, even more ludicrously, Colin Montgomerie – but the estimable Italian came up just short. As ever solidly consistent, the Italian’s recent record lacks the burst of brilliance that could have caused McGinley to ponder anew. Which is not to say that Molinari cannot count himself a little unlucky not to be teeing up in his third consecutive Ryder Cup: he can. If only his putting was a little more inspirational and less prosaic. Were that the case, it says here his much-admired swing would have been enough for him to oust either Poulter or (more probably) Westwood.

Having said all of the above, however, it is difficult to be too negative about the make-up of the European side. This is one strong team, noticeably stronger – on paper at least – than the opposition. So it can reasonably be argued that McGinley’s eventual selections were less significant than they might have been in Ryder Cups past. Given that the format of the three-day contest actually keeps things closer than they might otherwise be – the weaker side can “hide” players for the first two days – even overwhelming strength from 1-12 is mitigated more than slightly.

Turning to the US side, captain Tom Watson has already suffered more than one body blow to what would surely have been his preferred line-up. Most damaging will be the absence of Dustin Johnson. Whatever the real reasons for the powerful Johnson’s disappearance from the tour, one thing is for certain – he had at least the potential to be America’s most potent weapon on a course historically suited to “bombers” of his ilk.

Less significant is the injury-induced withdrawal from the qualifying process of former USPGA champion Jason Dufner. In a contest where putting is the traditional and ultimate difference between winning and losing, having to make do without the man who is surely the worst short putter on the PGA Tour – maybe one of the worst ever – is not something Watson will lose any shut-eye over. A bit of a yipper himself at times, the five-time Open champion might even be pleased to have “lost” Dufner.

As things turned out, Watson had a couple of obvious picks to make and one where he could have selected any of maybe six candidates. The first two – Keegan Bradley and Hunter Mahan – were duly confirmed and the third, 2012 US Open champion Webb Simpson, was added. Presumably, Watson imagines that picking Simpson, an openly avid follower of the Christian faith, he might buy himself a few favours with the man upstairs.

Then again, such an ecclesiastical policy can sometimes backfire when it comes to dealing with the many foibles of Uncle Sam’s sporting nephews. Earl Weaver, the long-time coach of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team, was certainly sceptical.

“The trouble with ‘God guys’ is that when things start going bad, they think it’s God’s will,” he once said, presumably tongue-in-cheek.

But maybe not. Pat Kelly, a devout Christian in the mould of some on the US Ryder Cup side that will soon arrive in Scotland, was an out-fielder on one of Weaver’s sides.

“Don’t you want me to walk with the Lord, skipper,” Kelly once asked his boss.

“I’d prefer it if you walked with the bases loaded,” came the reply.

For all that their number is laden with regular attendees at PGA Tour Bible Study meetings, Watson’s side also contains a few of what might be termed “Phil guys”. In other words, the likes of Rickie Fowler and Bradley will be looking to Phil Mickelson for inspiration and guidance in what is sure to be a largely less-than-encouraging environment.

And finally, there is the now eight-strong army of assistant captains, completed by Watson’s trio of Andy North, Ray Floyd and Steve Stricker. Those selections were never going to be anywhere close to controversial, but McGinley has come close with his omission of former Open champion Paul Lawrie.

On home turf and having played with notable distinction at Medinah in 2012, it would not have been unreasonable for Lawrie to expect a call. But it wasn’t to be, the former Open champion’s subsequent public statements suggesting both disappointment and surprise. Especially when the presence of Olazabal, the immediate past-captain, on the sizeable roster does appear more than a little inappropriate. It is, to be sure, McGinley’s first obvious mistake. For Europe’s sake, let’s hope it is also his last.