With the Ryder Cup at Valhalla only four weeks away, the tension on both sides of the Atlantic is mounting.
Despite the Americans having failed to win the Samuel Ryder trophy for over a decade—and being without World No. 1 Tiger Woods this time—the match is expected to be a close-fought affair.
As a result, the wildcard selections from each side’s team captain will come in for a lot of coverage. With a total of six wildcard places at their disposal, many in the media believe the destiny of the famous trophy could be decided by the players Paul Azinger and Nick Faldo pick.
Before I start, here are European players currently holding an automatic spot (names in italics yet to confirm place):
Padraig Harrington Miguel Angel Jimenez
Sergio Garcia Graeme McDowell
Henrik Stenson Justin Rose
Lee Westwood Soren Hansen
Robert Karlsson Oliver Wilson
On the verge: Martin Kaymer, Nick Dougherty, Ross Fisher.
Faldo, as European captain, only has two wildcards at his disposal—but there are more than two players vying for his attention.
While the six players in italics are all great players, realistically they have little chance of getting a wildcard—so they need to qualify by right if they want to head for Kentucky. This weekend’s Johnnie Walker Championship is their last chance do that.
So, let's look at the main wildcard contenders. I will analyse the relative strengths and weaknesses of each, and offer my opinion on who deserves a ticket to Valhalla:
Verdict: On the Plane
The 31-year-old Englishman has been in fine form this year, with a T7 finish at Royal Birkdale and a T15 result at the USPGA, completing a year of all four rounds in all four majors. Therefore, the Cheltenham-born player cannot be questioned.
Faldo has been watching Casey, and indeed found himself in a sticky situation last Sunday whilst commentating at the Barclays Championship. With Casey hovering over a 22-foot putt on the 18th green, Faldo said, “If he makes this, he’s in the team.”
Casey proceeded to sink the birdie attempt.
Unsurprisingly, Faldo quickly backtracked, and fortunately for him Casey did not make too much of the fuss, jokingly commenting, “Oh, we’ve got that on tape. Lawyers would have a field day with that one!”
He did, however, admit he has had conversations with Europe’s captain, but refused to disclose any details. While Casey is a naturally open character, it is hard to believe he would be able to share such a joke with Faldo, if he had earlier been told by him that he was unlikely to get a pick.
Regardless of any speculation, Casey ticks all the boxes. He is on form, he has a history of playing well in America, and always seems to raise his game for the Ryder Cup (his ace at the K Club was one of the 2006 event’s most memorable moments).
As such, he surely has to be one of the players teeing it up on Sept. 19.
Verdict: Staying at Home
The Englishman has created headlines and controversy this week by deciding to play in the Deutsche Bank Championship in America, rather than tee it up in Europe at the Johnnie Walker—ending any chances the 32-year-old had of making the Ryder Cup team by right.
Many fellow professionals have come to the conclusion that Poulter reached the decision because Faldo has already promised the Arsenal fan one of his picks. Otherwise, it is hard to believe that Poulter—who has consistently stated the importance of the Ryder Cup—would suddenly opt to rely on a wildcard pick.
But the reality is slightly different. Poulter still needs to play in two events on the PGA Tour to fulfil his eligibility for next season, which will be important for his career. Equally, a Tiger-less Fed Ex Cup this year means the $10 million winner’s cheque is for anyone to win. Poulter, being the confident character he is, will fancy his chances. As the World No. 23 said:
“It has been an extremely difficult decision to take, given my burning desire to represent Europe again. But the fact that Boston this week is my only opportunity to qualify for the final two play-off events, as well as being my final opportunity to play my [required] 15 events on the US PGA Tour, conflicts with my ambition to play Gleneagles and earn my spot in the team. I have called Nick Faldo and told him of my decision and hope that my performances so far this year will earn one of his two wildcard picks.”
Has Poulter simply had his head turned by the money? I hope not, but that is the simplest explanation. Nevertheless, his record does not warrant a pick, at least not ahead of Casey or the other contenders. Poulter has a patchy record in America (even this year), and recorded only one victory in his solitary Cup appearance, back in 2004.
The decision to play in America this week could, and should, come back to haunt the colourful Englishman.
Verdict: Staying at Home
For an ardent European fan like myself, it is hard to leave Colin Montgomerie out of any side. The Scot is simply a heroic team player, a talismanic figure who can rightly be credited with much of Europe’s success over the last 15 years.
Who can forget his contribution at the Belfry in 2002, where the Scot (and wildcard pick) led the team out in the singles with a birdie at the 1st?
Unfortunately, past achievements alone are not enough to earn the Scot a place on the team in 2008. His performances this year have been poor, and he has missed the cut in all three US-based majors this season. While he has historically upped his performance for the Ryder Cup, this year’s event is surely a step too far.
In addition, it doesn’t look like Europe require Montgomerie’s inspirational qualities anymore, as they already have the world’s most in-form golfer on the team.
Padraig Harrington, with two major victories this season, will unofficially serve as the field general for the team this year, and will surely provide all the leadership and impetus that so often came from Montgomerie in the past.
Arguably, the Irishman’s form this year has negated any need for the Scotsman at Valhalla.
Equally importantly, rumours continue to abound that Montgomerie doesn’t get on with Faldo, a state of affairs that stems back to their playing days together.
As a result, both men simply cannot be on the same team, and while neither is a paragon of virtue—both men have probably played a role in the disagreement—it is the Scot who must be the loser this time.
As captain, no player can be allowed to undermine Faldo’s leadership, not that Faldo will let that happen. As a result, Montgomerie will have to watch the proceedings from the comfort of his own home, wondering what might have been.
Verdict: On the Plane
Ironically, one of the reasons Montgomerie should not head for Louisville is the main reason Darren Clarke certainly should.
Padraig Harrington’s newfound role as “playing captain” would be well supported by the Northern Irishman, who provided much of the inspirational stimulus at the Belfry two years ago.
Clarke’s form is good, with a win only last week at the KLM Open. While he has not done anything of real note in the US, this should not be a cause for concern. Clarke’s T6 finish at the Bridgestone Invitational at the beginning of August should serve as some reassurance of his form on US soil.
Crucially for Faldo, Clarke has a 58 points percentage in his Ryder Cup appearances, a contribution that would certainly be welcomed by him this year. What might have especially caught Faldo’s attention is Clarke’s record in fourball encounters— which reads six wins and two halves from nine encounters.
So, even if the captain were to only use Clarke in the fourballs and singles, he could be confident of a solid return, one that could be critical in the destination of the Cup. His presence would also give an intangible benefit to the rest of the lads.
That is why Clarke should get the final wildcard pick.
Nick Faldo, Europe’s Ryder Cup Captain, will make his Wildcard choices on Aug. 31 at the conclusion of the Johnnie Walker Championship.