The announcement this week that the European Tour has agreed to give the Ryder Cup captain an extra wildcard pick—raising his total to three—has been greeted with muted acknowledgement by most of the golfing fraternity.
In the overall scheme of things, it appears to be of little real significance. Therefore, in the overall scheme of things, very little has been written about it.
This is because the move is nothing but a compromise, and compromises never make for big news. Most of they time they don't make for good news either.
The move will not have been greeted with much enthusiasm by Europe’s Ryder Cup captain, Colin Montgomerie. The Scot, keen to stamp his authority earlier in the Ryder Cup qualification process, initially requested four wildcard picks in a move that would have mirrored the US system that seemed to work so well last year.
Montgomerie believed the change would have allowed him to pick players based on recent form, rather than on performances over a year or two-year period. The examples of Anthony Kim and Ian Poulter—both successful wildcards at Valhalla—would no doubt have been cited.
For the European Tour honchos, however, the opportunity to qualify for the Ryder Cup by regularly playing the tour’s events is a massive carrot with which to entice the continent’s top players.
Removing two such opportunities, to be replaced by the unpredictable choices of a captain, would have massively diminished the incentive for the best players to stay on the tour, when fame and riches could be theirs over on the PGA.
Indeed, it was the attraction of America’s main tour that forced Nick Faldo to ‘spend’ a wildcard on Ian Poulter last year—as the Englishman opted to play US events at the business end of last season to retain his tour card rather than attempt to engineer his way back to automatic Ryder Cup qualification by staying in Europe.
Paul Casey, Faldo’s other wildcard pick, hardly bothered with the European Tour the whole year.
Those two, along with committed PGA Tour man Luke Donald, make up arguably the three best English players in the world. But they no longer prefer to play on their home tour.
The European Tour knew that this exportation of talent could not be allowed to continue, for the long-term viability of the tour. They can work as hard as they have done to make the tour truly worldwide, and bring extra money into the tour with the Race to Dubai, but ultimately that would all have been undone if the big reward of Ryder Cup golf was removed.
It is telling that the extra wildcard has been taken from the world ranking side of the qualification process (now only four qualify from that list), while the European money list remains untouched (five will still qualify from it).
If putting the best team out was the only criteria, then arguably the European money list should have had to sacrifice a place. Whatever the case, in reality the European Tour should have shot down Montgomerie’s request completely.
Montgomerie’s plea was more than understandable—in the modern media environment, when captaining a team to defeat can cause huge (and often undeserved) damage to a reputation, it is reasonable for the Scot to want maximum control over the personnel that might decide his destiny.
But Europe has won five of the last seven Ryder Cups utilising the two-wildcard system, and one defeat should not have been a reason to totally change it. Montgomerie might have evoked the memory of Antony Kim’s performance or Boo Weekley’s efforts, but “form” is something intangible that cannot be predicted by the very best—of which Montgomerie may or may not be one.
Harrington won two consecutive majors last year, and Sergio Garcia pushed him close in the final major of the year, the USPGA. Yet both men were fairly abject when it came to Valhalla.
Poulter had been average (the Open apart) all year, and Kim had given little indication in the run-up to the event that he was about to announce himself on the worldwide stage.
Form means nothing when it comes to the Ryder Cup.
The European Tour should have said no to Montgomerie, and protected the integrity and prestige that it’s events struggle valiantly to maintain. As it is, they have hit upon a solution that satisfies almost no one.
They have managed to diminish slightly the value of their product, and subtly weaken the position (and mindset) of their captain.
If Europe lose at Celtic Manor in 2010, then the only winner from the decision will be whoever gets that third wildcard in a year’s time. And if that golfer doesn’t go on to win three points at least, then the media might point the finger at more than a few losers.
But with compromise, that’s often the way it pans out.