Golf: Ups and downs of the wild-card bunch

Andy Farrell charts the history of selection dilemmas in the Ryder Cup
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The Independent Online
In tennis, wild cards seem to have been invented to allow British players not called Tim or Greg to lose in the first round at Wimbledon. In golf, the idea is to complete the Ryder Cup team in the best way possible.

Six years ago, Seve Ballesteros, this year's European captain, described his philosophy on the matter. "If I were the captain," he said prophetically, "I would pick the best players as wild cards, even if I didn't like them personally, because that is the best way for the team and for European golf."

Ballesteros added: "It's a tremendous mistake to let personal feelings interfere with that decision." If he is true to his word, Nick Faldo should have no doubt that he will be named this afternoon as one of the two wild cards for Valderrama.

What had prompted Ballesteros's words was reflecting on the controversial occurrences in 1981, the only match the Spaniard has missed since the continentals were introduced in 1979. In order to play, Seve required a wild card from the three-man selection panel of John Jacobs, the captain, Neil Coles, and Bernhard Langer.

But that year he was in conflict with the European Tour about appearance money and though he could have qualified automatically, did not play in the last counting event. With Tony Jacklin, who would become Europe's saviour as captain two years later, also overlooked, the wild cards went to Peter Oosterhuis, who was playing in the United States, and Mark James, despite the fact the Englishman, with Ken Brown, had behaved deplorably in the previous match.

"We are talking about revenge here," Ballesteros told Golf World in 1991. "It's like Nick Faldo not playing the German Open this year and the captain saying, 'If he doesn't play, I'm not going to choose him.' It's like revenge - it's a personal feeling between two players against the team and against European golf."

Wild cards were introduced in 1979, primarily for players on the US Tour such as Oosterhuis and later Brown. After 1981, they were abolished for the next match, but Jacklin insisted he have three picks in 1985 and that he would take responsibility rather than have the decision fudged by a committee.

Faldo and Jose Maria Olazabal have so far played three times as wild cards, a record, although the Spaniard was also picked for 1995 when he could not play. Though experience is the usual criterion, Jacklin picked Olazabal at the age of 21 for his debut in 1987 to form one of the most productive Ryder Cup partnerships with Ballesteros. "It was always on the cards that they would prove a great foil for each other," Jacklin said of a combination that went on to win 11 of their 15 matches together.

Overall, the European wild cards have won 29 games, lost 43 and halved two. The Americans only introduced the system in 1989, having lost the previous two matches, and have a record of 13 wins, 13 losses and two halves.

Americans have always referred slightly sniffily to their wild cards as "captain's picks", as if they have less right to be on the team than those who qualify automatically. In 1993 at The Belfry, Lanny Wadkins told his captain, Tom Watson, that he should go in the envelope - and therefore be the man to sit out when Sam Torrance was unable to play on the final day - because he was there by invitation.

Two years later Wadkins was the captain and chose Curtis Strange along with Fred Couples. Couples beat Ian Woosnam, himself a wild card after Olazabal withdrew, on the final day, but Strange lost a crucial match to Faldo after being one up with two to play.

While Faldo justified the faith placed in him by Bernard Gallacher, who had picked him ahead of time after a similarly unconvincing season, with one of the great Ryder Cup recoveries, Strange bogeyed each of the last three holes. Strange was walking swiftly to the locker-room when he was grabbed by Corey Pavin. "I don't know if he thought I was going to cut my wrists," Strange said. "I felt like I let the other players and the captain down."