Faldo plays wild cards close to chest...until the US media called his bluff

Europe's Ryder Cup captain may regret showing his final hand too soon. James Corrigan reports from Gleneagles
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The Independent Online

It would not be the first time Nick Faldo watched one of his jokes recoil and give him a nasty bite on the fleshy bits. The newspaper world will never forget the "I thank you from the heart of my bottom" victory speech at the 1992 Open and will probably never be forgiving it, either. And should Faldo pick Paul Casey as one of his two Ryder Cup wild cards in Gleneagles on Sunday night, then place a sizeable wager on one of the overlooked bringing up the quip Faldo made in New Jersey last weekend.

Where everybody else will spot the funny side, the unlucky one might only sense a done deal that rendered his participation in the Johnnie Walker Championship this week as a bum deal. Many a true word and all that...

The scene was the 18th green at the Barclays Classic, the first event in the £10m FedEx Cup series, and there stood England's Paul Casey over a 22-foot putt. Watching over him sat Faldo, in the CBS tower, doing his "day job" as the American network's summariser. All afternoon he had been pressed by his co-commentators to reveal who he would be selecting as the captain's picks on deadline evening in Perthshire, an hour after the denouement of the last counting tournament, and all afternoon Faldo had managed to stay shtum. Until now.

As Casey drew back the blade, Faldo blurted out, "OK, if he makes this, he's in the team." The ball duly bobbled in and Casey held up his arms in mock celebration at what he considered a disappointing seventh-place finish. He was oblivious to the commotion going on above him.

Faldo, as is his way, immediately attempted to recant – "OK, I can't make my mind up yet" – but his colleagues were having none of it, saying the inevitable things about "Englishmen" and "being true to their word". It was TV gold, but captaincy cabbage.

He had just made a hard week that much harder. Ian Woosnam, for one, would have been grimacing for him. "I really doubt there is a worse job in golf than being that man who has to make those picks on that Sunday night," so Faldo's predecessor said. "For that hour after the tournament finishes, you have players, caddies, fans and, yes, the media hanging around waiting for your decision.

"As a golfer you are used only to upsetting yourself, but now you are trampling all over the hopes of other players and, at that, other players you are likely to know very well. It's a horrible thing, the worst thing about the job by far. I should know."

So he should. Within an hour or so of naming Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke in 2006 – a double act, incidentally, who between them went on to contribute seven and a half points out of eight – a snubbed Thomas Bjorn was labelling the Welshman as "the most pathetic captain I've ever seen" and "barmy".

The tirade was enough to force Woosie to offer to resign when he sat his team around a table on a reconnaissance mission to the K Club. The Welshman was giving the vote of confidence he required, but he confessed to this newspaper a few months afterwards that the affair had tainted what had otherwise been a joyous experience. "What was said hurt and still does," he said. "I don't think I deserved it."

In Bjorn's eyes – he was later to apologise – Woosnam's main crime was his lack of communication with the prospective candidates, a charge Woosnam still does not quite understand. Faldo has been rather more vocal, although perhaps a little too vocal.

He was on the phone to Ian Poulter just after he had finished second in the Open at Birkdale last month and Poulter later claimed that "Nick said he wants me on the team". Most took that to mean the flamboyant Arsenal fan would be a shoo-in, should he fail to make it automatically; except it is never as simple as that. Not with the Ryder Cup, the biennial dust-up that has proved all too predictable in the last two American thrashings, but which in the qualification has still managed to enthral. Take Clarke's late surge.

The Ulsterman's cause seemed on the Colin Montgomerie side of hopeless after he missed the cut at the recent USPGA Championship, as he even acknowledged himself – "I wouldn't pick myself at the moment". But then came four rounds of vintage Clarke in the unfashionable setting of Zandvoort, Netherlands, last week, that culminated in a four-stroke victory, and from being a "wildcard no-hoper" the 40-year-old was now "practically, a wild-card certainty". And all of a sudden, after his own missed cut at the Barclays, it is Poulter who appears favourite to be Faldo's "Jilted John". What would make it reasonably straightforward for Faldo – who will arrive in Scotland this evening – is if Poulter manages to play well enough at Gleneagles to make the team by right. Poulter is well capable of doing it under this most unique of pressures, as he showed when making the team in 2004.

Poulter nervelessly birdied five of the last eight holes to break Freddie Jacobson's heart. Similar heroics this time around and he would be resurrecting Faldo's fingernails. The captain would be free to name Casey and Clarke and nobody could have many complaints. Well, Montgomerie might, but, unless he won at Gleneagles, they would be decidedly hollow mutterings. The 45-year-old does not have the recent form to warrant consideration, particularly as he bafflingly stayed at home last week.

Still, it cannot be argued that Monty does not have the experience and a delicious irony of his exclusion would mean that the Scot would not be able to become the top points-scorer in Ryder Cup history. That record is held by one Mr N Faldo; a fact that would inevitably attract a few headlines, not all of them resisting being mischievous. Faldo is about to learn what is rapidly becoming an accepted truth for whoever is the Europe captain: you cannot win when naming your side, but you cannot lose against the Americans whoever you pick. He might even see the funny side of that.