Ryder Cup 2014: Paul McGinley and Tom Watson prepare to bet the farm on their wild cards
Captains to announce their picks after judging whether form or experience counts more towards glory
As much as Paul McGinley loves a stat, numbers are of limited use in choosing a wild card for the Ryder Cup since, for the most part, they do not add up. That is the role of the qualifying table, to make the decision for you on the basis of form over a given period, nine men good and true selected on merit.
The requirement of European captain McGinley in his long deliberations, and of his American counterpart, Tom Watson, was to intuit on the basis of experience the value of the candidates given the balance of the team. The successful players will be unveiled on both sides of the Atlantic today, with McGinley going first at the European Tour headquarters at Wentworth.
Stephen Gallacher is in the Celtic-to-win-at-home class of favourites to catch his master’s eye and is thus expected to escape the fate of Sisyphus after his uphill lunge for the line in the Czech Republic and Italy this past fortnight. Gallacher finished 10th on the points list, missing out on an automatic spot by just one point and a bit.
Were tournaments on the European Tour, where Gallacher plays the majority of his golf, to yield ranking points of equal value to PGA Tour events, he would have been measured for his suit weeks ago. Sunday’s third-place finish in Turin was his seventh top 10 in his past 12 events. McGinley does not need to resort to calculus to measure the trajectory of that performance arc.
Though Gallacher would be the third rookie on the European team alongside Jamie Donaldson and Victor Dubuisson, at two months shy of his 40th birthday he appears an unlikely candidate for stage fright. And to judge by the way he stood his corner in a three-ball with Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods in February, en route to becoming the first to defend the Dubai Desert Classic title successfully in its 25-year history, Gallacher can look after himself in the Ryder Cup playground.
Ian Poulter’s credentials in this area are beyond embellishment. He can be a cussed bag of ambiguity around a conventional tournament, often betraying the attitude of an entitled teenager. But he is our pain in the arse, his contribution to the whole greater than the points he puts on the board. In all the projections surrounding deadline day, none have excluded the 1,000-yard stare from Stevenage.
That leaves three players for one spot, Ryder Cup leviathans Lee Westwood and Luke Donald, plus the fairway-finder-general Francesco Molinari, who has appeared in the last two events. The case against Westwood and Donald is form. Over the piece it has not been good enough. The problem for Molinari is that his has been no more persuasive.
Of the three, Westwood is by a nibble the most compelling and is expected to get the call. Westwood found something on the range in Ohio to produce a final-round 63 at the Bridgestone and took that form into the last major of the season, the PGA Championship in Louisville, where he opened with a 66 to lead on day one before finishing in 15th place.
Westwood did not have his most influential Ryder Cup at Medinah or Celtic Manor but he has a knack of confounding expectation at big events and understands the demand, having assumed the role of leader in the field for much of the past decade.
Donald is still in the thick of swing issues, waiting for the changes perfected on the range to bear fruit with a card in his hand. Though he finished only four points shy of automatic qualification, Donald’s year does not have the peaks demonstrated by Westwood.
Tricky as it is to disappoint players who have served Europe well, McGinley’s plight is eased by the quality of those already in the locker room. No European captain in the history of the competition has had at his disposal players ranked so high and in such good form.
Four of the top five players in the world wear blue, starting at the top with the imperious McIlroy, followed by Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose. And then there is Martin Kaymer, who won the Players Championship and the US Open in the space of four weeks this summer.
Captain Watson, as the Americans insist on addressing their legendary leader, has at his disposal a middling bunch shorn of key figures through injury, Woods and Jason Dufner; or lifestyle, Dustin Johnson. And his wild-card options have hardly been blowing any doors off. Of those who made the team automatically, Watson has Ricky Fowler, Jim Furyk, Matt Kuchar, Jimmy Walker, Zach Johnson and Jordan Spieth in decent nick, Bubba Watson at odds with himself somewhere in Bubbaland and Phil Mickelson up one day down the next. That leaves Patrick “top-five” Reed, who missed the cut at the Deutsche Bank championship in Boston with a second-round 82.
Of Watson’s wild-card options, Hunter Mahan looks a banker following a return to form in the last month, culminating in victory nine days ago at the Fed-Ex Play-offs opener, the Barclays. Keegan Bradley is heavily fancied, too, largely as a result of his Poulter-like relationship with the event.
At Medinah, Bradley assumed the role of cheerleader, whipping up the crowd around the first tee before kick-off and forming a potent partnership with Mickelson that was unanswerable before the captain, Davis Love III, opted to rest them on Saturday afternoon. Big mistake.
Worth a shot? wild-card options
1 Ian Poulter Ryder Cup specialist who missed out narrowly on automatic qualification. You want him in that dressing room, eyes on stalks.
2 Stephen Gallacher Most improved player on European Tour, especially his short game. A rookie but gutsy, great temperament, in form and Scottish.
3 Lee Westwood Not his best year but turns up at big events. Shown form this past month with top 15 finishes at Bridgestone and PGA Championship.
4 Luke Donald Never been on a losing side and deadly on the greens. But struggling with swing changes and low on confidence.
5 Hunter Mahan Unlucky to miss out last time. A winner last week at Barclays, seventh at the PGA and 15th at the Bridgestone. That’s proper form.
6 Keegan Bradley The American Poulter, irrepressible in team room, self-appointed cheerleader on the tee box and a potent partner for Phil Mickelson.
7 Webb Simpson If his putter is on, watch out. Off at the Barclays last week, where he missed the cut, back on in Boston. Good timing.
8 Bill Haas Steady as you like. The 2011 Fed-Ex champ has not won this year but neither has he missed a cut. Went well in Boston, too.
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