It’s Europe’s cup to lose

2014-09-27 00:00

WHEN the American captain Tom Watson sat down to choose his three picks to complete the 2014 USA Ryder Cup team, it was acknowledged there was no one who stood out as “the pick” that demanded selection.

He eventually chose Kegan Bradley, Hunter Mahan and Webb Simpson to accompany those who had already made the team by virtue of their past year’s performances.

None of Watson’s selections, made after extensive consultation with his assistant captains, sparked any opposition at the time. Had he been allowed to wait until the end of the Fedex Cup, he would undoubtedly have chosen Billy Horshel, who not only won that trophy, but is also the kind of forceful character who is invaluable in a team environment. He probably would have also picked Chris Kirk who is another in red-hot form.

One of the crucial factors in every Ryder Cup is how the captain’s picks fair in the match itself. In this regard and in contrast to Watson’s choices, European captain Paul McGinley was spoilt for choice when it came to his decisions. He would have wasted no time thinking about Ian Poulter, hero of the past two Ryder Cups, a fierce match play competitor who has reserved his best golf for these biennial challenges between the USA and Europe.

More importantly, Poulter is the one European all Americans fear to play. He has won 11 of his last 12 Ryder Cup matches, which is easily the best individual streak in the modern era of the competition. The brash confidence of the eye-popping alter ego that emerges for the Ryder Cup has infuriated the Yankees who have described Poulter as a marked man for this year’s affair.

Yet none of them are keen to play him, whatever they may say in public. Poulter’s form has not been good this year and it remains to be seen if he can deliver another winning record for Europe.

The other captain’s picks for Europe are Stephen Gallagher and Lee Westwood. Gallagher has long been acknowledged as one of the best ball strikers in world golf, but his putting veers from sound to shocking.

Given that Ryder Cups are won and lost on the cauldrons of the greens, this is where Gallagher will come under intense pressure.

Like Poulter, Westwood has an excellent Ryder Cup record, but his form this year has been relatively ordinary most of the time and weak of late. He was chosen ahead of Luke Donald, who has a better Ryder Cup record, but is thought to be less suited to the Glen­eagles course where the long finishing par fives may be crucial to the final outcome.

Outside of the captain’s picks, the Americans have more problems than their hosts. Jordan Speith, who started the year so well, has just about fallen off the bus in recent months. At times, he appears to have lost his swing and composure. He is the youngest player on both sides and it will be interesting to see how many games he is given by Watson.

Another American rookie is Patrick Reed, who surprised the golfing world by declaring earlier this year that he was one of the top five players in the world. This was a silly comment that put him under pressure and unsurprisingly, his form fell away. He does not look in the best of shape and may have to be nursed by Watson.

By his own standards, Phil Mickelson has had an indifferent year. Despite all he has achieved in golf, he has a losing Ryder Cup record. Last time, he blew a lead in a vital game against Justin Rose that eventually cost his team the match. Some think that, freed from the presence in the team of Tiger Woods whom he dislikes, he will perform better but this may be a little optimistic for an elder statesman not in great form.

Even Jim Furyk, who has had a brilliant year without any titles, has a losing Ryder Cup record. He is the oldest in an American team that has half its players over the age of 35. This may not be important in an era where fitness levels are much improved, but age often begins to tell on a player’s ability to hole vital putts.

The Americans have been weakened by the absence of Tiger Woods, Jason Dufner (both injured) and Dustin Johnson. Johnson has taken himself out of the game to sort out his personal life for reasons thought to be related to cocaine use. When he announced his leave of absence, a strong rumour was circulating he was having an affair with the wife of another player who was a certainty for the Ryder Cup team. If true, his presence in the team would have been more than mildly disruptive.

The only issue confronting McGinley is the legal wrangle between Rory McIlroy and his former management company that also handles the affairs of Graeme McDowell. McIlroy’s dispute with the company, of which McDowell is a part owner, concerns among other issues, the allegation that McDowell was receiving better sponsorship deals and involved a demand from McIlroy’s lawyers that the company disclose McDowell’s earnings from it.

This has soured relations between the two who have done their best to keep a harmonious front, but “for golfing reasons only”, McDowell has said he does not want to play with McIlroy.

On balance, McGinley has more advantages and options than Watson. He is on home ground where the passion of the spectators is worth some points. He has more players with winning Ryder Cup records on a course that has been set up to favour the Europeans.

This is Europe’s cup to lose.

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