At a press conference at Wentworth last Tuesday, Europe’s 2016 Ryder Cup captain, Darren Clarke, announced his three wild-card picks for the European team to contest the match at Hazeltine, Minnesota, from September 30-October 2. Nine players had already qualified as of right: five Englishmen – Matt Fitzpatrick, Justin Rose, Andy Sullivan, Danny Willett and Chris Wood; two Spaniards – Rafa Cabrera-Bello and Sergio Garcia; plus Open champion Henrik Stenson (Sweden) and four-times major champion Rory McIlroy (Northern Ireland). To that group Clarke added, in order of announcement, Lee Westwood (England), thereby playing in his tenth Ryder Cup; Martin Kaymer (Germany), a past USPGA and US Open champion; and Thomas Pieters (Belgium), a rookie.
Perhaps appropriately, the occasion was a year to the day since Pieters had collected his first European Tour title. It was only two days since he’d notched up his third in the past 12 months. Playing the first two rounds with Pieters in the last counting event, in Denmark the week beforehand, Clarke had a ringside view as the 24-year-old fired an opening 62 on the way to setting up his win and, after coming fourth in the Olympics and second in the Czech Republic on his two previous outings, claiming what was effectively the last of the three wild cards.
Via a video link, Pieters was asked by the guy from Sky what he would bring to the team. He had a one-word reply: “Points.” Pieters thus became the new Ian Poulter! He said he’d spoken to Nicolas Colsaerts, the first Belgian to play in the match, also as a wild card and a rookie, in 2012. Colsaerts had told him: “If you make as many birdies as I did, you’ll be OK.”
(In his first-ever Ryder Cup match, Colsaerts had played in the fourballs with Westwood at Medinah and made eight birdies and an eagle on his own ball as they beat Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker on the last green. “Nicolas had one of the greatest putting rounds ever,” said Woods. “He was seven under through 10. I quit counting after that.”)
Pieters has some act to follow, and indeed had some stiff competition for his place, chiefly from Scotland’s Russell Knox, ranked 20th in the world (i.e. well above the three who were picked) and a recent winner on the PGA Tour. That was a tough call and Knox made his disappointment blatant, if on the right side of politeness. Two non-rookies whom Clarke acknowledged had been in the notional frame were Luke Donald and Graeme McDowell, but neither had shown enough lately to persuade him to overlook Pieters. And Darren was not doubting Thomas. “I’ve been on tour for a long time and I’ve seen massive talent come along,” he said. “I played withTiger Woods when he was an amateur. I’ve seen Rory McIlroy up close since he was a young kid. Thomas Pieters impresses me in the same league as those guys. He has that amount of talent.” If that’s not bigging-up, I’m not sure what is.
Kaymer had played with Pieters in the final round in Denmark and saw the Belgian produce a 65, including birdies at the final three holes, to take the tournament and to convince Clarke. “I was so impressed with the way he played and with his mental attitude,” said the German. Kaymer, who will be playing in his fourth successive match, said: “I know that putt at Medinah [which he made to ensure Europe retained the Cup in 2012] will define my career as well as the history of European golf.” And he’s probably right about that. Westwood, a gnarled veteran at 43, is a long-time pal of Clarke’s but his form this season, as well as his mega experience, made him a shoo-in to be chosen. If he were to win two points out of a possible five this time, he’d match Nick Faldo’s European record of 25 Ryder Cup points, amassed over 11 appearances.
Europe have only lost one of the seven matches held since the turn of the century, in America in 2008. Eight of the American team trying to halt that trend are known – Zach Johnson, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka (their only rookie so far), Phil Mickelson, Patrick Reed, Brandt Snedeker, Jordan Spieth and Jimmy Walker. Their captain, Davis Love, will name three wild cards next Sunday and the final one after the Tour Championship on Sunday September 25. The match starts the following Friday. As ever, it promises to be spellbinding.
Robert Green’s ‘Seve: Golf’s Flawed Genius’ is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @robrtgreen