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Wild Cards and Nearly Men

The Ryder Cup Captain has hard choices and the players have extra pressure, writed Dermot Gilleece

Posted Aug 28, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece


When the announcements finally came, they were entirely predictable.  In fact it is difficult to remember a more low-key completion of a European Ryder Cup team than the latest one which has Ian Poulter and Nicolas Colsaerts as its wild-card choices.

As it happened, the build-up to Medinah couldn’t have been more different to the comparable occasion four years ago, when Nick Faldo was finalising his team to defend the trophy at Valhalla. That was when Poulter and Paul Casey got the nod to the shock exclusion of Darren Clarke, who had won two tournaments that season, including the Dutch Open only a few weeks prior to the team announcement.           

Ironically, nobody could have known better than Faldo, how Clarke must have felt.  Indeed it would have been virtually impossible for the Englishman to forget the humiliation he had been subjected to prior to the announcement by skipper Mark James of the 1999 team to defend the title at Brookline.  Back then, Faldo knew his fate 24 hours before James named his line-up, when he was trailing Colin Montgomerie by a distant, 14 strokes after the third round of the BMW International, the final counting event.

By his own account, Faldo was approached by James in their hotel in Munich on that Saturday evening and told: "Even if you win the tournament this weekend, you are unlikely to get a pick."  Which prompted the bitter thought: "I hope he's got some more motivating lines for the actual team."  In the event, Europe's most successful player finished with a 67 in Munich but Andrew Coltart got the nod for an ill-fated encounter which ended in a hugely controversial American victory.

Faldo could have been accused of similar thoughtlessness in his handling of the 2008 team selection.  But the same criticism cannot be made of Jose Maria Olazabal, who was caring enough to contact all of the nearly men, down as far as Padraig Harrington, prior to the team announcement.  Perhaps being a wild-card himself on several occasions, made the Spaniard all the more sensitive to the situation.

The first time he was so honoured was for the matches at Muirfield Village in 1987, when he was preferred to Sweden’s Mats Lanner, who was ahead of him in the final European table.  That will also be remembered as the occasion when Olazabal was playing so poorly in practice that he asked his skipper, Tony Jacklin, not to pick him on the opening day.  But Jacklin had grand plans for Ollie, as a partner for the great Seve Ballesteros.  And when on hearing of his young compatriot’s discomfort, Ballesteros famously said to him: “Don’t worry, Jose. I play good enough for both of us.”  As things turned out, they became equal partners in what became the birth of the formidable “Spanish Armada.”

Olazabal was again a wild-card at Kiawah Island in 1991.  And he also received the nod for the matches at The Belfry two years later.  And he was picked yet again in 1995, only to be forced to step down from the Oak Hill encounter because of illness.  That, incidentally, was when a Ryder Cup truth very close to Olazabal’s heart, was brought home most forcibly.

A famous photograph of the beaten American team on that occasion, appeared in the local “Democrat” newspaper the following morning, showing Curtis Strange sitting dejectedly with his head bowed and with his left hand covering his face.  In a colourful description, the Democrat's Scott Pitoniak wrote: "When the controversial pick of the United States captain, Lanny Wadkins, bogeyed 16, 17 and 18, Faldo could see blood in the water."

Elsewhere, the paper reported: "He (Strange) was back at the scene of his crowning glory in golf (the 1989 US Open), the 18th green of Oak Hill Country Club, yet everything was wrong, so painfully wrong. The lush stage Curtis Strange once knew as his, was being unceremoniously yanked from beneath his feet yesterday afternoon, commandeered by a European Ryder Cup team that had just shocked the world's golfing community.  .... Strange, staring blankly at the scene before him, staring at everything and also at nothing."

In his moment of greatest need, the American's inability to hole putts under pressure, became decisive.  And in the full knowledge that his loss to Faldo had effectively tipped the outcome in Europe's favour, he admitted afterwards: "I really didn't think they could win today. I honestly thought we were too good."  Then, racked by emotion as he contemplated a rapidly fading twilight to a sparkling career, he added: "It's a frightening thought what I'll face tomorrow."

That’s the sort of pressure that lies in wait for an ill-conceived wild-card pick in the Ryder Cup.  On this occasion, however, it appears that Olazabal has chosen well, though nobody will be more aware of the searching examination which lies down the road.          

- Dermot Gilleece

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