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The Time for Speculation is over …… The die is cast

September 6, 2016 by Stuart Barber

Golf and the selection of the European Ryder Cup team is the theme of this blog not “Brexit”. Although one could just as easily have used the same headline in writing about our nation's decision to leave the EEC.

That result affects all of us, not just the golfing aficionados. Theresa May says categorically that “Brexit” means Brexit with absolutely no turning back. I take her at her word, but, I'm reminded of the quote fondly used by the “leavers” during the campaign attributed to Churchill: “ Each time we have to choose between Europe and the open sea, we shall always choose the open sea. ” but remember the words of the hymn “ Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the sea. I just hope that quote does not come back to bite us!

Now, having got that off my chest, let's turn to the Ryder Cup, which looms large on the horizon. The venue for this years' match which takes place on the 30 th September to the 2 nd October is at the Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska Minnesota.

Captain Darren Clarke has his side firmly in place with his three wild card selections now made, analysed and largely meeting with approval.

The nine automatic places are filled by Masters Champion, Danny Willett, Chris Wood, Rafa Cabrera-Bello, Andy Sullivan and Matt Fitzpatrick who qualified automatically. All of them playing in the Ryder Cup for the first time. They are joined by veterans, four-time major winner Rory McIlroy, British Open champion Henrik Stenson, Olympic gold medalist Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia.

Davis Love III has eight of his team in place and the four wild cards to be confirmed, three of them on Sept 12 th the day after the BMW Championship and the final pick on Sept. 25 at the conclusion of the Tour Championship.

Davis Love has confirmed selections of, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson, Jimmy Walker and Brooks Koepka who all had their spots confirmed prior to The Barclays, but Brandt Snedeker, Zach Johnson and Barclays winner Patrick Reed all had to wait until the Sunday of that tournament, to see if their places were secure. Now there is just the one place to fill just 5 days prior to the Ryder Cup.

Rory McIlroy was expected to reinforce his position in the World's top three, but this season has been an enigma for the Irishman. Changes to his putting style have not really worked and his driving and approach shots have been inconsistent. Lady luck has not smiled on him in the majors, draws that meant he had to play in the worst of the weather, but as Tom Watson remarked “just the luck of the draw that's life”. Except there is no longer any element of luck in the way the draw for the 1 st two rounds of a tournament are made. Anyway, missed cuts at both the US Open and the US PGA Championships were symptomatic of a season that saw him win only once and that was in Ireland.

I watched the last two rounds of that Irish Open, and on both the Saturday and Sunday, he hit two of the most sublime 2 nd shots to eighteen that anyone would ever want to watch to clinch his only victory of 2016. “ When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, sure 'tis like a morn in spring. And when Irish eyes are Smiling, sure, they steal your heart away.”

He chose not to compete in Brazil at the Olympics, though from his tweet he clearly watched Justin Rose lift the Gold Medal with Henrik Stenson taking silver.

So how does one gauge the European Ryder Cup team for Hazeltine? There's been a changing of the guard from the side that won at Gleneagles in 2014, with six new faces this time out. With only just a couple of weeks now until the matches get underway, let's analyse how the defending team shape up.

First of all the players are all fully aware of the pressures of playing in the Ryder Cup. The rookies, playing for the first time will have watched earlier matches and talked with the veterans of previous encounters. The Captain and his vice-captains have their role to play here. These are top-level professional golfers who have been under serious pressure in tournament situations enough times to be able to focus on their games without succumbing to the stresses of the situation.

Having six rookies in a side isn't something new for Europe. In 2010, Colin Montgomerie's team contained six first timers – Rory McIlroy, Martin Kaymer, Ross Fisher, Francesco Molinari, Eduardo Molinari and Peter Hanson. Obviously the more experienced players provided the backbone of the European victory that time, but the rookies also played a crucial role.

At Gleneagles there were three rookies on Paul McGinley's side – Victor Dubuisson, Jamie Donaldson and Stephen Gallacher. Between them, they gained 5.5 points out of 9 matches – the rookies had a winning record.

It's a remarkable testimony to the strength of European golf that the last time USA won the Ryder Cup was at Valhalla in 2008, and the four rookies playing were not to blame. Justin Rose secured three points from four and, in total the rookies secured 7 points from 13 matches they played in. It was the more experienced players that faltered. The 8 who had played in previous Ryder Cups got just 11.5 points from the 31 matches they were involved in.

There will always controversy around the captain's picks, but the selection of Pieters, Kaymer and Westwood seemed pretty logical. Pieters is on superb form and is the kind of player that can blow opponents away if he gets on a roll. Kaymer is a double Major winner and has proven he can handle the greatest pressure – see his winning putt at Medinah in 2012. And Westwood is incredibly experienced with nine previous matches behind him. He's a great partner in fourball and foursomes matches as his long game is so incredibly solid.

Russell Knox was very unlucky to miss out on a pick but his decision to base himself so much in the U.S. hurt his chances. The Scot could have replaced any of the three picks but there will always be someone who just misses out and, unfortunately for the Scot, this time it was him. Similarly if Paul Casey had rejoined the European Tour then he would very probably made the team on merit or been a Captain's pick. I know the European Tour and Darren Clarke did their best to persuade him, but it was not what he wanted at this stage of his career.

I think it's the playing form of those automatically selected that should be far more worrying for Europe than a lack of experience or any arguing about the captain's picks.

Matthew Fitzpatrick has not looked the player he was last season and the beginning of this. Andy Sullivan is another not firing on all cylinders. He looked fantastic at the end of 2015 when he won the Portugal Masters and came close in the DP World Tour Championship. But after missing cuts in the Czech Republic, Denmark and the European Masters, he won't exactly be full of confidence heading to Hazeltine. Chris Wood hasn't had a top-10 finish since June and Danny Willett's game has dipped since winning the Masters, although his performance last week at Crans sur Sierre was encouraging.

Rory McIlroy – such a figurehead of the team two years ago – is not the force he was then, In 2014 he went to the Ryder Cup as Open and USPGA champion and World Number One, now he's 5 th . I have already referred to his lack of form this year. Also the discouraging news that Nike are dropping golf club manufacturing must be unsettling for him, having changed to them only 2 years ago.

Another concern is Henrik Stenson's knee. The Swede was on the top of his game when he won The Open at Royal Troon in an epic last eighteen hole duel with Phil Mickelson, Reminiscent of Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus at Turnberry in 1977 and followed this with a re-run with Justin Rose at Rio de Janeiro to claim Olympic silver. A meniscus tear in the knee that gives him discomfort when walking, caused him to pull out of The Barclays and withdraw from the BMW. He hopes to rest up and be OK for Hazeltine, but will he be able to stay match-fit?

Europe then has a number of players with questionable form and a key player with a potential injury. Should we be worried about form? Yes. At this stage it looks as though team Europe will have its work cut out against a U.S. side hungry to regain the Ryder Cup on home soil. All 12 likely USA team members are currently in the top-25 on the Official World Golf Ranking, team Europe has just five in that top-25. Despite past results, if Europe wins at Hazeltine it will be quite an achievement.

In my next blog before the matches begin I'll take a look at the respective captains and try to gauge what each man and his assistants bring to the table.

“That's Life! – Since writing this blog Rory McIlroy leaps back to form as he fired a brilliant 65 to win the Deutsche Bank Championship and so earn himself a shot at the PGA Tour's $10 million jackpot. He overhauled a six-shot deficit in windy conditions which were not supposed to suit his game to prevail by two shots over Paul Casey, who shot a disappointing 73.

“It's great to win my first US event of the season,” McIlroy said. “Hopefully I can take this momentum on to the next few weeks and ultimately the Ryder Cup I played some great golf and yes, holed some lovely putts.”

A personal triumph for  McIlroy, a great boost for Darren Clarke and for Team Europe. As I wrote in my blog a very frustrating season for Rory  McIlroy following such a difficult four months since he lifted the Irish Open title.

A victory for Paul Casey would have been an unwelcome distraction for Darren Clarke. Casey had refused to make himself eligible for the Ryder Cup and, at the very least, a victory for the former world No-3 would have re-ignited the comment about his exclusion from the team.”

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