Captain Clarke’s delight
Captain Clarke’s delight as Team Europe show they are more than a match for United States
First published in The Telegraph on the 13th April 2016.
Of course Darren Clarke would have been smiling anyway, as he stood there at his home club, Royal Portrush, so proudly displaying the Ryder Cup at the start of a roadshow for the famous trophy.
But there can be no doubt that events at the Masters two days earlier gave him further reason to flash those pearly whites.
In fact, it is hard to think of another major in modern times which has given so much joy for Europe. A winner, a tie for second, a tie for fourth, two ties for seventh, two ties for 10th… count them up, that’s seven representatives in the top 10. Believe it, Augusta, that vision of green and pink, had been splattered in blue and gold.
Little wonder, therefore, that Clarke was keen to underline the achievements. He is too wise to make too great a connection about what happened in a four-round strokeplay individual event in Georgia in April with what will come to pass in a three-day matchplay team event in Minnesota in September. But at the very least it has changed the tone of the narrative and for that Clarke will give blessed thanks.
“All I keep hearing is how strong the Americans are - and they are. But it’s almost demeaning to how strong European golf is at the moment. We have world-class players on the European Tour. Great young players.” These were Clarke’s words on Tuesday before the Masters and one week on the fact he had been proven correct was causing clear and understandable delight.
“Any time you seen seven Europeans in the top 10 at a major that is going to be good news, especially in Ryder Cup year. It was wonderful to see - I just hope they are all in the same form when it comes to September at Hazeltine,” Clarke said.
“There is a long way to go yet before qualification ends. I’m sure the team make-up will change between now and then. My stats people say there are four people who are 100 per cent certain to be there but there is still a long way to go and a lot can change. Even as a captain, I’m excited like everyone else to see who is going to make the team and who is going to miss out.” With that wondrous bogeyless 67, Danny Willett joined Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose in the guaranteed column of Clarke’s stats team.
“Any time you seen seven Europeans in the top 10 at a major that is going to be good news, especially in Ryder Cup year”
There was much said and written about the emotions of Jordan Spieth’s collapse and Willett’s wife, Nicole, and two-week-old baby, Zacharia waiting at home in Rotherham. But in the cold light of day this was nothing more than the next level for a 28-year-old who had won big events and contended in majors and the World Golf Championships.
“This is another step in the right direction for Danny,” Clarke said. “He’s dedicated, and works so hard at his game. To see him come through in the fashion he did on Sunday was wonderful and to see Lee Westwood play so well again was really good, he was right there until the very end.”
If anything, Westwood’s return to form was more of a shock and, as Willett was a long odds-on to make Hazeltine anyway, probably even more of a boost to Clarke. If they stopped the qualification race now, Clarke would have five rookies in his team and even allowing for the notion that, as a major-winner, Willett could be described as a “rookie” in name only, that is still probably one too many for an away fixture. If it fell like this, he would go for experience with his three wildcards and, as he rose to 10th in the standings, Westwood would be a shoo-in.
At the EurAsia Cup in Kuala Lumpur, Westwood showed what a presence he is in the team room, helping Clarke inspire the Europe youngsters to a record win over Asia. But he also delivered out on the course. Chris Wood, the young Bristolian who hopes to be on Clarke’s roster, played with him in the fourballs and could scarcely believe what he saw. “He did not miss a shot, absolute machine,” he said.
Yes, everybody knows what Westwood can do under the flag of his continent, but he still had to show Clarke, his great friend, something in the individual area. Well, runner-up in the season’s first major is not the worst piece of evidence to present. As Chubby Chandler, the manager of both Clarke and Westwood, put it: “Lee’s now back into the top 50 in the world, he’s exempt from qualifying for the US Open. Darren, of course, is delighted. If he needed a reason to offer Lee a pick, he now has that reason.” Who would be Clarke’s other two if he had to make the choice now?
Probably Graeme McDowell, at 16th in the standings, and then either Jamie Donaldson, in 15th, or Victor Dubuisson, in 14th. But as he said plenty can and will change in the ensuing months and he will be looking to Ian Poulter to build on his recent third-place finish in Puerto Rico as well as his opening 69, before tailing off at Augusta. He is perhaps only one big name short of having an ideal mix, after Matt Fitzpatrick, the 21-year-old, added further weight to his status with his tie for seventh in his first professional start at Augusta.
Clarke’s opposite number, Davis Love, is probably glad it is not all happening next week.
Certainly he will want Spieth to bounce back after such a crushing experience of being five ahead at the turn and losing by three. But then, at least Spieth was up there, as was Dustin Johnson and the ever more likely JB Holmes in a tie for fourth.
Yet the likes of Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson and Patrick Reed had shockers. So other than his own hole-in-one at the 16th on Sunday, Love did not have too much to celebrate; although there was the emergence of one young star to embrace.
On his way to the top amateur honours, Bryson DeChambeau showed enough to make many experts believe that he will soon be up there with the elite young guard. He turns professional this week and he has that ultra-confident style, with which some are still coming to terms. He says the Ryder Cup is his goal and Love does not want to dull his ambition.
“Oh, he’s a strong player. He’s a lot like Jordan or Rickie,” Love said.
“He looks like he belongs already, even though he doesn’t have a bag with his name on it yet, he really fits in,” he said. “You got to look at him because, like Jordan, Jordan went from no status to on the Presidents Cup team in a year. So, Bryson’s starting next week and we’ll keep an eye on him. It’s exciting.”
Indeed it is. The race is hotting up. And Danny Willett has just put a rocket under Europe’s aspirations of another victory.