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26.08.16


Captains ready to play their cards

26.08.16


First published in The Telegraph on the 23rd August 2016.

With just days to go before Darren Clarke and Davis Love III name their teams for the event at Hazeltine, here is the state of play.

EUROPE

Definitely: The automatic top nine

Darren Clarke, the Europe Ryder Cup captain, would have expected to be playing in the Made in Denmark championship with at least one automatic berth up for grabs ahead of the long-awaited biennial clash with the United States at Hazeltine, Minnesota, in September.

However, three-quarters of his line-up was decided at the penultimate event of the qualifying race in Prague, when Thomas Pieters’ failure to win confirmed that England’s Andy Sullivan and Matt Fitzpatrick would make their debuts.

That pair completed the list of nine who have earned their places by right, alongside the shoo-ins of Rory McIlroy (Northern Ireland), Danny Willett (England), Henrik Stenson (Sweden) and Justin Rose (England) – who are all in the world’s top 10 – and Sergio García, the world No 11.

Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose

Sullivan, Fitzpatrick and Willett are joined by compatriot Chris Wood and Rafael Cabrera-Bello of Spain in making their bow, meaning Clarke will have a team including at least five rookies and five Englishmen.

Maybe: The wild cards

Decision time looms about who Clarke will take as his wild-card picks, so as well as keeping an eye on who plays well in Denmark he will be closely scrutinising the results and stats from The Barclays, which is taking place at Bethpage in New York this weekend.

England’s Luke Donald, a former world No 1, and Graeme McDowell, the 2010 US Open champion from Northern Ireland, finished second and fifth respectively at the recent Wyndham Championship.

Both will be confident of producing good performances in the first of the FedEx Cup play-offs that would provide the Europe captain with a timely reminder of their undoubted qualities.

With Lee Westwood an apparent sure thing to make his 10th Ryder Cup appearance and Martin Kaymer, the double major winner from Germany, seemingly certain of selection, it looks as if Donald and McDowell are involved in a battle for Clarke's third pick.

That said, Scotland’s Russell Knox, who won the Travelers Championship in early August, must be considered a favourite and is also at Bethpage, as is Francesco Molinari, while Pieters, Shane Lowry, Soren Kjeldsen and Tyrrell Hatton may feature in considerations as well.

Clarke announces his selections on Tuesday, 30 August at Wentworth.

UNITED STATES

Definitely: The automatic top eight

What a contrast. While Clarke already knows nine of his team, his captaincy counterpart Davis Love can name only five of his at present.

A thoughtful Davis Love III

What’s more, in the final event counting towards Ryder Cup qualification at Bethpage there will be 16 players in with a chance of grabbing one of three remaining places. Even Charley Hoffmann, who is down in 22nd in the standings, could sneak in with a win.

Never mind being a subplot to the FedEx Cup play-off opener, the Ryder Cup race promises to be the running theme of the story.

Only Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson, Jimmy Walker and Brooks Koepka can tee it up at The Barclays without the added pressure of trying to secure qualification for Love’s dozen-strong team.

Koepka, who will be making his Ryder Cup debut, is a classy big-hitter who seems made for Hazeltine, while special mention should be given to Mickelson.

This is the 11th time in succession that the 46-year-old has made the US team by right - a remarkable feat given the strength of the PGA Tour.

Maybe: The wild cards

Love has another two weeks before he has to name the first three of his four captain’s picks and with the logjam in the standings he must be thankful of the extra time.

Some big names are on the outside looking in and it will be intriguing to see who responds to the pressure over the coming weeks.

Rickie Fowler has endured a torrid time and while his absence was almost inconceivable six months ago, there are a few very wise judges wondering if he now deserves his berth.

Bubba Watson will surely be selected if he does not force his way in this week, if only for his length off the tee, while JB Holmes has only just slipped down to ninth and Love has spoken of the big-hitter's suitability to the Minnesota layout.

Otherwise, the questions abound. Will Love go for a veteran such as Jim Furyk or will he go for a hungry young buck such as Daniel Berger? Or perhaps he will find room for both and ignore a big name such as Matt Kuchar?

Those who fail to make the cut on 11 September has one last chance. Straight after the Tour Championship in Atlanta, on the Sunday before the matches start, Love will name his final selection. Never mind the FedEx millions, there is much else still to play for.

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