Henrik Stenson triumph suggests epic awaits at Hazeltine
First published in The Telegraph on the 20th July 2016.
Mark down the US captain as one who would dearly love to see a Henrik Stenson versus Phil Mickelson rematch at the Ryder Cup.
Davis Love III clearly believes his man would be up for taking revenge at Hazeltine. Love was in the air when the Open duel of the ages was taking place on Royal Troon on Sunday and although he was disappointed on landing to see that his friend had lost, he was still on cloud nine when looking down the results. Eight of the top 17 were American, equalling the European performance on home soil.
When asked by his PGA employers whether he would like to see Stenson and Mickelson go at it again in the Sunday singles, Love was unequivocal. “That would be awesome,” he said. “It would be a battle we remember forever and I’m sure Phil would like another shot at Henrik as well.
"Shoot, I saw the stat that said Phil’s score would have won 140 [of the 145] Open Championships, but it wasn’t enough to win this one. Man, he’s been so unfortunate. Other than Jack Nicklaus, Phil is probably the most unfortunate guy in major history. Take Tiger Woods out of the equation, Stenson on Sunday, a few bad breaks – Phil probably wins double the majors he has right now.”
At least Mickelson’s Ryder Cup berth is confirmed and so he will extend his US record to 11 consecutive appearances. Mickelson will also equal Sir Nick Faldo’s mark, but if you consider that Faldo required wild card picks on five occasions and that Mickelson has qualified by right each time, it makes his run all the more astonishing.
Love will be glad to have the 46-year-old and he will also delighted that J.B Holmes has one foot in the team room as well. The big-hitter’s third-place finish – albeit 11 shots behind Mickelson – saw him leap from 12th to fifth in the US standings and a second appearance beckons.
Holmes was excellent in 2008, when the US won their only match this century, and Love is quite sure he would excel again. “JB Holmes is built for Hazeltine,” Love said. The 34-year-old can make Love’s job much more straightforward by confirming his place in the six remaining weeks of qualifying, with the top eight making the team automatically. Love will then name three of his wild cards at the conclusion of the BMW Championship, two weeks later and then choose his final pick after the Tour Championship, the Sunday before the Ryder Cup begins.
Love accepts that this is where it gets difficult as he strives for the perfect balance to make up for his defeat at Medinah four years ago and to give his country just its second success in 17 years. “There’s a lot of reasons you want to be captain and a lot you of reasons you don’t want to be as you get closer,” Love said. “We’re closing in on the tough decisions now.”
Brooks Koepka is providing one headache. As Love indicates, the 26-year-old has the “power which would be great at Hazeltine and he’d pair up well”. But he tore ankle ligaments last month and after missing the Open is a doubt for next week’s USPGA Championship at Baltusrol. Koepka is seventh in the standings but could easily fall out of the automatics if he is sidelined much longer. As a debutant, does Love then pick him if and when he does recover?
“There’s a lot of reasons you want to be captain and a lot you of reasons you don’t want to be as you get closer”
On the flip side is the form of Steve Stricker. The 49-year-old only plays a part-time schedule but showed his enduring quality in Ayrshire when finishing fourth, despite being on the wrong side of the draw. Love has already named Stricker as one of his assistants, yet he feels he may have to ask him to don his spikes.
“Steve has played in half the events as most of the other guys and he’s No 23 [in the standings] right now. Look what he’s done in his body of work,” Love said, reflecting not just on his fine display at Troon, but also his tie for second on the PGA Tour in Memphis last month. “That’s some great golf and it puts me in a spot where I have to think about him.”
Jim Furyk is another assistant who could force his way in as a player. “He was out for six months recovering from a wrist injury,” Love said. “There’s another guy that should probably be in the top five if he didn’t get hurt. If anything, I think it might narrow down the conversations a little; with the way Jim and Steve have been playing, I can just talk to [his other assistants] Tom [Lehman] and Tiger [Woods] about it.”
Who would have thought when Love was reappointed last year that Woods, not having played yet in 2016 with his back problems, would be helping to make the decision whether semi-retired Stricker and 46-year-old Furyk should be there as competitors? And who would have believed that Rickie Fowler would be out of the automatic positions after his start to the season?
But then, it is not clear cut for Love’s opposite number, either. Darren Clarke expressed his pleasure at Stenson ending his major drought.
“His win means Europe will be heading to the Ryder Cup with at least two of the current major winners – and after next week I won’t be surprised if it’s three,” Clarke said. “Henrik and others showed at Troon just how strong European golf is.”
Europe also had eight in that top 17, but could boast five of the top nine. At least six of Clarke’s automatic nine seem certain, with Stenson, Rory McIlroy, Danny Willett, Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia and Rafael Cabrera-Bello all looking locks. Then it gets complicated. Chris Wood, the BMW PGA Championship winner, pulled out after 12 holes of the Open with a neck injury, while Matt Fitzpatrick missed his third cut in as many weeks and suddenly appears vulnerable after being leapfrogged by Andy Sullivan.
With five rookies in the nine at the moment, Clarke would probably not pick another, no matter how impressed he was by Tyrrell Hatton finishing fifth and Andrew ‘Beef’ Johnston finishing alongside Sullivan. The Dane Soren Kjeldsen climbed up the rankings to 12th but he has likely guessed he still has a few spots to go with only five events left in qualifying.
Lee Westwood, at 10th in the standings, is a certainty and then the other two picks would probably come from Martin Kaymer, Francesco Molinari and Graeme McDowell. They could all do with good results at the USPGA. As Love suggested, it’s getting serious now.
For the captains, the players, the media and yes, even the fans. Stenson and Mickelson have provided a delicious snapshot of what we could have to look forward to in Minnesota.