Darren Clarke banks on Thomas Pieters
First published in The Telegraph on the 1st September 2016.
If anyone is still wondering why Darren Clarke chose Thomas Pieters as his final wildcard and so gave himself the task of making history as a Ryder Cup captain, then the Ulsterman has provided an emphatic answer. “I have not seen a young player with as much talent since Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy,” Clarke said.
Since Great Britain & Ireland became Europe four decades ago and effectively made the biennial match a proper contest, no team has ever won on away soil with more than five rookies in their ranks. In naming the 24-year-old Belgian alongside veterans Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer to complete his Hazeltine dozen, Clarke ensured he will have six debutants to marshal in four weeks time. Yet while admitting it will be a big ask, he sounds certain that Pieters will have all the answers to help Europe win a record fourth match in succession and the seventh in eight years.
“I've been on Tour for a long time and I've seen massive talent come along," Clarke said after finally revealing his hand. “I played with Tiger when he was an amateur at the Open at Lytham in 1996 and I've seen Rory up close since he's been a very young kid. Well, Thomas impresses me in the same league as those guys. He has that amount of talent. Can he be world No1? Yes. I said all along that I would not pick another rookie. But he hits it so far and his short-game is also fantastic. Thomas brings something special to the team.” Also Pieters won so impressively at the Made in Denmark championship last week that, in Clarke's words, it was "impossible not to pick him".
Nobody is more aware of the scale of the Minnesota mission than Clarke. Back in January, he told Telegraph Sport that, ideally, he did not want more than four rookies and warned against selecting first-timers as wildcards, citing the most recent examples. In the past three matches, Edoardo Molinari, Nicolas Colsaerts and Stephen Gallacher have seduced the respective captains into giving them their nod because of eye-catching late runs. Yet between them they have contributed only two points out of a possible eight. Little wonder, therefore, that with five Cup virgins having made it in the automatic top nine, Clarke was keen to fill his roster with three experienced performers.
Yet apart from Westwood and Kaymer (14th and 13th in the standings), Clarke revealed he could not justify going with another veteran, so the decision came down to Pieters or the Scot Russell Knox. A rumour emerged on Monday that Clarke would side with Luke Donald after his recent second place at the Wyndham Championship. However, Clarke dismissed the notion.
“You tell me, who could I have picked for experience? Who is in form?” Clarke replied when quizzed on the issue after the grand unveiling in the Wentworth ballroom. “If I was going to add experience, I needed to see guys that were playing well. Unfortunately, you know, the two guys who would have fallen into that category, GMac [Graeme McDowell] and Luke, are not quite playing the way we know they can play. So my options of adding to the team with strength then came back to rookies and it came down to Thomas or Russell.”
Clarke acknowledged that Knox should, and yes, does feel aggrieved at being overlooked and confessed that making the call to the Florida-based Inverness man on Monday “was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in golf”. Knox won the World Golf Championship event in China last year and with his victory at the Travelers Championship last month rose into the world’s top 20. Davis Love, the US captain, indicated on Monday that he would love to have the 31-year-old at his disposal, but Clarke was not about to apologise for favouring Pieters, a player more than 20 places below Knox in the rankings.
“Some people say he deserved the pick, some will say Russell deserved it, but, as captain, I had to do what I believed to be right. And it's not as straightforward as most people imagine. If it was we would just go straight down off the world rankings. That's not the European way, that’s not what we do. It's all about getting the right mixture. Team is more important and that European team ethos is what has enabled us to be as successful as we have and hopefully with this team, that's what I will do.”
Pieters is a popular, dry character who likes a joke as he showed when texting Clarke when he was on live TV on Tuesday after the captain had said he had turned off his mobile. He is a quirky type who will bring sparkle to the teamroom. Yet Westwood is adamant it is the glitter which he will bring to the fairways which will be remembered. “Everybody sees Thomas as a bit of a bomber, which he is, but what impresses me is his pitching and his his holing out,” Westwood said. “I think he's got everything. He’s a star in waiting.”
And like his great friend, Clarke, Westwood is confident that Pieters, as well as the other rookies such as Danny Willett, Matt Fitzpatrick and Andy Sullivan have what it takes to survive the bear pit.
“Let’s make no bones about it, it will be tough,” Westwood said. “It’s difficult to be a rookie when the crowd are cheering for you, never mind when you're in the States and they're dead against you. But I look at our rookies’ characters and I think: ‘Yeah, they can handle it, they’re up for a fight, they can take a bit of stick.' So I'm very positive.”