“I have a good feeling about tomorrow. That's all I'm gonna say.”
In retrospect, if Gentle Ben knew a secret it was that the European lineup, a group that had built a commanding 10-6 lead through team play at the 1999 Ryder Cup, had more holes in its bullpen than the Pittsburgh Pirates.
For two days European captain Mark James had deftly played around what some considered his liabilities in the team portion of the competition, but in Sunday singles there was no protection for the likes of Jean Van de Velde, Jarmo Sandelin and Andrew Coltart.
All three went out early on Sunday at Brookline having watched from the sidelines for two days and suffered convincing losses that helped spur the American side to the greatest comeback in the history of the matches.
Brookline was hardly an aberration. The theory went that after the European stalwarts of Colin Montgomerie, Jose Maria Olazabal and Lee Westwood the bench was thin. In short, Europe was top heavy.
It’s a problem with which current captain Colin Montgomerie is utterly unfamiliar. How far has the pendulum swung for the Europeans? Consider that if Monty had to pick his team today he would have to split his three captain’s picks between the likes of Paul Casey, Justin Rose, Padraig Harrington, Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia.
All total, there are nine Europeans in the top 50 in the World Ranking who are not currently on the team via two separate points lists, including three in the top 20 (Casey No. 8, Harrington No. 17 and Rose No. 18). And that equation ignores Welshman Rhys Davis, who at 50th in the World Ranking is a statistical long shot but would be a sentimental favorite considering the site of this year’s matches at Celtic Manor Resort in Wales.
“I could pick two teams that could beat each other on any given day,” Montgomerie boasted on Tuesday. “Our players have performed brilliantly worldwide, so much so that there are a number of issues that have to be addressed in the fact that these picks, right now, you'll see there's a number of world stars, and I mean world stars, that aren't already qualified within that team.”
It is a measure of Monty’s depth that Harrington, a team staple since 1999 who has a 7-11-3 record in 21 matches, is not only on the wrong side of cut line with one major to play but is something of a long shot based on his current form.
“It just depends how (Harrington is) playing at the time. On current form, maybe not,” Graeme McDowell said. “There's a lot of players needing a pick. Paul Casey obviously could get himself on the side, and there's a lot of top, top players, Henrik Stenson. So there's a lot of stuff to happen between now and the picks, and I'm sure Monty was wishing maybe he had an extra pick at the minute.”
The current European team would include Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy, McDowell, a four-ball and foursomes dream pairing for Monty, and Luke Donald from a list based on the World Ranking; and Ian Poulter, Martin Kaymer, Francesco Molinari, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Ross McGowen off a list based on the Race for Dubai points list.
Fortunately Monty has over a month before he must make any decisions and a major and a World Golf Championship that could help simplify his choices. But right now that does little to solve a puzzle that currently has far too many pieces.
As unthinkable as a European Ryder Cup team without the likes of Garcia or Harrington may seem – Europe has not fielded a side without the two in more than a decade – the current structure of the points system and landscape may require that Monty make some difficult decisions.
“Those picks right now are the biggest headache we have, but a very positive headache at the same time, a very positive one,” Montgomerie said. “We have never had so many champions, world stars, top 20 players in the world, that aren't on the Ryder Cup team and that proves how strong we are.”
But then Monty’s woes are trivial by comparison to the angina that American captain Corey Pavin must be having as the matches inch closer. Sunday’s leaderboard at St. Andrews was dominated by Europeans, with the continent taking six of the top 10 spots, and the final tally at the U.S. Open – four Europeans among the top 10 – was almost as dominant.
Individual accomplishments mean little when the independent contractors take the pitch to play for country and points (see Woods, Tiger), but following his disappointing loss to Louis Oosthuizen on Sunday at the Open Championship it was impossible for Casey to hide his optimism about the home side’s chances in October.
“We're already going to have an unbelievable team. We're going to have a great team. It doesn't guarantee a victory, but I think we'll be pretty good,” said Casey with a knowing smile that, like Gentle Ben in 1999, suggested he knew the answer to a question most of us haven’t even asked.