Paul McGinley was one of Europe’s most surprising Ryder Cup heroes but the Irishman didn’t pull any surprises Tuesday morning as Ryder Cup captain when he announced his three wild-card additions to the European team.
McGinley smartly made like Captain Obvious and picked the chalk at a press conference at Wentworth in England: Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood of England and Stephen Gallacher of Scotland.
The captain said it came down to a group of five contenders at the finish. The two men who were left off the team were tough calls to make — England’s Luke Donald and Italy’s Francesco Molinari.
They were tough phone calls to make to the disappointed players but maybe not tough calls to make on paper. Even the three panelists and a correspondent on Golf Channel’s “Morning Drive” pre-conference show correctly predicted McGinley’s picks.
Why were these three picks so obvious?
Stephen Gallacher is 39 and a Ryder Cup rookie but he rose to the occasion and under the intense Ryder Cup spotlight played his brains out. He shot a bogey-free 65 after a front-nine 30 in the final round of the Italian Open, won by Hennie Otto. Had Gallacher finished second, he would have edged Graeme McDowell for the last automatic berth on the team. Gallacher was nosed out of second by a single stroke by David Howell’s closing 63. He had a strong summer and as a bonus, he’s a Scotsman playing a Ryder Cup at Gleneagles in his home country and, in fact, not very far from where he grew up and he’s had good results playing at the Ryder Cup course.
Ian Poulter is Ian Poulter. What else do you need to know? He was the heart and soul and emotional warrior leader of the European side’s thrilling comeback victory at Medinah two years ago. Maybe that’s not worth a lifetime pass onto the Ryder Cup team but it’s close enough. Poulter had to be on this team, period.
Lee Westwood, 41, is the requisite Ryder Cup warhorse. This will be his ninth appearance. He had a good start to the year — seventh at the Masters, a win at the Malaysian Open and a sixth at the Players — then rallied in August after a poor summer with a closing 63 at Firestone and a 15th-place finish at the PGA Championship. It was that late spurt in August that lifted him above Donald.
“I’m a very lucky man to have a such a variety of talent to choose from,” McGinley said Tuesday morning. “There are some quality players who did not make the team. It was a difficult call. On the positive side, we have three players who will add a lot.”
McGinley was impressed by Gallacher’s play under pressure and pleased by his reaction on the phone to the news that he’d made the team.
“Stevie’s first words were, That’s brilliant, wee man!” McGinley said. “Last week in Italy under the spotlight was huge for Stephen. He’ll look back at that as one of the highlights of his career — what he did, how he did it. All credit to him. He gravitated toward the finish line.
“Of course, it’s a concern to pick a rookie but there’s no doubt Stephen proved himself and earned a spot. Stevie had a goal last week. He played poorly three weeks in a row in America, came back and played decent in Czechoslovakia. He needed a big performance last week. For me, it was Friday afternoon when he really, really showed that he wanted to be a Ryder Cup player. I think was 14 shots behind the leader at one point and came home in 30 to get within striking distance of the leaders, then followed it up with a strong weekend.”
Poulter, 38, hadn’t had a win this year and hasn’t had a top 10 since June, when he placed sixth in Memphis. But it’s his past Ryder Cup performances when he has risen to the occasion and inspired his teammates that has him on this team. He was a controversial captain's pick by Nick Faldo in 2008, but then went 4-1 at Valhalla. He was the one sure thing among the three picks this year.
“To get the call from Paul was amazing,” Poulter said via phone at the press conference. “I’m very proud to be a pick and I can’t wait to get there. The Ryder Cup means a lot to me and I guarantee I’ll be ready to try to do my best.”
It seems as if the final selection came down to a choice between Westwood and Donald, Ryder Cup standout performers in the past and who each reached No. 1 in the world rankings for a time.
That choice was the tough one McGinley had to make and he made it. He’s had a close relationship to Luke and was Donald’s partner in Luke’s first Ryder Cup match. “He’s been an incredible performer and his Ryder Cup record is outstanding,” McGinley said. “It was a very difficult call for me to make. Luke was very, very disappointed and rightly so. That was a difficult conversation for me. He said, ‘You know, Paul, I believe you’ll be a great captain. His last two words were, ‘Go, Europe!’ “Luke and Francesco were incredibly humble and incredibly accepting of my decision. I couldn’t have asked for two guys to accept the decision any better.”
The actual decision-making day went like this for McGinley. He joined vice captains Des Smyth and Sam Torrance for a morning round of golf at Queenwood in Kent, England. They had lunch afterward, left, showered and returned for dinner and a meeting to finalize their ideas. McGinley had wanted to wait because some key European players were competing in America at the Deutsche Bank Championship. With his decisions made, McGinley began making phone calls to the key players on the bubble at about 8:30, United Kingdom time.
“Ryder Cup teams are difficult to make,” Poulter said. “The players are running hard at the end to show form and Paul had a very difficult decision with some fantastic players to pick from.”
A difficult decision? Given the Ryder Cup’s immense stage, yes. But for McGinley, a fairly obvious one. American captain Tom Watson won’t have it so easy.