FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – Padraig Harrington had just shot a seven-under-par 64 in Thursday’s first round of the Barclays at Bethpage Black, including a 29 on the back nine, to take a one-stroke lead over Brian Harman and Nick Watney in the first of the four FedEx Cup playoff events.
Still, Harrington looked anguished as he sat behind the microphone, facing reporters. How would you characterize your relationship with European Ryder Cup captain Jose Maria Olazabal? The question hung in the air as Harrington stared down at the table in front of him for one second, two seconds, three…
“You know, I don’t know where I sit,” Harrington said. “Or maybe I do.”
The scribes broke up laughing. It’s no secret that the two don’t exchange Christmas cards, their relationship having long ago fractured over a rules kerfuffle at the 2003 Seve Trophy, a Ryder Cup-like event between Great Britain & Ireland and Continental Europe. Harrington questioned whether Olazabal had illegally fixed a pitch mark, Olazabal angrily conceded the hole, and GB&I narrowly won.
Their relationship hasn’t been the same since, and it has become golf’s most scrutinized divorce since Tiger and Stevie. That’s because Harrington has not yet made Europe’s Ryder Cup team on points, cannot make it on points, and will need one of Olazabal’s two captain’s picks to play in his seventh straight Cup. Ian Poulter is a lock for one of them; Nicolas Colsaerts is the favorite for the other.
Harrington tried to “plead the fifth” when questioned at Bethpage about his and Olazabal’s stormy past, but it didn’t work. He’s a talker; he can’t help himself.
“You know, I was very supportive of Jose when he got the captaincy,” said Harrington, who birdied six of his last eight holes, including four in a row from 11-14. “I truly believe that he is interested in winning the Ryder Cup. … From the character that he is, I believe he would put winning above anything that’s personal.”
You “can’t overstate” the impact of the Ryder Cup in Europe, Harrington said, which is one reason why he desperately wants to be on the team that will take on the U.S. at Medinah, outside Chicago, Sept. 28-30. Still, he doesn’t want to publicly “plead” his case, as he put it, nor does he want to appear as if he doesn’t care if he makes his seventh team. “I’m in a terrible place,” he said.
How did it come to this? Short answer: An old rift, and a weird rule.
The race to make the U.S. Ryder Cup team on points is over, and has been since the end of the PGA Championship at Kiawah almost two weeks ago. Eight men made it; U.S. captain Davis Love III will make four wildcard picks after next week’s Deutsche Bank Championship. Got it? Good. Now it gets complicated.
The European team is made up of the top five players from the European Points List, plus the top five from the World List who have not otherwise qualified.
This is the final week to make the European team on points, but the rub is that whatever happens at the Barclays doesn’t count. That seemingly arbitrary decision, by the European tour, which runs the Ryder Cup for Europe, no doubt pleases the powers that be at the Johnnie Walker at Gleneagles, the Euro tour’s competing event in Scotland this week. Playing the Johnnie Walker for the points, Colsaerts shot an opening-round 69 Thursday and is two off the lead. If he finishes second or higher at Gleneagles, he makes the team on points, and Olazabal’s wildcard picks, which he will announce Monday, become less agonizing.
If not, and Harrington keeps his foot down at Bethpage, then he will win style points and popular support, bringing even more light to his ancient, but clearly not forgotten, dust-up with Olazabal. Needing to pick just two players from among Poulter, Colsaerts, Harrington and Miguel Angel-Jimenez, Olazabal presumably will need little reason to leave Harrington on the sidelines. He said at the PGA that Harrington would need to do something “extraordinary” for a pick. Olazabal was asked Thursday at Gleneagles what would qualify as "extraordinary," and he answered "at least win."
The plot thickens when you add Sergio Garcia, who salted away his spot on the team with a victory at the rain-delayed Wyndham—the last PGA Tour event in which a Euro could earn World List points—on Monday. A countryman and confidante of Olazabal’s, Garcia doesn’t much like Harrington, and the feeling is mutual. It was Harrington who thwarted Garcia at both the 2007 British Open and ’08 PGA, and Garcia is said to have resorted to mild gamesmanship.
“I know Jose is going to do the best thing for the team,” Garcia said earlier this week, “and if that includes Harrington, it’ll be fine. If not, there’s a lot of other guys that are playing very, very well, too. I don’t think he’s a sure pick. He wouldn’t be a sure pick for me.”
Euro captain Colin Montgomerie picked Harrington for the 2010 Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor—Harrington found out he was in and Paul Casey learned he was out in the middle of the last round of the Barclays—and Harrington went 2-2-0.
“Depending on how [Harrington] continues to play this week,” said Rory McIlroy, who shot an opening-round 69 while playing with Tiger Woods (68), “it could be a bit of a headache for Jose on Sunday night.” Asked if Harrington should make the team, McIlroy added: “Yeah, if he’s playing well and he’s in good form going into it, then of course we need the best players on the team.”
European supporters may be hoping Martin Kaymer, 10th on the World List, gets nudged to 11th by Colsaerts. Kaymer shot 79-79 to miss the cut at the PGA, and is playing so poorly he could be excused if he politely excuses himself from the upcoming Ryder matches. That, too, would simplify Olazabal’s job, possibly opening up a last-minute spot for Harrington.
“I’m happy I’m playing well,” he said. “That’s all I can do. I’ve played well all year, solid. I’m happy I seem to have something going, my putting going, that’s bringing me back to where I’ve been.”
Love has a simpler task. There is but one U.S. points list, and he gets four picks. Nick Watney shot 65 at Bethpage on Thursday, and Pat Perez, a fiery player who’s often mentioned as an intriguing Ryder prospect, was at 66. Dustin Johnson, the most high-profile American outside the top eight in points, shot 67. Love has the luxury of four picks, many fine candidates, a system that seems to make sense and an extra week in which to sort it all out.
Olazabal, Harrington, Garcia and Team Europe should be so lucky.