Harrington's hellacious headache

2021 Ryder Cup / Whistling Straits

Padraig Harrington – captain’s picks

Padraig Harrington - captain's picks
(Adam Davy/PA)

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Pity Padraig. Being the captain of Team Europe is no easy task but when one of your hands is tied behind the other because of a convoluted selection process one has to wonder if the Irishman’s head is still pounding from all the back-and-forth jibber jabber. 

Padraig Harrington – captain’s picks

Last week’s BMW PGA Championship was the final event for players to make their individual case for selection for Team Europe. Adding to the pressure was a double awarding of points tied to how players fared in the event. For several of them that meant a heavy schedule to handle. A number of the leading players use the PGA Tour as their main base of operations and with the FedEx Cup Playoffs just concluding — the BMW event at Wentworth meant another decision on whether to play or rely upon Harrington selecting them via his three captain’s picks. 

The selection system Team Europe opted to use only added to the confusion and a headache for the Irish skipper to sort through. Part of that stemmed from the mandate that no fewer than four players come off the European Tour list. Why? Simple. The European Tour is a partial stakeholder in the Ryder Cup and having players stay involved with the European Tour and its events throughout the year meant having a meaningful “carrot” for those who performed the best. The four top finishers on the circuit received automatic inclusion. Was this really necessary? In the mind of the European Tour brain trust — yes. The other five positions would come from the world ranking order and the final three slots decided by Harrington via his captain selections. 

Padraig Harrington – captain’s picks

The tap dancing with two distinct methods of selection was a political compromise and that simply meant Harrington was on the hot seat to make some difficult final choices. Adding to the 50-year-old’s consternation was the BMW’s double point payoff at the final event. That meant a pressure-packed see-saw with players literally fretting over each shot and round of golf.

Instead of having a fairly orderly process as the matches approach next week — the system actually caused more consternation and inevitably meant a game of musical chairs in which some make it — while others stay home.

Padraig Harrington – captain’s picks

Harrington opted for Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter and Shane Lowry for his captain choices.

Garcia and Poulter were always on Harrington’s favorite list and the Spaniard helped himself considerably via his play in the FedEx Cup Playoffs and from having been a mainstay for Team Europe’s point production when he’s in the line-up.

Poulter, also known as “the postman,” because he has always delivered in the bi-annual matches — was also favored by Padraig. Unlike Garcia, Poulter’s play this year has been an uneven mixture of some solid outings balanced against those far less so.

Lowry was a central need given his ascension up the ladder in world golf. The 2019 Open champion had never played in a Ryder Cup and one can only imagine the pressure Harrington was under if he opted to go in another direction and leave his fellow countryman on the sidelines.

Padraig Harrington – captain’s picks

So, when the European Ryder Cup music stopped — the main man missing was Justin Rose. 

Will Team Europe miss Justin Rose? Hard to say with certainty. The five-time Ryder Cupper did play well at Wentworth but his play this year was substandard given his past successes. The Englishman led after 36 holes at this year’ Masters but faded on the weekend. He also secured a top ten finish at this year’s PGA Championship at Kiawah but was not truly in contention as a final round 67 catapulted him up the leaderboard. Rose was also hobbled from back issues that flared up at different times. 

Clearly, the issue of having or not having Rose will center on how well Harrington’s captain’s picks fare at Whistling Straits. This is no different than when USA captain Jim Furyk opted to include Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson among his three choices for the matches in Paris. How well did Woods and Mickelson fare? They played four matches collectively. Total number of points? Zero. The lessons learned from the USA debacle in France was clearly something current captain Steve Stricker sought to avoid this time around. 

The American team competing in Wisconsin is younger and does not have the mental and physical baggage that dogged the USA squad from three years ago. Stricker kept the door open for input — selecting Mickelson as an assistant captain — but once that decision was made there was no doubt Lefty would not be a selectee.

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Padraig Harrington – captain’s picks

Harrington is betting his captain’s choices will be major contributors given the past accomplishments of Garcia and Poulter at previous Ryder Cup plays — the Spaniard sports a collective record of 22-12-7 for a total of 25.5 points — most ever in Team Europe history. Poulter’s record is also impressive — 14-6-2 and the Englishman has never been beaten in a singles match.

If the veteran players such as Garcia and Poulter do not demonstrate a meaningful contribution of points, there will be plenty of second-guessing for Harrington. The same applies in how Lowry fares. Harrington’s logic in selecting his fellow countryman is clear but everything will be measured by the points won at Whistling Straits.

Ryder Cup pressure has no peer in all of golf. Some are bolstered — others cursed because of it. Harrington has no plans to follow in the footsteps of another past Irish captain Darren Clarke who lost in 2016 at Hazeltine.

Should Europe fail to retain the Cup there will be questions — rightly asked — about the selection process. The USA opted to increase the total number of captain’s picks to six and Stricker picked wisely — although including Scottie Scheffler may be a concern to watch. The USA squad on paper is formidable but matches are not played on paper. Harrington’s immediate headache can certainly be alleviated but only a victory will forever put decisions made now in the rear-view mirror for good. 

Padraig Harrington – captain’s picks

The results from Wisconsin will likely set in motion any future changes needed for Team Europe. Relying on world rankings would be a good step – increasing the number of captain’s picks would give a bit more flexibility as well. 

If Harrington thought the captaincy was tough now — he best be prepared for what lies ahead next week at Whistling Straits.

Advice to the Irish skipper?

Take two aspirin now and keep the champagne on ice.

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