Westwood, Kaymer among captain's picks for Ryder Cup
Europe captain Darren Clarke opted for a mix of form and experience in his picks for the Ryder Cup on Tuesday, with Thomas Pieters, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer joining a team seeking an unprecedented fourth straight victory.
Clarke said Westwood and Kaymer, both former top-ranked players and Ryder Cup veterans, were “very obvious” choices, but he had sleepless nights over his final selection.
It boiled down to Pieters vs. Russell Knox, players who have won events on different sides of the Atlantic this month. Pieters, who won the Made in Denmark on Sunday in front of Clarke, got the nod.
“It’s one of the most difficult periods in the whole of my golfing career,” said Clarke, who added that the phone call to let down Knox was “one of the toughest I have ever had to make.”
The addition of Pieters meant the European team will have six Ryder Cup rookies in Hazeltine next month.
Masters champions Danny Willett, Chris Wood, Rafa Cabrera-Bello, Andy Sullivan and Matt Fitzpatrick also will sample golf’s biggest team event for the first time. They qualified automatically along with four-time major winner Rory McIlroy, British Open champion Henrik Stenson, Olympic gold medalist Justin Rose, and Sergio Garcia.
That partly explains Clarke’s desire for more balance to the team, and therefore his call for Westwood — a longtime friend — and Kaymer.
It will be the 43-year-old Westwood’s 10th straight Ryder Cup, while two-time major champion Kaymer has played in the last three Ryder Cups and made the putt that ensured Europe would retain the cup at Medinah in 2012. They will offer experienced voices in the team room.
“Because all our rookies are playing frequently in America now, it’s not quite what it used to be,” Clarke said. “That being said, the Ryder Cup is not like any other event.”
Clarke said Luke Donald — another former No. 1 and a four-time Ryder Cup winner — and Graeme McDowell would also have been in contention to join Westwood and Kaymer, if their form was better.
In the end, it was a straight shootout between Knox and Pieters.
The U.S-based Knox is a two-time winner on the U.S. PGA Tour this season, including at the Travelers Championship this month, and ranked No. 20 — the sixth highest position for a European. His win at a WGC event in Shanghai last year didn’t count toward Ryder Cup qualification because he wasn’t a member of the European Tour at that stage. If he had been, Knox would be an automatic qualifier.
Pieters stood out, though, after an impressive run of finishes over the past month: Fourth place at the Olympics, second place at the Czech Masters, and then a third victory in the past year at the Made in Denmark where he birdied the last three holes to win. Pieters was grouped with Clarke for the first two rounds.
“He has the talent to go all the way to the top of the world,” Clarke said of Pieters, a big-hitting Belgian who played college golf at Illinois and won the NCAA individual title in 2012 at Riviera.
“He brings a bit more of the X-factor. He is going to blossom. He will be a star.”
Clarke said he recently set up a WhatsApp group with his vice-captains regarding the captain’s picks. “Anyone who’s been playing well, it’s been on there,” Clarke said.
Pieters’ name will have popped up more than anyone else.
“It’s been a little bit crazy,” Pieters said. “I was playing well but the results weren’t there and I guess I had to step it up at the end. I can’t wait to get on that plane and be with the team the whole week.”