Opinion: Captains defined by Ryder Cup pairings
There had been 19 months to think about his Ryder Cup pairings since Darren Clarke was named European captain last February.
When Justin Rose’s opening drive split the 1st fairway at Hazeltine, the 41st Ryder Cup matches were finally underway.
Four hours later and the captain’s plans were in tatters, his European team reduced to rubble.
Clarke had spoken ahead of the match about how he would lie awake at night and think of a new pairing, a fresh permutation.
Quite how many of them still felt appealing as he surveyed the wreckage of the Friday morning wipeout is a question only the captain can answer.
Ryder Cup pairings
A detailed look at the scores only confirmed what was already apparent. Europe never recovered from slow starts in the first and last games. While the Mickelson/Fowler combination won three consecutive holes when it mattered most to turn round their game. That was nothing compared to Zach Johnson and Jimmy Walker who reeled off five straight wins against the hapless Martin Kaymer and Sergio Garcia.
The suspicion is that Clarke’s original plan was to get all 12 men on his team out on the course on the first day. Which captain’s wouldn’t be.
But what do you do when faced with a 4-0 deficit and a quarter of an hour to write down eight names for the afternoon fourballs?
If he didn’t know already, his vice-captains would have confirmed that his great friend Lee Westwood had endured perhaps his lowest moment in a Ryder Cup career that has spanned all but 20 years. Kaymer was little better. Garcia was sub-standard too.
Andy Sullivan holed a couple of great putts but, sadly, wilted when his match got tight.
Justin Rose couldn’t buy a putt. Henrik Stenson was good but not great – likewise Rory McIlroy.
And waiting for the nod from the sidelines? Who could Clarke summon by way of a cavalry? Four rookies: Danny Willett, Matt Fitzpatrick, Chris Wood and Rafa Cabrera-Bello.
If you wanted an illustration of how lonely a place the Ryder Cup captaincy can be, this was it.
We must, then, give great credit to the Northern Irishman.
Starting with the brave, courageous decision to send Thomas Pieters out again. When Stephen Gallacher, in similar circumstances and by an identical scoreline, was on the end of a first-morning stuffing, in his case alongside Ian Poulter, he wasn’t seen again until the singles.
Clarke put Pieters out with McIlroy. He was rewarded by seeing his Belgian wild card play a full part from the word go, winning three of the first seven holes.
Had that decision backfired, he would have neutered his prime weapon, and most likely rendered McIlroy pointless on the day.
Ryder Cup pairings
Courageous too was his retention of faith in his best pair, Messrs Stenson and Rose. He could easily have split them up. And putting them out top, in the almost certain knowledge the same opponents would be waiting for them again, could easily have led to a complete Day One blank.
Instead, they had their own back on Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed. In doing so they punctured the aura of a partnership who were beginning to look unbeatable.
The Spanish pairing of Garcia and Rafa Cabrera-Bello was, we can assume, always part of the Grand Plan. But even Clarke could not have dreamed that his rookie would open up with a birdie to get them ahead at the earliest opportunity.
Which leaves Kaymer and Danny Willett, the Masters champion. Sad to say, the German, a two-time Major champion, failed to register on the scorecard on the front nine. He didn’t make a birdie all day. That left Willett alone to counter the ball-striking excellence of Brooks Koepka and the red-hot putter of Brandt Snedeker.
Meanwhile, collateral damage, were Matt Fitzpatrick and Chris Wood. The latter, stuck behind a pillar for the opening ceremony, is yet to be spotted at Hazeltine, let alone as part of any Ryder Cup pairings.
They must wait another day to get a taste of the action. And their chances of success will be that much less considering their opponents will have already played at least once before.
In a day of two halves, but no halved matches, the end result is that 16 players – 10 Americans and six Europeans – each have a point to their name. Of the remaining eight, two have yet to play, five have lost once while poor Kaymer has two defeats to his name.
Ryder Cup pairings
It still feels, though, that Davis Love’s pre-match plan is closer to being intact than his opposite number’s.
Sometimes, with Ryder Cup pairings, it is only on Saturday afternoon when an imbalanced team is exposed. Or even Sunday, should some star names have given too much over the first two days.
Captain Clarke has done what he had to do. He has given Europe a chance. The question is, at what cost to his longer-term strategy.
We will only find out as the weekend unfolds.