Commentary

Pick of Poulter adds level of intrigue prior to Ryder Cup

Originally Published: August 31, 2008
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

If there had been a conspiracy, Nick Faldo's choices in rounding out his European Ryder Cup team on Sunday did nothing to dissuade the doubters.

European Ryder Cup team

After the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles on Sunday, the 10 automatic selections for the European Ryder Cup team were finalized. European captain Nick Faldo then made his at-large selections later in the day to fill out his roster for the Sept. 19-21 Ryder Cup.

Player Country Ryder Cup record
Paul Casey * England 3-1-2
Sergio Garcia Spain 14-4-2
Soren Hansen Denmark --
Padraig Harrington Ireland 7-8-2
Miguel Angel Jimenez Spain 1-3-0
Robert Karlsson Sweden 0-1-2
Graeme McDowell Northern Ireland --
Ian Poulter * England 1-1-0
Justin Rose England --
Henrik Stenson Sweden 1-1-1
Lee Westwood England 14-8-3
Oliver Wilson England --
Combined record: 41-27-12
* denotes captain's pick

Fellow Englishmen Ian Poulter and Paul Casey were picked to complete the 12-man squad that will attempt to win a fourth straight Ryder Cup after a tumultuous week that featured the kind of transatlantic bickering this event uncannily produces.

Faldo undoubtedly will be second-guessed throughout Europe for leaving Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke off the team. The inspirational leader of the squad that hammered the Americans two years ago in Ireland -- just several weeks after the death of his wife -- made a compelling case for inclusion, with two European Tour titles this year, including one just a week ago in Holland.

Meanwhile, Poulter, 32, and Casey, 31 -- both of whom missed the cut this weekend at the Deutsche Bank Championship on the PGA Tour -- have yet to win a tournament anywhere in the world this year.

And it was Poulter's decision to play at the TPC Boston rather than the final European Tour qualifying event in Scotland that caused all the drama and surely will keep the focus on him on Sept. 19 at Valhalla.

Poulter agonized over whether to play at the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles -- where a high finish in the European Tour event could have earned him a spot on the team -- or compete in the FedEx Cup playoff event.

His decision to play in the U.S. was at least partly done because he was in need of another tournament to fulfill his PGA Tour membership requirements. Poulter needed a decent finish in Boston to advance to the third playoff event -- the BMW Championship -- this week in St. Louis.

Poulter said he phoned Faldo, lay bare his case and elected to stay in the United States.

Then the howling began.

"All I can think of is he's been given the nod," said England's Nick Dougherty, who also was in the running for an at-large pick.

Scotland's Colin Montgomerie, one of the most decorated players in European Ryder Cup history, suggested Poulter had a "hotline to Faldo."

And so it went, as the verbal sparring commenced in the media and Poulter vehemently denied he had been given any such assurances.

A missed cut at the Deutsche Bank on Saturday had Poulter blaming the media for causing such a distraction and had you believing either that he was one hell of an actor or that he was truly concerned about his chances of being picked, given that he'd missed two cuts in a row.

Faldo, the six-time major champion, announced the picks in a Sunday afternoon news conference from Gleneagles and said his decision was not absolutely firm until the morning of the announcement. And if we are to believe all of this, Poulter's reaction -- relayed by Faldo -- would again suggest there was no inside job.

U.S. Ryder Cup team

Paul Azinger finalized his roster of 12 players for the 37th Ryder Cup matches to be played Sept. 19-21 at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky.

Player Ryder Cup record
Chad Campbell * 1-3-2
Stewart Cink 3-5-4
Ben Curtis --
Jim Furyk 6-12-2
J.B. Holmes * --
Anthony Kim --
Justin Leonard 0-3-5
Hunter Mahan * --
Phil Mickelson 9-12-4
Kenny Perry 0-2-0
Steve Stricker * --
Boo Weekley --
Combined record: 19-37-17
* denotes captain's picks

"He was absolutely gobsmacked," Faldo said of Poulter, upon hearing the good news. "I think Ian was put through the ringer the last week. I think it was sheer relief."

And it probably should have been.

Since finishing second to Padraig Harrington at the Open Championship, Poulter did not exactly distinguish himself among his peers who were hoping for that happy call from Faldo. That finish was his only top-10 of the year on the PGA Tour, and he had just three finishes among the top 20. His only top-10 in Europe was a tie for ninth at the Abu Dhabi Championship in January.

That was a short time before Poulter created a different kind of controversy by suggesting in a magazine article that once he reached his potential, it would just "be me and Tiger Woods."

Since then, Poulter has had mostly a mediocre season until the Open Championship, a finish that no doubt caught the captain's attention.

Faldo was impressed by Poulter's effort at Royal Birkdale, where he pushed Harrington on the back nine and holed a huge 15-foot par putt at the last hole when he felt it could have made the difference between winning and losing.

"Ian is obviously a very determined guy," Faldo said. "I love his attitude, what he did at the Open Championship. That back nine, he played with the intention to win. And he had that emotional feeling and that putt to win an Open Championship. And he's the leading player in the world who's not in the team."

Poulter is 23rd in the Official World Golf Ranking and has played in just one Ryder Cup, in 2004 at Oakland Hills in Michigan, where he went 1-1.

Casey is ranked 35th in the world and has six top-10 finishes. He has played in the two most recent Ryder Cups and has a 3-1-2 record.

That left Clarke, who is 10-7-3 in the Ryder Cup, and Montgomerie, who is 20-9-7 and has never lost a singles match, to get the bad-news phone calls. The omission of Monty was not a surprise, given his poor form through most of the year -- although Harrington had voiced hope that he would be chosen anyway. Without Montgomerie, it will be the first time since 1937 that no Scot will be part of the team.

Clarke was a harder decision for Faldo to explain, given his Ryder Cup record and recent form.

"Everybody gave their all through this whole year," Faldo said. "You can see how much we care and the passion that we have for the Ryder Cup."

Asked what more Clarke could have done, Faldo said, "It's unfair to say what more he can do. He was right there until this afternoon. I've got to go one way and what I feel it brings to the team. It's not a decision I enjoyed making.

"Some will agree, some will disagree. I'm the guy who has to live with it."

Unlike U.S. captain Paul Azinger, who has four picks on Tuesday and no dead locks to make the American team, Faldo had just two choices and perhaps four to six good candidates.

And Faldo has a solid group of players to rely on, including three-time major winner Harrington, Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and Henrik Stenson. Miguel Angel Jimenez is a Ryder Cup veteran and Robert Karlsson has had a strong year, while first-timers Graeme McDowell, Justin Rose, Soren Hansen and Oliver Wilson make up the rest of the team.

There is sure to be angst over this in Europe, whether it be strong criticism or just skepticism. But that always seems to be the case with the Europeans, who are not nearly the happy family they often are described as being. Two years ago, it was the way captain Ian Woosnam kept everyone in the dark that made headlines.

Not that it has mattered much. Europe has won the past two Ryder Cups in routs, three in a row and five of the past six. Another victory, and Sunday's consternation will be all but forgotten.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com