Well, three out of four ain’t bad.
You can imagine Thomas Bjorn producing a big sigh of relief on Thursday night as he watched the majority of his four Ryder Cup captain’s picks hit the ground running at the BMW Championship in Pennsylvania.
Having on Wednesday revealed his wild cards for the biennial dust-up with the Americans later this month, the European skipper will have been quietly desperate for even the slightest indication that his decision-making process had been vindicated by those in who had placed his trust.
Three weeks out from the 42nd Ryder Cup matches at Le Golf National, Henrik Stenson, Ian Poulter and Paul Casey each showed Bjorn in their opening rounds that he was not mistaken in his judgement.
The fourth member of the experienced quartet? We’ll come to him shortly.
Of course one round of golf in America is no marker for what a golfer is going to do when they stand on that first tee near Versailles on Friday, September 28.
However, Stenson’s four-under 66, Poulter’s two-under 68 and Casey’s one-under 69 were all welcome signs of a job well done by the captain, while the resurgence in form shown by automatic qualifier and European big gun, Rory McIlroy, in shooting an eight-under 62 for a share of the 18-hole lead, will have been the icing on the cake for Bjorn.
Throw in a 64 from team member Alex Noren and 66s from Justin Rose and Jon Rahm and the big Dane may well have gone all warm and fuzzy inside as he retired for the evening.
Equally happy, of course, will be his American counterpart Jim Furyk, who watched Tiger Woods storm into a share of the lead with McIlroy at Aronimink Golf Club. Furyk had unveiled three of his four picks the night before Bjorn and had an easier task in naming the trio next in the qualifying standings not automatically on the United States team.
That they were Bryson DeChambeau, back-to-back winner in this current FedEx Cup play-off series, a resurgent Woods and Phil Mickelson, fresh off a closing 63 on last Monday’s Labor Day finish at the Dell Technologies Championship in Boston made them no-brainers, although Lefty’s opening three-over 73 on Thursday will have given Furyk pause for thought.
Back in Europe there should still be one doubt gnawing away at Bjorn and that is that fourth wild card selection of his, Sergio Garcia. Never mind the top 70 on the FedEx standings who reached this third of four play-off events, Garcia didn’t even make the first one, failing to secure the necessary spot in the top 125 over the 2018/19 PGA Tour campaign.
The Spaniard has been inactive since the Wyndham Championship in mid-August when, chasing the top-20 finish he needed to make the top 125, he shot a final-round even-par 70 to finish tied 24th for the week and 128th for the season. It was a typically lacklustre end to a campaign that had been fizzling out since March and the last of his three top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour this season.
Missed cuts in the four major championships, starting with a Masters title defence that was over after an opening 81 at Augusta National. Those MCs formed the backbone of a miserable run of eight early tournament finishes in his last 11 PGA Tour starts but Bjorn will be looking at a tie for eighth in June’s Open De France as evidence of a spark for Garcia when he returns to Le Golf National at the end of the month.
That and his Ryder Cup DNA, the captain describing Garcia’s presence in the European team room for the ninth time in his career as an essential ingredient for success.
— Sergio Garcia (@TheSergioGarcia) September 5, 2018
Players often go into a Ryder Cup either short on form or confidence but they are not usually the captain’s picks. Garcia’s inclusion can only be seen as a major gamble by the skipper, who already has one talisman in Poulter as a positive and influential presence in the team room and on the course.
Bjorn must have sensed that the five rookies among the eight automatic qualifiers are hardly wet behind the ears. Noren, Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton and Thorbjorn Olesen are all winners and seasoned campaigners while team baby Jon Rahm has shown an appetite and aptitude for the biggest stages.
They may not need the nursing Bjorn believes Garcia can provide, particularly on home soil in France rather some better form from a Rafa Cabrera Bello or a Thomas Pieters, for instance. Both of whom as has been stated in previous columns delivered impressive debut performances in the bearpit of Hazeltine National two years ago.
It will be argued that Bjorn was absolutely spot on to go with his battle-hardened warhorses and that his job is to regain the trophy lost in 2016 for the first time since 2008, that he is not a youth development officer for the European Tour.
Yet in turning his back on Pieters he has broken up one of the most successful partnerships of the last time when the rookie Belgian hit it off brilliantly with McIlroy, the pair contributing three out of a possible four points in fourballs and foursomes at Hazeltine.
Surely that was something worth developing as was the foundation both he and his fellow rookie Rafa laid down in that 17-11 defeat, with four points from a possible five and two-and-a-half from three respectively as Garcia delivered one win and two halves from five last time, 1.5 points in partnership with his fellow Spaniard.
Of course, Pieters and Cabrera Bello, like everyone else had their chance to earn an automatic pick. They did not take it. Yet at least they went down fighting in their effort to do so.