x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

My neighbour's shock pick did not surprise me in the least

Paul Azinger spent many a long hour agonising over his four wild-card picks to complete his team line-up.

Paul Azinger
Paul Azinger

Paul Azinger spent many a long hour agonising over his four wild-card picks to complete the US Ryder Cup team line-up, and while Chad Campbell was the big surprise, his selection was no shock to me. Zinger and I are neighbours in Bradenton, Florida, and he gave me a sneak preview of his likely team when we met on the beach on Sunday at nearby Anna Marie Island, where we often go with our families.

This time, many people had gone to the island to see the amazing surf caused by Hurricane Gustav, and when I bumped into Zinger, his mind was on the Deutsche Bank Championship, which was heading for its climax the next day in Boston. Steve Stricker (10th in the US Ryder Cup standings), Hunter Mahan (13th), and the big-hitting JB Holmes, a Kentucky native who could expect huge home support at Valhalla, were already firmly in his mind to win three of the wild-cards.

But Zinger was looking for an in-form player, preferably with Ryder Cup experience, to emerge from the pack of candidates at Boston to clinch the fourth spot. Seventh place in a PGA Tour event wouldn't normally be enough to swing it for a Ryder Cup hopeful. But it was the sixth top-10 finish of the year for Campbell, who had gone close to winning in Houston earlier in the season and ranks 11th in the Tour's scoring average with winnings of more than US$2million (Dh7,346m).

And a good showing in Boston tipped the balance in favour of Campbell, who had the advantage of having been in the US team in 2004 and 2006, and looks ready made for a third Ryder Cup appearance. Before finalising his four wild-cards, Zinger spent hours on the phone gathering input from his three vice captains, Raymond Floyd, Dave Stockton and Olin Brown, automatic Ryder Cup team members, and other people in golf whose opinion he respects. Rather than being a sign of indecision, that's confirmation that Zinger has his finger on the pulse. He needed to pick four players who would fit in and command respect, and he's done just that in my opinion.

I told him that I'd be focusing on his selections in this column, and he called me from his hotel room in New York just before midnight last night to say that he'd be able to have a good night's sleep after finally deciding on his four wild-cards, ahead of tomorrow's official announcement. I've known him since my time on the PGA Tour 20 years ago, and have got to know him a lot better since we became neighbours. I interviewed him at his home for a Ryder Cup TV preview, and was impressed with his clear thinking. A vital asset for a Ryder Cup captain.

Obviously, his choice of Campbell won't please everyone, just as Nick Faldo's selection of Ian Poulter and Paul Casey didn't go down well with some in Europe. Azinger told me he was surprised that Faldo had not picked Darren Clarke, particularly after his victory in the Dutch Open. But Faldo has gone for two players who are generally more consistent, and are much higher up the world rankings. As a result, he has a team made up of players who are all in the world's top 50.

Clarke has won twice this year and would have been a popular choice, particularly after his heroics in Ireland two years ago. But his form is still a bit up and down, and Poulter and Casey are generally more consistent, as their world rankings of 25 and 36 reflect, compared with Clarke's of 61. Poulter probably played himself into the team with his second place at the Open Championship. He's missed the last two cuts in the US, but that's probably because his mind has been on the Ryder Cup. He should fine at Valhalalla.

Casey had a great Walker Cup record and has also won the World Matchplay Championship. That adds up to him being one of the best matchplay specialists in Europe, and on the strength of that he was a good choice. He'll have no problems dealing with the intense pressure that the Ryder Cup creates. So it's hard to argue with Faldo's two selections, while his decision not to pick Colin Montgomerie was straightforward. I talked to Monty recently and even he didn't feel he had much of a chance.

He's been sliding quickly down the world rankings to his present position of 95th, and while you would never write off Monty - and he's already said he's determined to be back in 2010 - he just hadn't shown the form to win a place. On one hand, he might have been picked because of his brilliant Ryder record, and the fact that he would have intimidated some of the American players. But a few Ryder Cup captains of the past, particularly Americans, have made big mistakes in picking players based on their performances in previous years.

Curtis Strange is one good example of someone who got in on his reputation and Ryder Cup record, and then had a terrible time. I'd hate to have seen that happen to Monty, but don't count against him being in the team on merit in 2010. @Email:sports@thenational.ae