With only three wild cards, European captain Colin Montgomerie must select his Ryder Cup players with care.
Who should make the Ryder Cup?
Paul Azinger made it a non-negotiable condition of accepting the offer to captain the United States team in what proved a successful 2008 Ryder Cup campaign. He would be allowed to select four of the 12 players for the Valhalla showdown with Europe. Colin Montgomerie must have wished he had taken an equally firm stance when he was named as the European successor to Nick Faldo at a Dubai press conference 19 months ago.
If he were holding four captain's wild cards instead of the three, Montgomerie would be able to select the powerful quartet of Paul Casey, Luke Donald, Padraig Harrington and Justin Rose. All four are ranked in the world's top 25, comfortably ahead of Sweden's Peter Hanson and Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez, who are clinging to the last two of the nine automatic selections. The final qualifying event, the Johnnie Walker Championship, starts at Gleneagles today.
Calling up all four of those big names would undoubtedly strengthen an already powerful European line-up and boost Montgomerie's chances of wresting back the trophy from Corey Pavin's American visitors to Celtic Manor in Wales in early October. Winning the Cup is the main objective for Montgomerie, one of Europe's most inspirational and successful players in recent meetings with the best of the PGA Tour.
It makes sense, therefore, for him to nominate three of those top four when he completes his deliberations on Sunday evening. Any other selection policy would put him in the firing line for all those lining up to have a pop at him. But why not stand up there and be shot at? If Montgomerie, eight times a European Order of Merit winner, bypassed those four - a cavalier and, some might say, reckless approach - it would strike a powerful blow for his home tour. It would deliver a message that chasing dollars in America can come at a price.
Casey, Harrington, Donald and Rose have all done enough to qualify for the lucrative FedEx play-off series and will be teeing off in the Barclays Classic in New Jersey today. They could just as easily be in the line-up at Gleneagles chasing the points they need to remove the requirement of a wild card and in doing so showing the right kind of commitment to Europe five weeks before the big event. That is where Alvaro Quiros, Simon Dyson and Ross McGowan, a trio just on the wrong side of the selection divide, will be seeking the last-gasp victory which would get them into the team on merit.
It is much more likely that the captain will take the safe rankings-led option. If that is the case, I fear Donald will be the odd man out with Rose (twice a winner in the United States this season) behind Harrington (three times a major winner but lacking in current form) and Casey (the highest rated of all the non-qualifiers and in the team until Hanson's victory in the Czech Open last weekend).
Montgomerie remarked on arrival at Gleneagles that he faced an impossible task selecting three players when up to 20 Europeans were worthy of a place in the team. If he could pick a Johnnie Walker winner in advance, he would probably opt for Quiros, the big-hitting Spaniard, to break into the list of Ryder Cup qualifiers. And if he had to choose one to drop out, it would probably be Hanson, rather than Jimenez, the experienced match player.
While Montgomerie will have one eye on the US$7.5 million (Dh27.5m) Barclays Classic, Pavin, his American counterpart, will be focused on that tournament as he looks for late form pointers in advance of his September 7 announcement. Tiger Woods, who would need one of the four wild cards to make his Ryder Cup return after missing the Valhalla victory through injury, begins the next chapter of his life after his divorce.
Pavin, like the rest of the world, will be keen to see how Woods copes on his first appearance since the divorce was made official. Woods, who tied for 28th place in his last event, the US PGA, is yet to win a tournament this year. He was by no means a comfortable qualifier for the first of the FedEx events (112th out of 125) and needs to put on a decent show for his and Pavin's peace of mind. It is inconceivable that Pavin would discard the world No 1, though, especially as Woods finished in 12th position on the Ryder Cup points list. Only Woods himself can make that decision.
Having been given four picks, it would be remiss of Pavin not to use at least one of them to promote an outsider. That would be at the expense of Anthony Kim, Lucas Glover or Zach Johnson. Judging by the way Glover, a former US Open champion, dropped his head when things started going badly in the Wyndham championship, he would not be missed at Celtic Manor. Nick Watney, who led the PGA Championship going into the final round before posting an 81, could turn out to be a worthwhile wild card.