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In March 2009, Sir Alex Ferguson, coach of the almost unbeatable Manchester United team that would soon win its 11th English Premier League title (this was only the 17th season since the old Football League First Division became the Premier League), remarked that he was "leaving out great players all the time." Such was his embarrassment of riches at Old Trafford that Ferguson was forced to put world-class players valued at tens of millions of dollars on the substitutes' bench every weekend.
The phrase '"nice problem to have" became commonly associated with the United manager and it's one that has been used to describe Paul McGinley's situation. The European Ryder Cup squad seems so stacked with quality, it's quite possible that the team captain will need to use two of his three wild-card picks on players that have been ranked at the top of the world rankings within the last four years, and his third on a Ryder Cup specialist who would be making his fifth appearance and looking to inflict further damage on a U.S. team that has watched him win 12 of his 15 matches, including four singles victories out of four.
Lee Westwood, Luke Donald and Ian Poulter are all currently on the outside of Team Europe looking in. Westwood, however, said recently he will be resting "until the Ryder Cup," a statement that could be taken one of two ways. First, McGinley has already told him he will be chosen regardless of what happens between now and next Tuesday, when the Irishman and USA captain Tom name their team picks. Second, he is assuming McGinley will pick him - a fairly safe assumption on the surface given that Westwood first played in the Ryder Cup in 1997, has played in all seven matches since then, and has a winning record of 18-13-6.
But Option 2 actually sounds preposterous with so many top-rated players available to McGinley. Really, it's unthinkable Westwood would put his pick in jeopardy having had a less than stellar season and with so many good young players on the fringes. You have to think, therefore, Westwood already knows he is assured a place.
Poulter too. The Englishman had to rely on a captain's pick in both 2008 and 2012, but boy did he ever justify his place, winning four out of five points at Valhalla and four of four at Medinah. He, too, has had a fairly indifferent season in America, earning just two top-10 finishes - and one of them back in November 2013 shortly after the new wraparound season began. In his last four outings, the 38-year-old has missed the cut twice and recorded a high finish of T52.
Because of his past performances though, Poulter can also rest fairly easily. But a good finish at the Deutsche Bank Championship in Boston this week will make his selection an awful lot easier for McGinley.
Of the three, Donald's spot is probably the most tenuous even if he did finish ahead of both his compatriots on the World Points List, which closed following the completion of The Barclays in New Jersey last weekend, where Donald finished 10th, Poulter 12th and Westwood 16th.
Ninth on the World Points List currently is Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell, who holds the final automatic qualifying spot right now by virtue of the fact four of the names above him - Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Victor Dubuisson and Jamie Donaldson have already qualified through the European Point List. One man can still pass McDowell even at this late stage, however.
Stephen Gallacher is two places and 11.21 points behind McDowell on the World Point List right now. The winner of this weekend's Italian Open in Turin will earn 24 points - enough for Gallacher to pass McDowell, who opted not to play as his wife gave birth to the couple's first child on Monday. Second place's 14.4 points will also be enough for Gallacher, as will the 12 on offer for each man should the Scot tie with one other player for second (if that happened, Gallacher would tiptoe past McDowell by .79 of a point).
Gallacher shot a level-par 72 in Thursday's first round, but showed a good deal of the fight and mental strength McGinley will be looking for with a Friday 65 to move up into a tie for ninth.
There is probably a part of McGinley that hopes Gallacher will snatch the last available spot, not because he would give Europe's chances of retaining the Cup a boost necessarily, but because Gallacher would be the sole Scot on the team - an obvious asset considering the venue, Gleneagles Hotel in Perthshire. Plus, Gallacher is a stalwart of the European Tour - a fact that won't be lost on the captain, a member of the Tour's 15-man Tournament Committee for several years.
But though he might feel an allegiance to Gallacher for his loyalty, McGinley surely wouldn't pick him if he didn't feel it was in the best interests of the team. Picking Gallacher, should he not win that last automatic spot, wouldn't be controversial but he would probably be on safer ground if he were to pick Westwood, Poulter and Donald. If, God forbid, Europe were to lose the Cup to the Americans the press couldn't really give him a hard time for going with the more established names.
But what about Francesco Molinari and even Bernd Wiesberger, who shared the lead after the first round in Italy (Molinari is now tied for 15th after a second-round 72, Wiesberger second with two 66s)? And Joost Luiten?
If the Italian could win his national Open knowing it was his only chance of giving McGinley pause before he made his choices, it would certainly put him in a very strong position. Molinari has played in two Ryder Cups before and, though he hasn't won any of his six matches, he has become a highly respected player worldwide. Wiesberger just put up a superb showing at the PGA Championship, where he played with McIlroy in the final group on Sunday and eventually finished tied for 15th. Luiten, meanwhile, is 11th on the European Points List, 15th on the World Points List, and tied for ninth in Italy heading into the weekend.
At the moment, Westwood and Poulter's places on the European Ryder Cup team for Gleneagles are probably a given. That leaves one place for Donald, Gallacher, Molinari, Luiten, and maybe Wiesberger, too. Their odds lengthen as you go down the list surely, but who knows how far a win in Piedmont might go?
Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.
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