Could the European captain have done more to give his side a better chance of winning the 2021 Ryder Cup?
It’s finished; it’s done. As early as Friday the writing was on the wall for Padraig Harrington and his European team at the Ryder Cup, and their fate was finally sealed when Collin Morikawa earned a half-point against Viktor Hovland in match 5 of the Sunday singles.
Questions were raised throughout and the inquest will long continue as the fallout from such a crushing defeat for Team Europe rumbles on.
A changing of the guard? A task force? Both? Perhaps, but let’s leave that for later.
First, a look at what it could be argued the Irishman, in hindsight, got wrong.
Qualification process and wildcard picks
Even before a ball had been struck there was controversy. That’s not necessarily anything new in terms of the wildcard picks, but making alterations to the qualifying set-up worked against the three-time major champ.
Nobody will admit it, but Bernd Wiesberger demoting Shane Lowry from the automatic spots with his performance at Wentworth was a problem. Not that the Austrian didn’t play well or was out of his depth, it’s that it meant the pick that was likely destined for Justin Rose had to be used to secure the services of 2019’s Open winner.
The other two went the way of Europe’s ‘Postman’ and the cup’s record points scorer. While Sergio Garcia played his part, Ian Poulter struggled to recapture anything like his form of old in this contest. He’s surely now out of Ryder Cup goodwill based on reputation alone.
In fact, Poulter did well to lose 5&3 from five-down through five alongside Rory McIlroy on Friday morning, and fared only marginally better on Saturday afternoon, going down 4&3. Again, McIlroy was his partner.
Lowry and Garcia performed admirably-ish, but it’s not a stretch to say the team would have been stronger with Rose, a player who has a good record at Whistling Straits and who appeared to be hitting form.
But hindsight aside, Harrington could’ve foreseen such a scenario, especially given the double points on offer at the European Tour’s flagship event, which was the final chance to book an automatic spot on the plane.
The idea was noble – it was designed to ensure Harrington had players coming in hot – but with only three captain’s picks at his disposal, it backfired.
Alternatively, his opposite number Steve Stricker opted to compile his team with six qualifiers and six wildcards. He also didn’t guarantee anybody a pick months in advance – not publicly, at least.
What that did was give the 54-year-old Wisconsin native the opportunity to get form players on his side in a less-contrived fashion. He could also delve into the stats and make informed decisions based on whose game suited the demanding Pete Dye layout.
Harrington would’ve been better scrapping the qualifying altogether and fielding 12 picks. How different it would’ve been is anyone’s guess, but you can bet there would’ve been at least a few personnel changes.
Once the action began, Europe looked outgunned early – it felt like 2008 on steroids. Excluding the Spanish juggernaut that was Jon Rahm and Garcia, Europe’s tried-and-tested formula had no response to America’s young blood.
Stricker said in the build-up he was pleased to have a side almost completely fresh from the scar tissue of the past 20-plus years, and his words proved astute right from the off.
Four of Stricker’s rookies won a full point in the opening session. By the end of day one, all six had contributed to the 6-2 scoreline.
Have patience, some European supporters urged, but finally, it seemed, the US dominance in the world rankings was going to translate to the transatlantic dust-up.
In contrast, Harrington’s trust was in his veterans. His hands were tied in that regard to an extent, but Lee Westwood, Paul Casey, Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter combined for a grand total of two points from 11.
Westwood has now lost six of his last seven Ryder Cup matches; McIlroy’s recent record reads 3-7-0; Poulter is 3-5-2 since Medinah; and Casey went 0-4-0 this week. Add that Matt Fitzpatrick has yet to register even half a point in two appearances and a picture starts to form.
But while his charges were undoubtedly outplayed, Harrington must take the blame for some questionable decisions.
The successful Friday morning pairing of Rahm and Garcia, who took down Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas and played far and away the best golf on the European side, didn’t get a run out in the afternoon fourballs.
Rahm combined with Tyrrell Hatton for a half-point against Scottie Scheffler and Bryson DeChambeau; Garcia was benched.
Tommy Fleetwood, who went four for four in Paris alongside Francesco Molinari, and who seemingly has a game tailor-made for the alternate-shot format, didn’t feature in a foursomes tie. Instead, he was trusted to perform in the fourballs only.
McIlroy was as flat as flat can be in his opening match with Poulter, yet was given the chance to redeem himself in the afternoon. At 3-1 down away from home against a purring superstar opposition, it was leeway that proved to be misplaced as the Northern Irishman contributed next to nothing alongside debutant Lowry.
According to Harrington, everything done on that first day was true to the preordained plan. That’s fine if things are going well, but the truly great captains are as prepared to adapt as they are prepared.
Look no further than Catriona Matthew as case and point. Would it have been the Scot’s intention to play Leona Maguire every session at this year’s Solheim Cup? Maguire, remember, was a rookie and a captain’s pick, but she took to it like a duck to water and Matthew adjusted as such.
Harrington’s faith in some of his out-of-formers to turn it around was admirable but costly.
Whether it would’ve made any difference is of course a moot point and the Americans were worthwhile winners, but with great power comes great responsibility, and the Irishman will shoulder the lion’s share for what could yet be a record defeat.