NEW YORK — Graeme McDowell saw this coming nine months ago when his thoughts turned to the Ryder Cup.
And he turned out to be right. Just not for the right reasons.
Making the Ryder Cup team for either side is tougher than ever. So as McDowell sat down over a pint during the offseason and started listing the players who were likely to be at Gleneagles, it wasn’t long before he had exceeded the nine automatic qualifiers. Some were going to be at the mercy of European captain Paul McGinley.
“There’s going to be two or three guys who miss,” he said. “Good players. Quality players. I would assume McGinley’s wild cards are going to be very hotly contested. No doubt it’s going to be a tough team to get on.”
Such was the case Tuesday morning.
McDowell was the last man to qualify by a mere 1.61 world ranking points over Stephen Gallacher, and only because David Howell shot 63 in the final round of the Italian Open to deny Gallacher a share of second place to get those precious few points he was lacking.
Going on form, McGinley selected Gallacher, who will make his Ryder Cup debut just more than a month before the Scot turns 40.
The other picks were Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter, and neither was a surprise. Among the “good players, quality players” who missed out was Luke Donald, who has been nearly as effective as Poulter in the Ryder Cup, though in a more quiet fashion.
But here’s what McDowell — or McGinley, for that matter — might not have seen coming.
While the picks indeed were hotly contested, it was a matter of relying more on history than form. Aside from the Gallacher making a strong bid against relatively weak fields, no one stood out.
It was not unlike what U.S. captain Corey Pavin faced in 2010. He took Tiger Woods that year because he was Tiger Woods. He waited for someone to stand out, and no one did. In the final tournament before his picks, none of the 14 players on Pavin’s short list finished in the top 10.
Westwood closed with a 63 at Firestone to tie for 19th, and he tied for 15th at the PGA Championship, seven shots off the lead. He has had only two top 10s this year, including a victory in the Malaysian Open. Playing mainly on the PGA Tour, he didn’t make it out of the first round of the FedEx Cup playoffs.
Westwood is No. 38 in the world, after starting the year at No. 25.
As for Poulter?
Years ago, he said in a British magazine that when he reaches his full potential, “it will be just me and Tiger.” There’s a smidgen of truth to that — not in the world ranking, his original reference, but in the Ryder Cup.
Poulter was chosen because he’s Ian Poulter.
Even his teammates knew that. Westwood said jokingly during Europe’s winning news conference in 2012 — or maybe he wasn’t joking — that the criteria would be changed to nine automatic qualifiers, two picks and Poulter.
Poulter nearly single-handedly took down America at Medinah. He has won seven straight matches dating to Wales in 2010, and he is 11-2 in his last three Ryder Cups. He was picked purely on history.
The Englishman has registered only two finishes in the top 10 this year, in China and in Memphis. He is approaching the two-year anniversary of his last victory in the HSBC Champions. He has yet to win a stroke-play tournament in America. He started the year at No. 12. Poulter now is No. 36. He at least made it to the second FedEx Cup playoff event until getting eliminated.
The odd man out was Donald, who had every chance to make his case.
Donald is two years removed from being No. 1 in the world. But he has taken on a new swing coach, and his form has been lacking. His last victory was in Japan (the Dunlop Phoenix) at the end of last year. He had two good chances to win this year, finishing third in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth and second to Matt Kuchar’s holed bunker shot on the 18th hole at Hilton Head.
He was running neck and neck with McDowell for the last automatic spot on the team. In the final qualifying event, he missed the cut at The Barclays. In his final audition before McGinley announced his picks Tuesday morning, Donald opened with a 69 at TPC Boston, only to follow with rounds of 74-74 to fall out of contention.
“I keep asking myself one question that Paul should ask: Who would he rather have on Sunday trying to win a point?” Donald said on Friday. “Obviously, I have a lot of experience and I hope that’s going to count for a lot.”
That’s all he had to lean on — history, not form.
The same was true for Westwood and Poulter. One of them had to be the odd man out.