Darren Clarke’s “controversial” pick can explain why Europe will probably win

Poor Russell Knox. The genial 31-year-old has been a consistent performer since his breakthrough win at last year’s WGC-HSBC Champions and is now ranked 7th in the FedExCup standings. Was this enough to earn him a spot on Darren Clarke’s team? No. Which begs the question, what more could Knox have done to make the team?

He is ranked higher than seven of Europe’s players, not to mention his recent win at the Travellers. He’s also a popular guy in America – a point I will come back to –  just look at the guys who spoke in his defence.

How often does a guy inside the world’s top 20 miss out on the Ryder Cup? Never. In fact, he’s one of the highest ranked Europeans in history to miss out on selection. After all, this is the continent that once turned to perennial one-hit wonder Jean Van de Velde. The Frenchman was 90th in the world when he played at the 1999 Ryder Cup. Knox is, to put it bluntly, an unlucky bastard.

We can learn a few things from Darren Clarke’s decision. One, the Ryder Cup is the last bastion of parity between the PGA and European Tour. It is the only time European affiliation is crucial to a player’s career. Knox made the decision to call America home and this is what has cost him a crack at the Ryder Cup. He joins the ranks of Paul Casey and Luke Donald, guys who prioritise playing on the PGA Tour at the expense of Ryder Cup points.

I have no doubt that Europe’s Ryder Cup selection policy is outdated. They effectively ask players to straddle two Tours or risk ineligibility for selection. A fact that seems grossly unfair when you consider the benefits of playing on the PGA Tour, indisputedly superior in almost every regard except one. Camaraderie. And this for me is the most important factor to consider.

The truth is that guys in Europe don’t know Knox from Adam. The Scottish native went to college in Jacksonville before continuing his career in America. As a result he spent his formative years grafting with American players, existing in relative obscurity as far as Europe were concerned.

Those tough early years form the crucial glue that holds camaraderie together. The travel, the room-sharing, the memories, all help form the fraternal bedrock that characterises, and explains, Europe’s Ryder Cup successes.

This is a relatively abstract concept, but I promise you it’s something Darren Clarke takes very seriously.
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This is the man who values the European bond above everything else. After losing his wife Heather to cancer in 2006 his European brethren were there. He was given the wildcard selection after her death and his teammates became the family that he repaid with one of the greatest performances in Ryder Cup history.

He was paired with Lee Westwood, his best mate on Tour, and they exemplified the type of friendship that the European Tour is so good at cultivating.

Imagine Russell Knox turning up to Minnesota with that peculiar Floridian accent. Compare him to Thomas Pieters, a well known face and journeyman European who everyone is comfortable around. It may sound fatuous, but it’s an inescapable fact of team golf. 

Life on the European Tour is all about fraternity

How it works in Europe:
2016 has seen 27 countries put on 51 tournaments, and each event was a distinctive experience for the players. For example, Sweden hosted their one and only competition of the year and they, like every other host, socially milked every player dry. Dinners, sponsored events and compulsory meet and greets helped forge those fraternal bonds that manifest themselves in the Ryder Cup. They cultivated the sort of familiarity that make the Europeans so unified. 
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I’m not saying this doesn’t exist in America, but all your golfers are family men and this makes a huge difference. Many of the guys in Europe are single, modestly wealthy and most importantly, eager to interact away from the sport. Patrick Reed found this out when he decided to play on the European Tour last year:

“It’s very different from the US because there [PGA Tour] everyone has their families. Over here the guys are always hanging out together and having a good time, going for dinner together. There’s a real sense of camaraderie and a great vibe.”“It’s easy to see where that team spirit comes from in the Ryder Cup,” 

America will keep producing Major winning golfers but there is systemic absence of genuine team spirit. There are a series of obvious cliques on the PGA TOUR which inadvertently marginalise certain players; if it’s not the bible reading crew it’s the SB2k16 crew and if it’s nots them look for the private jet-sharing crew.

Knox missed out because he was AWOL during Europe’s unique team building process. This is unfortunate, and unfair, but ultimately Darren Clarke will continue to employ a strategy that has consistently worked for previous European teams. Why would he invite a stranger into their dressing room when he can pick Thomas Pieters? The young Belgian has earned his spurs and Knox is simply anonymous. 

Clarke was always going to ignore Knox because he values the social ingredient so highly. His gamble will pay off if history continues to repeats itself.

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