Ben Coley begins his weekly look ahead to the Ryder Cup by asking whether Thomas Pieters will make his way onto Thomas Bjorn's European side.
Clarke plumps for Pieters
When Thomas Pieters won the 2016 edition of the Made In Denmark, a loveable but low-key European Tour event, he forced Darren Clarke's hand. In what had developed into a straight choice between Russell Knox, winner of a World Golf Championship, and Pieters, it was the timing of the latter's success which proved decisive, even if Knox had felt certain that he'd make the side regardless.
Months earlier, European captain Clarke had warned of the risks attached to selecting rookies as wild cards; as the season progressed and five of them played their way onto his team automatically, the former Open champion desperately wanted someone, anyone who had played in a previous Ryder Cup, ideally on foreign soil, to show their hand. Luke Donald's second place at the Wyndham Championship was just not enough and nor was Graeme McDowell's fifth, flanked as it was by missed cuts. Francesco Molinari? He hadn't won anywhere since 2012, hadn't done much to impress in the Ryder Cup, hadn't performed all that well during a low-key summer.
No, it would have to be a rookie and, after Pieters followed fourth place in the Olympics with second in the Czech Republic and that authoritative success in Denmark, for Clarke it had to be the Belgian.
The decision was harsh on Knox, who some felt was marked down because of his own decision to make his way in the game in the United States. Despite that, the Scot had won the previous year's WGC-HSBC Champions - the European Tour's World Golf Championship, in effect - and he'd been second in Rory's Irish Open, 10th in the Scottish Open, 30th in the Open itself before adding his first title on US soil. His form, viewed through a wider lens, was stronger. But while he was at home in Jacksonville, Pieters was turning heads in Europe.
"I have not seen a young player with as much talent since Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy," Clarke said of Pieters, just days after Knox had demanded selection, stating that he should be the first, not the third wild card on the list. Truth be told he was not wrong, but instead a victim of the success of Matt Fitzpatrick, Andy Sullivan, Chris Wood and others. Knox's playing credentials were arguably stronger than all three, yet their presence inside the top nine forced Clarke to supplement an inexperienced line-up with stalwarts Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer. The 12th man then became the one whose talent he considered greater than Knox's.
On to Hazeltine
Clarke had never wanted it this way, and perhaps that explains why he failed to lean on his rookies at Hazeltine, under-using Fitzpatrick, ignoring how impressive Wood had been alongside Justin Rose, and splitting Rafa Cabrera Bello from his friend and compatriot Sergio Garcia just as they had produced some of the best golf seen all week. One of Clarke's great failings was his unwillingness to accept that Plan A was not working, and failure to put rookies at the core of Plan B.
There was one exception: Thomas Pieters. The last man on the team sheet was one of the first names on it for the Friday morning, paired with Westwood, after Clarke's hand had once again been forced - there had been no indication during practice that the idea of pairing these two had so much as crossed the captain's mind. Westwood's natural partner had appeared to be Danny Willett, but the Masters champion had his dream debut ruined by his brother and an ill-timed commentary on all things USA and it was Pieters, rather than Fitzpatrick, who was drafted in.
As Pieters arrived on the tee, Golf Channel's Jay Coffin made a mistake that anyone who had teed it up with Pieters before - Jordan Spieth, for instance - would not have made. He mistook the Belgian's zero f**** demeanour for one of a frightened rabbit, and had he turned off the TV and checked back for the score later on, he would've felt vindicated. Pieters and Westwood lost 5&4, one of the most one-sided scorelines of the week, as USA took a 4-0 lead in the session which they would never relinquish.
Those who had stuck around to watch knew the truth to be rather different. Pieters in fact had no trouble rising to the unique challenge of an overseas Ryder Cup, matching Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar in most departments but let down by his partner, who four years earlier had ridden the coat-tails of Pieters' mentor, Nicolas Colsaerts, to victory over Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker at Medinah.
"I'll take responsibility for that," confessed Westwood, nothing if not honest. "I played poorly today and Thomas played well. He's got into the Ryder Cup really well, and he showed some balls out there." In the same press conference, Pieters was asked if he was ready to play more. His reply was as clinical as his appearance back on the first tee some five hours earlier: "Yeah. Just want to win a match."
Clarke had fallen for Pieters in Denmark, and he was captured again despite this heavy defeat, not only by the quality of Pieters' golf, but by his response to it. When Clarke said "if it had been 4-0 our way, it would have been the same pairings going out this afternoon", he was surely not telling the truth. And so out went Pieters again, but this time with the best player in the world, with whom he would form a sensational partnership which, by Sunday, offered hope in the face of defeat.
First, Pieters stood to the side as Rory McIlroy took a bow and finished off Kuchar and Johnson. Then, on Saturday, they dominated Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson with six birdies in 16 holes in their first taste of foursomes together. Highlighting that this was far from the intended attack, McIlroy said: "We had not really practiced. We had not chosen what golf ball to play, (nor) what tee to go off." Instead, the pair had flipped for it on the range, he said.
By Saturday afternoon, it was clear that Clarke had accidentally unearthed a potentially great Ryder Cup partnership, one which now took care of US friends Johnson and Brooks Koepka, who at the time had one US Open between them and now have two. "I got a partner beside me for the next 20 years, and I'm not letting anyone have him," said McIlroy. "You might see this in Paris."
While McIlroy and Pieters were downing the very best of American golf, their team-mates were still taking a beating and as McIlroy himself proved unable to beat Captain America Patrick Reed in Sunday's singles, the Ryder Cup was lost. Pieters - sent out third in a nod to how far he'd come in such a short space of time - went on to complete a fine 4-1-0 record, helping towards more than a third of his team's total, but it was not enough.
For Pieters, it was a difficult debut to balance. On the one hand he'd made his entrance on the global stage, scoring more individual points than any other player, and becoming the first European rookie to play all five matches since Garcia, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Paul Lawrie all did in 1999. But this is a team game, and the result was defeat, Pieters' own victories hollowed out by a relentless United States assault.
Still, Paris. There had been enough in Europe's performance to suggest that this was no dawning of a new Ryder Cup era, one in which the tourists somehow find it easy to overcome their long-standing inability to win outside of the United States. And while Le Golf National might not be the ideal course for Rory, nor for Pieters, it would probably not stop them. As Westwood perhaps bowed out of the Ryder Cup, Europe had found a ready-made replacement.
There is always a catch, and in the Ryder Cup, it can be found in the gap between renewals. Two years is a long time in anything, and now, 18 months into it, Pieters is a long way from qualifying. He's currently 41st in the European points list, sandwiched between Nino Bertasio and Matthieu Pavon; in the world points list, his mentor Colsaerts is two places higher and Kaymer three. Westwood, meanwhile, is not far behind.
There is still time for Pieters to climb. As of the BMW PGA Championship in late May, European points will be worth 50 per cent more, and Pieters looks set to cling onto enough world ranking points in the meantime to qualify for the US Open, the only one of the remaining three majors for which he's not currently eligible. A big week in any of them and he will launch a late bid for qualification; a victory, and that qualification will be all but assured.
But what if he doesn't? What if Pieters remains in the malaise which has produced just two top-10 finishes in an entire year's worth of play? Just how valuable is what he did at Hazeltine when it comes to impressing a new captain, whose gaze has been stolen by Alex Levy and others who are in demonstrably better form?
Perhaps then, he will need McIlroy to come out and fight his corner. That, or he'll need new captain Thomas Bjorn to keep to his word and value the events of the EurAsia Cup earlier this year, where Europe came from behind with a stirring singles performance.
The man who holed the winning putt against arguably the pick of the Asian side? Why it was Thomas Pieters, of course. Of all the uncertainties, one thing is clear: Europe will miss him if he's not in Paris.