NEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa. – Wednesday at Aronimink Golf Club was one of those puff-out-your-chest days for the European players on campus. Finally, Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn had filled in the missing pieces in his 12-man Ryder Cup puzzle, opting heavily for experience ahead of the 42nd Ryder Cup in France on Sept. 28-30.
Ian Poulter, Paul Casey, Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia were the names that Bjorn had pulled from his captain’s hat in London. Poulter is a European staple. Stenson was named to his fifth Ryder Cup, a natural partner for Justin Rose. Paul Casey has played on two winning teams and will be competing in his first Ryder Cup in a decade.
Garcia? Bjorn called him “the heartbeat” of the European team, and said a Ryder Cup without him would be like a football team leaving its captain at home. But Garcia's name, in particular, wasn’t the Spanish surname that all had expected to hear on Wednesday. Garcia is not here this week at Aronimink. He wasn’t at the first two FedEx Cup playoff events, either, having not qualified after, by his world-class standards, a dismal season.
His countryman Rafa Cabrera Bello, lean and graceful, is a man who quite frequently is found flashing a brilliant white smile that stands out against his darkly tanned complexion. On this brutally hot and humid day near Philadelphia, he wore no smile. Walking off the golf course after a late pro-am round, he appeared worn, empty and tired.
“It was tough the last two nights,” he said quietly just before entering the clubhouse. “Monday night, because I didn’t know what was going to happen. And Tuesday night, because obviously, I got the bad news. It’s been a couple of nights with not-good sleep.”
More often than not, there’s always an odd-man-out at the Ryder Cup. Cabrera Bello, 34, a three-time winner in Europe, will bear that heavy tag this time.
He received the physical call that he had wanted from Bjorn on the eve of the picks, though Cabrera Bello had envisioned hearing something much better than he did. (“When I picked up the phone,” Bjorn explained on Wednesday, “I almost felt sick doing it.”)
Garcia certainly holds a large advantage over Cabrera Bello in experience, having played in eight previous Ryder Cups to Cabrera Bello’s one. Garcia holds an impressive record of 19-11-7 in the event, and brings an incredible level of passion to the matches. But one must bring some semblance of a game, too. In terms of form, Garcia has been a lost golfer through much of the year. Cabrera Bello, conversely, has been a man who’d been charging while trying to impress the captain.
Cabrera Bello tied for 17th at the WGC Bridgestone early last month, then tied for 10th at the PGA; tied for 11th at Wyndham; tied for 60th at Northern Trust; and last week got into contention at Dell Technologies, tying for seventh.
In his mind, he’d done what he’d been asked to do.
“I feel I have been playing good since Akron, pretty much,” he said. “Of course, that makes everything a little more disappointing.”
Garcia’s record in his past 12 starts? He had seven missed cuts and only one top 10 – a tie for eighth at the French Open at Le Golf National, site of the Ryder Cup. For the first time in his career, the 2017 Masters champion played all four majors and missed the cut in each one. Two big requirements at the Ryder Cup are good putting and making birdies. Garcia ranked 144th in strokes gained putting, and 106th in birdie average. (Cabrera ranks 74th and 51st, respectively, in those categories.)
“He [Bjorn] is going with the guys he believes will round into form at the right time, the guys who have the pedigree and the experience,” Justin Rose, who qualified for his fifth Ryder Cup, said Wednesday evening. “Obviously, somebody is always going to miss out. I feel really bad for Rafa. I think he played hard. He was right there in Boston. It’s got to be a bitter one for him to swallow."
Rose would know. He was jilted by Euro captain Colin Montgomerie in 2010, despite winning two times that summer and posting a 3-1-0 record in his Ryder Cup debut two years earlier. Casey, then No. 9 in the world, was left off the team as well. Montgomerie had five quality choices and only three picks that year. He called upon Padraig Harrington, Luke Donald and Edoardo Molinari, who recently had won a Euro Tour event at Gleneagles.
“If you put yourself in a position to be picked,” Rose said, “it’s never nice.”
Two years ago, European captain Darren Clarke took some heat for selecting his good pal Lee Westwood, who had ample experience (nine previous cups) but returned no points in three matches at Hazeltine National in Minnesota.
The argument of experience over form is a traditional one each time the Ryder Cup rolls around. One big factor playing into Bjorn’s decision on picks was that among his eight players making the team via two points lists – European and world – five of those players will be Ryder Cup rookies.
Cabrera Bello was one of six Ryder Cup rookies on an overmatched European side two years ago, but he and fellow rookie Thomas Pieters proved to be two bright spots for the visiting side. Cabrera Bello played nicely and finished 2-0-1.
He had hoped to build on that record in a few weeks in Paris, but he will not get the chance. That’s why this week has been an emotional one for Cabrera Bello, who opened the BMW Championship with an even-par 70 (scores). It has been difficult to shake Paris out of his mind, and the thought that he isn’t going to be there.
“It’s hard to be on the golf course and think about not having been picked for the Ryder Cup,” he said. “But that’s what I have to swallow.”
Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @jeffbabz62