When Russell Knox celebrated victory at the Travelers Championship in Connecticut on Sunday he flung his cap across the 18th green at River Highlands and straight into the ring for Ryder Cup selection.
As it stands, Knox is still just outside automatic qualification for Darren Clarke’s team to face the Americans at Hazeltine, Minnesota from 30 September.
He’s not scheduled to play again before the qualification deadline falls at the end of this month. That might change, but, right now, and despite his brilliance in Connecticut, he’s relying on a captain’s pick.
Clarke has three of those but, realistically, there is only one slot available.
Of the nine guaranteed qualifiers in the rankings, there are five rookies among them – Danny Willett, Chris Wood, Matt Fitzpatrick and Andy Sullivan of England plus Rafa Cabrera-Bello of Spain.
That’s a lot of newcomers. Is Clarke really going to make it six rookies? Or will he want to bolster his group by going with more players who have felt the heat of battle in past Ryder Cups?
Clarke has a core leadership group of just four – Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose.
Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer won’t qualify automatically but they will be two of Clarke’s wildcards and up until recently the third one looked like it was heading the way of Graeme McDowell, another experienced Ryder Cup operator to counterbalance all the first-timers in the European team.
Enter Knox, 31, at the Travelers – and an intriguing scenario. The Scot could do Clarke a favour by entering, and playing well, at the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, beginning on 18 August. A big finish there and he’s in by right when the team is named the following week. He’d knock one of the other rookies out, probably Fitzpatrick.
That would still mean five new guys plus up to seven veterans going in against an American team that looks like their strongest unit in quite a few years.
If Knox doesn’t play the Wyndham, what does Clarke do? Last month, Colin Montgomerie, a winning Ryder Cup captain at Celtic Manor in 2010, said that six rookies is one too many.
Paul McGinley, winning captain at Gleneagles in 2014, said that given the number of rookies likely to be in the team automatically, it was going to be a big ask for another one to get a pick.
Are they right? Well, Montgomerie’s own team in Wales had six rookies. The best American performance in recent times – and their last victory – was under Paul Azinger at Valhalla in 2008. Azinger also had six rookies – and they destroyed the Europeans.
The rookie argument can be over-played, especially as regards to Knox, who lives in America, who plays successfully against all the American players and who is respected and hugely confident. A rookie, yes. But one who has already beaten the best that America has thrown at him.
Who are the contenders as third man behind Westwood and Kaymer? Apart from Knox, there’s McDowell, but he’s having a very poor time at the moment and even he admitted, after his missed cut at the US PGA, that he probably wouldn’t pick himself.
There’s Soren Kjeldsen and Tyrrell Hatton and Shane Lowry, but Knox is ahead of all those.
Knox has won twice on the PGA Tour since November. He was also beaten in a play-off at the OHL Classic (by McDowell, whose form has gone south since then), second again (to Branden Grace) at the Heritage in April of this year and second again (to McIlroy) at the Irish Open in May.
Knox would already be comfortably in the Ryder Cup team had he been an official member of the European Tour at the time he won his breakthrough victory at the WGC in Shanghai last autumn.
Knox became a member straight after his dream victory, but his vast points total still didn’t count towards Ryder Cup selection.
He started that week as seventh reserve with seemingly no hope of making the field. He ended it by beating a chasing pack of Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed and Rickie Fowler – America’s marquee players.
He might be short of guaranteed selection, but Knox has surely done enough to book himself a place at Hazeltine. If form counts for anything, he’ll make the team.