By Mark Lamport-Stokes
CHASKA, Minnesota (Reuters) - Very rarely is a reigning major champion benched for the opening session of a Ryder Cup, but Masters winner Danny Willett found himself in exactly that position at Hazeltine National on Thursday.
Though Willett was a notable absentee from the pairings for Friday's foursomes matches, Europe captain Darren Clarke said his omission had nothing to do with the off-course furore sparked earlier in the week by the player's brother, Pete.
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"No, it's a little bit of cat-and-mouse whenever you put pairings out together in practice rounds this week," Clarke told reporters after announcing his four pairings for Friday to get the 41st Ryder Cup under way.
"And certainly with regard to Danny, he will be playing tomorrow afternoon. He may well play four times, and his last match will be Sunday singles."
In an article published on a magazine website, Pete Willett lampooned United States golf fans in a crude rant for which both his brother and Clarke later apologised, emphatically distancing themselves and the American team from the diatribe.
Danny Willett said the comments had been a big distraction for him as he prepared for his long-awaited Ryder Cup debut at Hazeltine but Clarke said he was not at all concerned about the state of his player's mind for the biennial team competition.
"When I told the guys who are not playing tomorrow morning, they are all playing well, and they are all disappointed they are not playing but there's a reason behind it," said Clarke.
"I have a plan for what I'm going to try and execute this week, and you know, Danny is fine. Danny is ready to go. He wants to play.
"He's like all the guys; he's disappointed he's not playing in the morning, and he understands what I'm trying to do is for the team. There is no individual in our 12. It's about the team."
Earlier on Thursday, Willett said it had been "pretty tricky for me to get back and fully focus these last few hours" because of his brother's published lampooning.
"Not saying it's going to be completely forgotten, but hopefully it's died down a little bit more and we can all get on with what we're here to do," said the Masters champion.
(Editing By Tony Jimenez)