Europe Should Be Glad Ryder Cup is Not Played on Paper
Ryder Cup qualification starts at the Czech Masters - and with 12 months to go before he finalises his team, Thomas Bjorn has to be a worried man. Europe's recent record in the competition is impressive, to put it mildly, but Bjorn must be concerned that when his team take on the USA in France in 2018 there could be a repeat of what happened at Hazeltine last year, when the Americans enjoyed sweet revenge for the hammering they received at Gleneagles, for the incredible European fightback at Medinah.
Why should Bjorn be worried? In recent times, the same old faces have formed the nucleus of the American side, players who became used to losing to Europe, who almost came to expect it.
Times have changed. Jim Furyk, the US captain, has an appalling personal record in the event. But he will be walking on air right now. Why? Well, let's imagine that the Ryder Cup were going to be played next week. the nucleus of Furyk's team would look something like this:
Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Brooks Keopka, Daniel Berger, Patrick Reed, Kevin Kisner. Can you see where we are going with this? Johnson is the world number one and has one major to his name, Spieth has three majors to his credit, Thomas has just won the US PGA, Koepka is the US Open champion, Reed loves matchplay, Fowler is the best player in the game not to have won a major, Kisner is not far behind him, and Berger has every shot in the book in his armoury.
You can bet your bottom dollar that between now and the Ryder Cup starting, somebody else will burst upon the scene too. Yes, it is likely that Matt Kuchar will make the side, and he has lost more matches than he has won. Phil Mickelson and Jason Dufner may make up the numbers. But Kuchar is one of the most consistent players on the planet and is somebody you would definitely want by your side in either foursomes or fourballs, Mickelson is still capable of producing some astonishing golf and Dufner...well, Dufner is Dufner. Don't rule out Bubba Watson making a return to form either - and he comes from the same mould as Reed.
No matter how you look at it, the Americans are going to have a strong team. A very strong team.
It is not all doom and gloom for Europe though. Jon Rahm has emerged as one of the most exciting talents in the game in 2017, and is a shoo-in for Bjorn. When Thomas Pieters, the big-hitting Belgian, accepts that he needs to play more often and that he must stop being so hard on himself he will be a top-10 golfer and a certain future major champion. And Matthew Fitzpatrick is proof positive that you don't have to belt the ball 300+ yards to compete at the very highest level.
You can also add Sergio Garcia, Rory McIroy and Tommy Fleetwood for starters. Garcia has finally won his first major, McIlroy has four to his credit and Fleetwood has enjoyed a sensational year. But, and it is a big but, McIlroy hasn't won a major since 2014 or a tournament of any kind in 2017; Garcia has done little or nothing since winning The Masters, and he and Fleetwood both employ the claw grip with their putters. McIlroy's woes on the greens have been well documented, and he has putted like a drain all year.
Justin Rose remains one of the best ball strikers in the game, and has a fierce determination to succeed. But his putting? You can't be serious. He goes entire tournaments where he can't buy a putt. Francesco Molinari, as his coach Denis Pugh never tires of telling us, is wonderful iron player and a deadly accurate driver. His weakness? Putting.
Martin Kaymer is a former world number one who has won two majors. Such is his level of inconsistency of late he may not even make the team. Victor Dubuisson looked like a genius in the run-up to Gleneagles. He has disappeared from the face of the earth.
Thankfully, Alexander Levy is looking ever more like the real deal, and when the chips are down he CAN putt. And Alex Noren is capable of beating anybody on any course on his day. His putting stroke is not pretty to watch, but he finds a way of getting the ball into the hole. Time and time again. It is fair to assume that Rafa Cabrera Bello will play his way into Bjorn's team. He is Europe's equivalent of Kuchar, reeling off top-10 finishes for fun. But a winner? He won the 2017 Scottish Open. It was his first victory in five years.
Rahm, Pieters, Fitzpatrick, Garcia, McIlroy, Rose, Fleetwood, Cabrera Bello, Kaymer, Levy, Noren could easily make up 11 of Bjorn's side, and Jordan Smith is a good bet to make up the numbers after a sensational debut season on the European Tour.
On paper, Europe are underdogs. Thankfully, the Ryder Cup is not played on paper. And Golf National is going to provide a ferocious test for all 24 players. American golfers, even the very best American golfers, have a history of choking when the chips are really down in the Ryder Cup - Craig Stadler, Mickelson, Hunter Mahan, to name but three. And there is plenty of water waiting for anybody who can't hold their nerve. European golfers have a history of raising their game when the chips are down. There is no real reason to believe it will be any different in 2018. When our guys need to hole the putts, when they need to roll in a chip or play a miraculous bunker shot, they somehow find a way to do it.
Do you think the rankings will matter when they get down to business in France next year? Of course they won't. And do you think that Sergio Garcia will be shaking in his boots if he has a twisting, downhill six-footer on the final green to beat Spieth and regain the trophy for Europe? Of course he won't!
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