The European Tour might be taking a few weeks off from having its own events, but that doesn’t mean The Eurozone has to follow suit. In fact, this hiatus, which started this week in absence of the cancelled event in the Philippines (more on this at the end), and runs through The Masters, gives me a chance to take a deep dive on our new Ryder Cup stock-watch. In this two-part introduction, we explore some permutations that are going to make Captain Thomas Bjørn’s primary task of forming his final roster much more difficult.
This crop of Euros is perhaps the deepest we’ve seen…ever. With several veterans already locked in, and a few rookies that have cemented a slot, it’s a good time to take an early-season gander down the points list and start prognosticating the final roster. In my opinion, the most compelling storylines are those among the potential rookies. In order to get there, however, we need to look back at how the 2016 first-timers fared, briefly overview the new points qualification standards, and pencil-in the studs we are already quite sure will be heading to Paris.
2016 European Rookie Recap
The 2016 European squad featured one of the least-inspiring rookie classes in recent memory. No offense to Chris Wood, Andy Sullivan, and (the artist formerly known as) Danny Willett, but the good results shown by these players early in their points qualification cycles did not continue throughout the immediate lead-up to Hazeltine. Rafa Cabrera-Bello and Thomas Pieters notwithstanding, the rookies for Darren Clarke’s team, in the limited action they saw, looked mostly outclassed at every turn.
Nonetheless, Clarke tried to hide the rookies (other than Pieters) as much as he could on Friday and Saturday, sending out Willett, Sullivan, Wood, Fitzpatrick, and RCB in only seven of the sixteen team matches, where they combined for an abysmal 2-4-1, alleviated only by Rafa’s solid play. This same group went 1-4 in the Sunday singles, with–you guessed it–the Notorious RCB grabbing the only point.
Pieters, on the other hand, was the only rookie to play all five sessions. After a 5 & 4 drubbing with Lee Westwood (who went 0-3-0 overall, whoops) at the hands of Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar, Clarke re-paired Pieters with Rory McIlroy, and the duo combined for scorched-earth 3-0 in their remaining 3 matches. Pieters summoned a 3 & 2 victory over J.B. Holmes on Sunday, and managed to produce a team-best 4-1-0 record in his first Ryder Cup. But, as will be highlighted in Part II, Pieters is anything but a surefire bet to make this year’s team.
Points Qualification Standards
This explainer will answer any questions beyond the summary provided here. The Europeans have shifted to a system that is weighted more heavily toward the last few months and weeks leading up to the 2018 matches, in an effort to capture the players in the best form at the time. Their system also factors Rolex Series Events more heavily to encourage players with dual memberships on both the European and US PGA Tours to participate in these national opens in Europe. In fact, there will be no Ryder Cup qualification points to gain for the Europeans from tournaments played elsewhere during the same weeks as these events.
The 12-man European Team for The 2018 Ryder Cup will comprise the first four players from the European Points List, followed by the leading four players from the World Points List and completed by four wild cards. Further, Ryder Cup qualification points (both Race to Dubai Points and World Points) will be multiplied by 1.5 for tournaments later in the qualification process. The starting point for this will be the BMW PGA Championship in 2018.
Because it is still quite early in the season, the current points standings are a good starting point, but are subject to violent changes as the season moves into the major championships and Rolex Series events. (P.S. – the points list link in the previous sentence defaults to USA; click “switch to Team Europe” in the upper right corner, and tab between the European Points list and the World Points list to see how both shake out currently).
Now that we’ve established where we are coming from, let’s look at where we are headed.
If the matches started today, the following five gentlemen with previous Ryder Cup experience would be virtually guaranteed a spot:
Justin Rose – @JustinRose99
Age: 37 Current European Points ranking: #2 Current World Points ranking: #1 OWGR: #5 Prior Appearances: 4 – 2008, 2012 (w), 2014 (w), 2016 Record: 11-6-2
Making the case: Rose is a stone cold lock. He finds himself on the very short list of pros that have had a mind-boggling level of consistency in the past year since his near miss at The Masters in 2017–among his 2018 teammates, perhaps only Rahm compares. Rose won back-to-back weeks in late 2017 at the WGC HSBC Champions and the Turkish Airlines Open. Although he failed to bring his best stuff for the final round of the Valspar, it appears he is going to be in stellar form for Augusta, where it’s safe to say he’ll contend again this year on a track well-suited for his game. Rose can go ahead and book his flight to Paris.
Sergio García – @TheSergioGarcia
Age: 38 Current European Points ranking: #13 Current World Points ranking: #5 OWGR: #9 Prior Appearances: 8 – 1999, 2002 (w), 2004 (w), 2006 (w), 2008, 2012 (w), 2014 (w), 2016 Record: 19-11-7
Making the case: Sergio has never been in a better place in his career, both personally and professionally, than he is right now. Since his win at The Masters in 2017, Sergio got married, became a father, and notched another win in his home country at the Andalucía Masters. An off-season equipment manufacturer change to Callaway proved a fine choice, as El Niño kicked off 2018 with a win in Singapore on the Asian Tour.
García sits quite comfortably at #5 in the World Points ranking, and #13 in the Euro Points ranking. Defending at Augusta will probably be tough, unless he serves up some stanky paella at the Masters Club dinner to put the Big Cat and Phil out of commission. Even if we presume that a life change like fatherhood slows him down a bit this year on the golf course, and he tumbles a bit in the rankings, there’s no way Bjørn leaves his experience and flair off the team.
Rory McIlroy – @McIlroyRory
Age: 28 Current European Points ranking: #15 Current World Points ranking: #11 OWGR: #13 Prior Appearances: 4 – 2010 (w), 2012 (w), 2014 (w), 2016 Record: 9-6-4
Making the case: Kyle Porter tried to get cheeky on his most recent appearance on the NLU Pod, throwing out Rory as potential Captain’s pick. We’re going to assume that Rory will figure it out to the tune of multiple wins this year as he continues to shake off the rust in this early run. Rors is a generational talent that has shown the ability to “find it” and go on absurd runs of great golf. So far this week at the Arnold Palmer, Rory is off to a solid start and looks to be heading in the right direction. Even in the unlikely event it comes down to a wild card choice, Bjørn would be rightly facing pitchforks and torches if he leaves McIlroy behind.
A preposterous thought. Rory will be on the team.
Henrik Stenson – @henrikstenson
Age: 41 Current European Points ranking: #18 Current World Points ranking: #17 OWGR: #15 Prior Appearances: 4 – 2006 (w), 2008, 2014 (w), 2016 Record: 7-7-2
Making the case: After Rose, Garcia, and McIlroy, we can see some faint shades of possible doubt creep in for our last two veteran locks: Stenson and Fitzpatrick. Stenson is currently generously outside an automatic berth on Team Europe through both points qualifiers, but his experience in the pressure cooker, reliable ball-striking, and steely desire to cast his competitors in stone with his death-stare are traits Bjørn will want on his team. Mind not that Stenson is 41; he’s still got plenty of good golf left in him. Look no further than the top of the leaderboard at Bay Hill this week, where a 64-69 start has him tied at the top through two rounds.
Although the results so far have been mixed, and he admittedly looked unimpressive through a MC in Tampa last week, Henrik is a lot like Rory in that he’s never that far off and can flip the switch quickly. Once he finds a swing key that works, look out. While it’s not impossible to imagine that maybe Stenson’s career is starting to wane, and this year could be crunch time for a vaulting victory or two to solidify his spot in Paris, it seems more likely than not that Stenson will string together some good results this summer and find himself on his fifth Team Europe.
Matt Fitzpatrick – @MattFitz94
Age: 23 Current European Points ranking: #4 Current World Points ranking: #6 OWGR: #33 Prior Appearances: 1 – 2016 Record: 0-2-0
Making the case: Fitzpatrick’s first Ryder Cup experience left a sour taste in his mouth, as he discussed with remarkable candor on his NLU Pod appearance. He only got two opportunities in 2016, failing to net even a half-point. 2016 Captain Darren Clarke’s decision to lean hard on his veterans did not give Fitz much of a chance to get his feet wet. Nonetheless, he quietly put together a great string of results to end 2017, starting with his most recent victory at the Omega European Masters in September.
He finished no worse than T-15 in 7 straight events to end the calendar year on the European Tour, and kicked 2018 off with a T19 and T3 in Hong Kong and Abu Dhabi. Since then, however, Fitz’s game has wavered in a few Stateside starts, missing the cut in both the Valspar and Arnold Palmer Invitational the last two weeks.
Fitzpatrick was, and is, one of the hardest players to predict. Despite his very high points ranking on both lists, we have to remember that those points will start to mean a little less as the season wears on and 2018 tournaments begin taking multipliers. There’s no doubt Fitz has the game to sustain his points standing and make the team outright, but he will need to show a better run of form as the season progresses to do so. After failing to make the most of his two opportunities at Hazeltine, if he ends up on the bubble, his limited Ryder Cup history may be a strike against any potential Captain’s pick. Still, with his solid current foothold, and his ability to grind-out lengthy runs of top 15 finishes, I feel mostly comfortable projecting Fitz as a lock at this point.
Post publication note by the author: Many of you have expressed varying degrees of disarray that Paul Casey is missing from this category of Veteran Locks. Part II will have a lengthy explanation for why I put him at #9 overall in the rankings, a virtual lock to make the team, but an example of why the points system still matters greatly moving forward.
Changing of the Guard in 2018? Rookie Locks:
Fortunately for Captain Bjørn, 2017 was a breakout year for a new crop of European gamers. Three such gentlemen–Jon Rahm, Tommy Fleetwood, and Tyrell Hatton–will certainly find themselves wearing blue in September. I profile them here. In Part II, arriving next week, we look at a few names that many will be surprised to see near (and not-so-near) the top of the current points standings, a few more familiar names that are on the bubble, and we’ll make some early dark horse predictions.
Tyrrell Hatton – @TyrrellHatton
Age: 26 Current European Points ranking: #1 Current World Points ranking: #3 OWGR: #14 Notable prior match play experience: 2018 EURASIA Cup (w, 3-0)
Making the case: Among the three rookie locks for Le Golf National, Hatton sits highest atop the points standings, but carries perhaps the least notoriety at this point. The Englishman now living in Orlando and splitting his time between Tours has the type of doggedness and saucy spike-mark-blame-game that can be polarizing–which is to say, PERFECT for the intensity of the Ryder Cup. He’s also got a good sense of humor, to boot.
So I’ve just read we will be able to tap down spike marks next year?!
What the hell am I meant to blame then? Got 8.5 months to think of something I guess 👀 pic.twitter.com/WCpc7mJ9hZ
— Tyrrell Hatton (@TyrrellHatton) March 12, 2018
Hatton’s form has been incredible over the past year, and he’s shown no signs of slowing down. In his three 2018 European Tour starts so far, he finished T15, 3, and T3 most recently at the Chipotle Classic. Although not the straightest driver of the ball, Hatton’s game is well-rounded, and he makes the bulk of his money around the greens. This should strike fear in the hearts of those pulling for Team USA, as clutch putting is the number one most desirable trait for any Ryder Cupper. Le Golf National favors bombers, and Hatton is not short by any means, but I suspect he’ll shine as a four-ball partner for someone like Justin Rose. Similar styles, good ball strikers, and Hatton can pour in some late-round daggers that have sometimes come few and far between for Rose in previous iterations of the Ryder Cup.
If we need any further reassurances, look no further than Tyrrell’s professional team event debut at this year’s EURASIA Cup. Hatton finished 3-0, partnering with Ross Fisher in a 5 & 4 victory over Anirban Lahiri and S.S.P. Chawrasia in the four-ball; sliding past the #Barnrat and Ben An 2 & 1 in the foursomes with Paul Casey, and beating Lahiri again 2 & 1 in the singles (nevermind that Lahiri is quickly making a name for himself as the worst team-competition pro golfer on the planet).
Jon Rahm – @JonRahmpga
Age: 23 Current European Points ranking: #5 Current World Points ranking: #2 OWGR: #3 Notable prior match play experience: 2014 Palmer Cup (w), 2015 Palmer Cup
Making the case: What is there to say about Jon Rahm that has not already been repeated ad nauseum? He is credibly among the top three golfers in the world over the past 18 months. His amateur record, in which he won back-to-back Hogan Awards resulting from eleven college victories at Arizona State and held the #1 post in the World Amateur Golf Ranking for a record of 60 weeks, is legendary. His fiery temper and tendency to somehow 1) never break a club and 2) channel the rage into some serious red-ass on the golf ball, coupled with his soft hands around the greens, make him absolutely fucking terrifying for Team USA fans in 2018.
Imagine for a moment Jon Rahm and Sergio García paired together in the two four-ball matches where they can both let loose and fire at pins with reckless abandon. I don’t care who you imagine them playing against from the American side–do you seriously think the Spanish Duo of Doom would not put up at least 1.5 points against virtually anyone Furyk can throw at them? Do you like RCB and Rahm together a little better? What about Rahm and Stenson in a foursomes match?
Rahm is going to plague the Yanks for the next 20 years in the Ryder Cup. If we thought Pieters’ 4-1-0 debut was impressive, wait until the Spaniard drops a 5-0 tactical nuke in Paris. *shudders*
Tommy Fleetwood – @TommyFleetwood1
Age: 27 Current European Points ranking: #6 Current World Points ranking: #4 OWGR: #11 Notable prior match play experience: 2013 Seve Trophy, 2018 EURASIA Cup (w, 3-0)
Making the case: Welcome to Fleetwood Island, my friends! The weather is warm. The sun is shining. The azaleas are in bloom. We accommodate all newcomers, and offer citizenship to those that wish to stay. We just ask that you follow these simple guidelines: 1) Pledge allegiance to Fleetwood the Flusher, our god-king, lord-emperor, and benevolent provider of that sound ; 2) We pull for the Toffees here, so Liverpool wankers actually do have to walk alone (COYB!); and 3) please rinse off before you get in the pool.
After you finish your tour of the grounds, have a seat on the veranda and enjoy the wafting breeze of defending champion bliss, as Tron and Soly got to experience first hand in Abu Dhabi. No sweet little lies here–Fleetwood has the type of big love to be a family man, ball-striking that might be among the seven wonders of the world, and a short game that allows him to compete everywhere. Not to mention after he wins, he and his caddie know how to tango in the night. (I feel much better getting all those Fleetwood Mac references off my chest.)
— Tron Carter (@TronCarterNLU) January 21, 2018
Fleetwood’s prior match play credentials are limited, but he, like Hatton, went 3-0 at the 2018 EURASIA Cup, similarly beating up on the Indian golfers Lahiri and Chawrasia (3 & 2 with Stenson in the foursomes and 2 & 1 against Chawrasia in the singles) and pairing with Casey en route to a 4 & 3 hammering of Aphibarnrat and An. I choose to believe that the golf gods are punishing Chawrasia and Lahiri for being from a country that considers DLF Golf and Country Club its finest arena. I also choose to believe that it was Ben An’s fault that my beloved #Barnrat had to carry his ass.
Tommy, the good young lad from Southport, seems to be another player that will be hard to bring down in 2018 and for many Ryder Cups to come.
The European Tour Hiatus: No Philippines Event?
For those wondering about the hiatus, you are not alone. This week was supposed to be the debut of another new event for 2018, The Philippine Masters. Announced in 2016, the new tournament was going to be the first venture into the Philippines for the European Tour since 1995. While the event still has a cached sub-page on the European Tour’s website, my research has not revealed an official cancellation announcement for the tournament.
Without getting too speculative, I cannot say that I’m surprised in this development. Followers of global politics are well-aware that the Philippines is currently subject to some radical social upheaval. Manila-based journalists have done very credible reporting that President Rodrigo Duterte (legit bad hombre) is conducting or encouraging vigilante extrajudicial killings of Filipino citizens under the guise of a “war on drugs.” This is only one subset of various human rights abuses that occur daily in the country. Although the Tour ventures to other Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian nations with their own degrees of less-than -ideal treatment of citizens and expats, simply put, the Philippines is not exactly a safe place to be at the moment–for anyone–not the least of which are Filipinos themselves. A golf tournament would be unseemly right now.
Whether the European Tour intends to try again with a Philippines event remains a mystery. The original contract was for three years; perhaps the Tour will try again in 2019 if the political situation improves.