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The Eurozone: #9 (Ryder Cup Watch: Part II – The French Connection)

While I certainly intended to get this follow up to Part I of the Ryder Cup tracker out sooner than this, I’m glad, in some ways, that it’s taken a little while. Since we last got #deep on the European Tour, I’ve been traveling, working, sleeping, writing (a special feature that I’m really excited about), working some more, and even playing a little golf! After a little time off, I’ve gotta say–it feels good to get back into the Eurozone beat. Of course, with a strong international contingent at The Players this week, there’s a good chance that this installment may be moot by the time the sun sets over Ponte Vedra Beach on Sunday.

We’ve certainly seen the Team Europe standings tightening and shifting since Part I debuted on March 17, 2018. Over the past six weeks, starting with Noren’s performance at the WGC-Match Play and Casey’s Sunday flirtation with the course-record at Augusta, it feels like we might be able to lock-in eleven out of the twelve available Ryder Cup slots–in May! And there are conceivably eight or more players battling for the final slot.

My gut says that I’m a bit silly for writing this, just because it seems premature (read: absurd) to say that ten or eleven players are locks roughly five months before the matches begin–but what’s more, that up to a dozen possible contributors to this European squad are going to be left home. Let’s just say that I will not be shocked to see any of the following guys listed make the team, but it will be heartbreaking to see the others have to wait until 2020 for their next shot.

As a reminder, here are the eight gentlemen that I picked as “Locks” in Part I: Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia, Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Matt Fitzpatrick, Tyrell Hatton, Jon Rahm, and Tommy Fleetwood. Of those eight, I am 100% sticking with seven of them, and still feel 85% good about Fitzpatrick.

At this point, I think it makes sense to set up the remaining players much like one would look at the NCAA Basketball Tournament bubble in late February, with a “Last Four In,” “First Four Out,” and “Next Four Out,” along with the “Best of the Rest” category. However, we’re actually going to make the first group a “Last FIVE In,” dropping Fitzpatrick down into that group. Fitz is slowly becoming the Forgotten Man, despite solidly sitting in fifth in the European Points and ninth in the World Points. Just keep in mind as you are reading this how razor thin the margins are between some of these players. Given the number of guys we’re talking about, I’ll give some brief rationale for these projections.

Last Five In

Matt Fitzpatrick

I won’t rehash the case I made for Fitz in Part I. I stand by my selection, but I think it’s now fair to move him from a solid lock into the “Last Five In” basket. Simply put, his record at Hazeltine did little to help his chances (in fairness, he had few opportunities, but you still have to make the most of them), and there are now simply too many players with either substantial Ryder Cup experience or more recent form that are going to be gunning for the last spot. If Fitzpatrick doesn’t nail down an automatic qualification, as close as he is to one, it would mean his form is trending in the wrong direction and that would be plenty enough reason for Bjorn to look elsewhere.

Alexander Norén

Age: 35 Current European Points ranking: #16 Current World Points ranking: #7 OWGR: #18 Notable prior match play experience: 3rd, 2018 WGC-Match Play; 2018 EURASIA Cup (w, 1-2)

Sweden continues to produce exceptional golf talent, and Norén is the heir-apparent to the Parnevik-Jacobson-Stenson progeny. Norén sits seventh in the World Points standings (automatic qualifier), 16th in the European Points standings (immediately behind countryman Alex Bjork, who won the Volvo China Open at the end of April).

The 2017 BMW PGA was a defining moment in Norén’s career surge. His eagle on the 72 hole will live in Euro Tour lore. Photo cred: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Norén has been building towards this Ryder Cup basically since the last putt dropped in Chaska in 2016. Starting in October of 2016, Norén has won three times on the European Tour, finished T-6 at the 2017 Open Championship, T-2 at the Farmers, T-16 at Riv, T-3 at the Honda, T-14 at the 2018 WGC-Mexico, and third at the 2018 WGC-Match Play. His MC at the Masters aside, I think you could make a great case that Norén should be a stronger lock than Casey (and probably Fitzpatrick) at this point. There’s no reason to think Norén is going to taper off in the next few months. Fair to call Norén a “virtual lock” as of now.

Paul Casey@Paul_Casey

Age: 40 Current European Points ranking: #41 Current World Points ranking: #10 OWGR: #12 Notable prior match play experience: 2nd, 2009 and 2010 WGC-Match Play; T-17 2018 WGC-Match Play; 2018 EURASIA Cup (w, 2-1); Ryder Cup 2004 (w), 2006 (w), 2008; overall record 3-2-4)

Many regular readers of this column were remarkably triggered by the fact that I did not include Casey in my “locks.” Given that he had won the week prior at Valspar, I choose to believe there was some recency bias on display. Since March, Casey has continued to help his case, with a strong run of form including a T-17 at the Match Play, T-15 at the Masters, and a T-5 at the Wells Fargo.

Definitely saucy to have a pin-up style photo of your smokeshow wife as a phone case, but…uh…Paul…you’re looking at the wrong side of the phone, my friend. Photo cred: Golf News Net

I planned on a long, drawn out diatribe about why I wasn’t ready to lock-in Casey in Part I of this column. I hear you about how the qualification rules were re-written “just for” Casey, blah blah. AND YET: If the matches started this week, Paul Casey would still need a Captain’s Pick from Bjorn to make the squad (he’s currently tenth in the World Points and an all-but-cooked 41st in European Points). See, winning is overrated in all facets of professional golf…except for making a European Ryder Cup team (and particularly, this team). Although Casey has been consistently finding the first and second pages of leaderboards, he doesn’t play often in Europe and he has only won twice in his career on the PGA Tour.

In the end, I’m quite confident that Casey will be on Team Europe for the first time in a decade. But I’m not convinced he will be an automatic qualifier; we’ll call him a “virtual lock.” Another win this summer would seal the deal.

Rafa Cabrera-Bello @RCabreraBello

Age: 33 Current European Points ranking: #12 Current World Points ranking: #13 OWGR: #25 Notable prior match play experience: 3rd, 2016 WGC-Match Play; 2018 EURASIA Cup (w, 1-1-1); 2016 Ryder Cup (2-0-1)

RCB gave us an all-time great albatross last year at The Players, 16th Hole, Final Round, and an even better reaction. Photo cred: Ten Golf/PGA Tour

The Notorious R-C-B: certifiable #menace, low-key gun show ticket purveyor, and all-around stud with a game that travels #allovertheworld! Rafa sits at twelfth in the European Points and thirteenth in the World Points. His prior experience as a Rookie at the 2016 Ryder Cup (record 2-0-1, paired with Garcia, won Friday Fourball 3 & 2 over Holmes/Moore; halved Saturday Foursomes against Reed/Spieth; beat Jimmy Walker 3 & 2 in Sunday Singles for 2.5 Points) makes him an alluring possible Captain’s pick on a team that will be fairly rookie-laden as it is. Rafa won the 2017 Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open (the 275 yard fairway metal he stuffed to eight feet in the playoff to clinch the victory will resonate with me for a long time) and has posted nearly a dozen top 25s combined across both Tours since.

Cabrera-Bello can–and should–do himself some favors over the summer, including his title defense in Scotland. Rafa seems due for another win, which would all but assure him a spot on the team. Even though he needs to put in some work this summer, as long as Cabrera-Bello remains inside the top 15 of both points lists, it will be very difficult for Bjorn to pass on his steady ball-striking and experience when it comes time to make the picks.

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Although this segment is the “Last Five In,” I had to draw a hard line of demarcation before getting to the twelfth and final player. As confident as I feel about the eleven gentlemen projected to make the team, I have an equal amount of trepidation about slotting the final pick at this point. If the past six weeks have proven anything, it might be that Captain Bjorn has even more defensible choices than I would have surmised when I published Part I, with Poulter, Dunne, Fisher, Pepperell, Bjork, Luiten, and Paisley all firmly in the conversation. If the Ryder Cup started today, however, I think there is one player that holds the proverbial trump card by virtue of his competitiveness, grit, and (maybe above all) nationality…

Alexander Lévy@alexlevygolf 

Age: 27 Current European Points ranking: #9 Current World Points ranking: #15 OWGR: #46 Notable prior match play experience: 2018 EURASIA Cup (w, 1-2)

You probably saw this one coming by the title of the article. On the merits, Lévy is somewhat of a sleeper pick, despite having won three times in Europe since the 2016 Matches–most recently, last month in Morocco at the Trophee Hassan II. Along with his win, Lévy has two fourth-place finishes earlier this year in Dubai and Oman, and a T-14 in China (where he’s won twice in his career). Lévy has moved up to 46 in the OWGR and is currently eighth in the Race to Dubai standings. Unlike Fitzpatrick, Lévy is trending in a positive direction of late, and it is apparent from his recent interviews that his confidence is building. Lévy finds himself ninth in European Points and fifteenth in World Points.

Perhaps El Toro will win again this summer, once the points multiplier kicks in, and really home in on an automatic spot. The one thing that might push him over the edge in a Captain’s selection, though, is the virtue of playing on native soil at Le Golf National. I’m likely reading too much into this, but I have a really difficult time believing Bjorn is going to venture to Paris without at least one French player on his team, as long as that player is Alex Lévy and he is somewhere in the neighborhood of fifteenth or better in the European Points list, healthy, and has posted some solid results in the month of August. Beyond his solid golf credentials, the fervor of the French crowd rooting on Lévy is likely to elevate his play. He is already a fierce competitor, a steady ballstriker, and a little bit crazy (in a good way).

Quick biographical note:  Lévy was born in the United States to French parents (dual citizen), lived in California for the first four years of his life before moving to Bandol, France, and has a Spanish nickname: El Toro (the bull). Identity crisis! Get it together, man! Photo cred: Sky Sports

The one thing that could give Bjorn pause is Lévy’s less-than-stellar match play record. He failed to advance out of the group stage at the WGC-Matchplay, posting a 1-2 record. His record in the Eurasia Cup earlier this year was also 1-2. Thus, if the final pick comes down to Lévy and, for example, a trending Ian Poulter, the French Connection might not be enough. In the meantime, Lévy is close enough to an auto-berth to basically control his own destiny, and for now, the final spot is his to lose.

First Four Out

Ian Poulter@IanJamesPoulter

Age: 42 Current European Points ranking: #29 Current World Points ranking: #8 OWGR: #26 Notable prior match play experience: [SOUNDS OF SCREAMING BY EVERY AMERICAN GOLF FAN]

Speaking of Poulter: HE WON RECENTLY, GUYS. This is fucking TERRIFYING.

This is the face of death. Photo cred: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Poults’ win in Houston really vaulted him up the World Points standings, where he currently sits eighth (he’s 29th in European Points). There’s a very real chance that Poulter could establish himself as an automatic qualifer, and perhaps a guaranteed Captain’s pick if he remains in the top twelve of the World Points standings. In Jon Rahm’s recent NLU Pod appearance, he talked as though he was already convinced Poulter would be on the team. Rahm may know something I don’t, or maybe he is just certain Bjorn will be dead-set on getting some additional experience on the team.

Simply put, Poulter is the O.G. Menace of the Ryder Cup (Monty’s record is amazing but he didn’t have the same fire, sorry). Americans should be very afraid if Poulter continues this streak of resurgent play. I can see Poulter being interchangeable with Fitzpatrick at this point; there’s probably a very solid chance he races up the World Points list this summer and bumps a vulnerable player like Fitz off the team.

Ross Fisher @RossFisher

Age: 37 Current European Points ranking: #4 Current World Points ranking: #14 OWGR: #43 Notable prior match play experience: 4th, 2009 WGC-Match Play; Quarter-finals, 2017 WGC-Match Play; 2010 Ryder Cup (w, 2-2-0) 2018 EURASIA Cup (w, 1-2)

Why can’t I make myself believe in Ross Fisher? He currently stands fourth…FOURTH(!)…in the European Points standings–ahead of Fitz, Fleetwood, Rory, Sergio, Stenson, and many others–which makes him an automatic qualifier if the Matches started today (he’s 14th in World Points). His quiet, unassuming personality spills onto the golf course, where his game is remarkably solid in every respect, but never really wows you. Fisher could fully make this team on points and make me look very silly for basically writing him off at this stage, but I just think there’s too much firepower lurking all around him. Prove me wrong, Ross! I want to believe!

Fisher is supremely under the radar, even though he ranks fourth in the European Points standings. Photo cred: Daily Express

Paul Dunne @dunners11

Age: 25 Current European Points ranking: #7 Current World Points ranking: #12 OWGR: #68 Notable prior match play experience: 2015 Walker Cup (w, 1-2-1); 2018 EURASIA Cup (w, 0-3)

Dunners is a truly intriguing possibility. The Irishman seems to be in contention every single time he tees it up, no matter the continent. Dunne has posted a T-5 and T-8 at the Puntacana Championship and Houston Open, respectively. Meanwhile, he’s also finished T-19 at Abu Dhabi, second alone at the Open De Espana, and T-7 at the Volvo China Open. His lone official professional win came October of last year at the British Masters where he defeated a stacked field, including runner-up Rory McIlroy by three shots), but he also won last week at the GolfSixes (an unofficial team event with Gavin Moynihan). At age 25, Dunne is starting to feel the flow and really take charge of his career. He sits seventh in European Points and twelfth in World Points. With a strong summer, he is another youngster that could very well play his way onto Team Europe and few would be surprised by it. The question looming is how will he deal with the pressure, given his limited and relatively uninspired match play experience.

Paul Dunne showing off some hardware at the British Masters. Photo cred: Getty Images/The Independent

Thomas Pieters@Thomas_Pieters

Age: 26 Current European Points ranking: #42 Current World Points ranking: #42 OWGR: #56 Notable prior match play experience: 2016 Ryder Cup (4-1-0); 2018 EURASIA Cup (w, 2-1-0)

How in the fresh hell is Pieters this far down the list, you might ask? Well, to put it frankly: he might stink! The smooth-swinging Belgian is ranked 42nd in both the European and World Points lists. Pieters has struggled mightily since Hazeltine, which everyone thought was truly his breakout moment. His 4-1-0 record as a rookie was nothing short of jaw-dropping, and he paired so flawlessly with Rory in three of those matches, it seemed as though the Americans had run into a potential buzzsaw for the next five Ryder Cups every time those two were sent out.

“I’ll take, ‘.gifs That Haven’t Aged Well’ for $2000, Alex.”

Nonetheless, Pieters has shown basically no form at all since August of last year, posting only one top five finish in that timeframe at Abu Dhabi. Pieters has not cracked the top 30 on the European Tour since. His record stateside has been barely better, with a T-13 at the Honda Classic but no other top 25 finishes. Pieters is clearly an immense talent when it is clicking for him, but right now, it seems unlikely he’ll make the squad, absent a serious run of form between now and September.

Next Four Out

Alexander Bjork

Solid up-and-coming Swede that won recently at the Volvo China Open. 15th in World Points, 16th in European Points. Lurking.

Chris Paisley

Began the year on an absolute tear, but has tapered a bit since. 34th Euro, 19th World. Capable of tremendous runs of golf and might have another one in him before its all said and done.

Eddie Pepperell

Eddie Pep would certainly be a fan favorite in among the Golf Twitterati (seriously, follow him.) Won earlier this year in Qatar, and has started to really bring his game together. 18th World and 18th Euro points.

Uncle Joost Luiten

I don’t know why I was shocked to learn this, but the Netherlands has never had a Ryder Cupper. Luiten certainly has the game to be the first. Won in Oman earlier this year. Very solid all-around game and would be a great foursomes partner as he finds a lot of fairways and greens. 14th Euro; 17th World.

Best of the Rest

I’d say it is fair to keep these guys on the radar, but they all have a lot of work to do to make the team:

Franceso Molinari, Matt Wallace, Nicolas Colsaerts, Scott Jamieson, Shane Lowry, Victor Dubuisson, Marc Warren, Jorge Campillo, Nacho Elvira, Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Thorbjorn Olesen.

Going forward, we’ll keep tabs on the movement about once a month. Most of the focus will be on the “Last Four/Five In” and “First Four Out” unless there is significant movement among the Locks. One thing is for sure: this European Team, no matter how it ends up, is going to be remarkably deep, even if the experience level is rather low. This is shaping up to be an absolutely legendary edition of the Ryder Cup.

*Feature photo cred: Getty Images

About the Author

Job is pronounced with a long O. Aspiring club champ and golf course architecture nerd. Living proof that breaking 80 is even harder than it looks. Usually just trying to make it to my next tee time. Lived in Jacksonville, FL before NLU made it cool. jwfickett at gmail.

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