There will have been numerous times during his two-year tenure as Europe’s Ryder Cup captain when Thomas Bjorn would cast an envious eye across the Atlantic Ocean at his American counterpart Jim Furyk but never during that time will the green mist have been quite as dense as this week.
Furyk was on Tuesday due to name the first three of his four wild card picks and following the previous evening’s Labour Day conclusion to the Dell Technologies Championship, the American’s choices seemed blindingly obvious.
Bryson DeChambeau’s second straight win in the FedEx Cup play-offs, and his fourth in 31 PGA Tour starts is the sort of form that makes you wonder how he only finished ninth on the automatic qualification list when the window slammed shut on the eight places decided on merit at the end of the PGA Championship a month ago.
The 24-year-old looked a certainty to be added to Furyk’s list a day after rising to number one in the FedEx Rankings with two tournaments left to play and those who finished immediatley behind him on the Ryder Cup points list, Phil Mickelson (thanks to his final-round 63 for T12 on Monday) and Tiger Woods, seemed set to follow him onto the plane heading over to Le Golf National in Paris ahead of the September 28-30 matches.
So far, so certain. Furyk will be grateful to have been given an extra week to decide on a fourth wild card. The FedEx play-offs are whittled down to 70 for the BMW Championship in Pennsylvania this week with Tony Finau, Kevin Kisner, Xander Schauffele and Matt Kuchar among the hopefuls needing a big week to impress their captain.
Jim Furyk will make three Ryder Cup captain’s picks at 5 p.m. ET Tuesday LIVE on Twitter: https://t.co/M4KyIt1VxG
Who do you think he will pick? pic.twitter.com/ORIQHdOAlf
— Ryder Cup USA (@RyderCupUSA) September 1, 2018
Bjorn, meanwhile, must play his hand on Wednesday at 2pm and the short-list for his four wild cards is, well, not very short. Just as Furyk will thank the PGA of America for handing an extra seven days’ thinking time, Bjorn will no doubt be grateful the European Tour saw the wisdom of adding an additional pick to the three his predecessor Darren Clarke was allotted for Hazeltine two years ago.
With six rookies among his automatic qualfiers, Clarke had to accommodate experience in his personal trio and plumped for Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood, who delivered a single point between them, and that from an all but dead singles match as Kaymer defeated Kuchar in the penultimate rubber, a footnote in a 17-11 American trouncing of Europe.
The one bright spot among Clarke’s wild cards was the rookie, Thomas Pieters, who despite a so-so campaign on tour has seen his form spark to life in recent weeks with top-10 finishes at the Scottish Open and Czech Masters either side of a tie for sixth at the PGA Championship.
Pieters’ Hazeltine performance as a rookie showed the Belgian was a true Ryder Cup big beast, collecting four points from a possible five and expressing his disgust at failing to deliver the fifth for the losing cause.
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Pieters is worthy of a second go, perhaps Spain’s Rafa Cabrera Bello also given his impressive and unbeaten debut appearance that same week in Minnesota, contributing two and a half points from his three matches. The world number 29 also offered a timely reminder to his captain on Monday with a tie for seventh, one of only four in the field to shoot all four rounds in the 60s.
Of the eight Europeans already on Bjorn’s team, seven lie above Cabrera Bello in the world rankings: numbers four Justin Rose, five Jon Rahm, six Francesco Molinari, eight Rory McIlroy, 12 Tommy Fleetwood, 15 Alex Noren and 25 Tyrell Hatton.
You will count four rookies among them with a fifth, number 40 Thorbjorn Olesen, also getting ready for his Ryder Cup debut. Yet again, plenty of new blood and this time around a better dose of street-fighting spirit necessary to burst the ballooning bubble of American optimism. Yet Bjorn will likely look to add more experience, even if he does take the aforementioned Belgian and Spanish sophomores.
Perm two from this lot then – Paul Casey, Henrik Stenson, Ian Poulter and Sergio Garcia – and you begin to understand the headaches for this year’s skipper. He could pick all four but ignoring the emerging talents of Pieters and Cabrera Bello could be costly both in the short and long term, particularly as the Pieters-McIlroy partnership proved fruitful first time around and could run for years.
All four of these lion-hearted veterans have their merits and perhaps the easiest to discard is Garcia, whose missed cuts at all of this year’s majors hang like a millstone around the 38-year-old’s neck along with the 20-place drop in the rankings to 30 since the turn of the year.
Stenson, too, has been in decline, dropping from number nine to 22 over the season but that can be dismissed as injury-related and Bjorn will take comfort from a T6 at the US Open and T5 at the Masters.
Yet heading in the opposite direction, rankings-wise at least, are Casey and Poulter, the English duo showing some grit and determination to make themselves noticed and add their names to Bjorn’s internal dialogue.
Pieters, Cabrera Bello, Casey and Poulter would be this column’s picks to take the fight to the star-studded Americans.
But then again there’s comfort in the thought it’s Thomas Bjorn with the final call.
EUROPE’S WILDCARD CONTENDERS:
Ian Poulter 1/40
Europe’s “Postman”, the man who delivers at the Ryder Cup
Appearances: 5 (2004-08-10-12-14)
Success rate: 72%
Henrik Stenson 1/12
Still a Ryder Cup force with a singles win over Spieth in 2016 but a 2-3 record at Hazeltine and poor injury profile this year.
Appearances: 4 (2006-08-14-16)
Success rate: 50%
Paul Casey 2/7
Bjorn is invested in Casey, persuading him to resume eligibility, he would be unlikely to turn his back on the Englishman now.
Appearances: 3 (2004-06-08)
Success rate: 56%
Matt Wallace is the first player, since scoring records began in 1999, to birdie seven of his last eight holes en route to victory. #MiD18 pic.twitter.com/1iOtsj8sS4
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) September 2, 2018
Matt Wallace 4/5
The form horse with three wins in Europe this year and a gritty competitor, but another rookie.
Sergio Garcia 10/11
Another who comes alive for Europe but can he deliver if his form is so poor?
Appearances: 8 (1999-2002-04-06-08-12-14-16)
Success rate: 56%
Rafa Cabrera Bello 13/8
Impressive debut in the teeth of American gusto at Hazeltine and deserves a chance on home soil.
Appearances: 1 (2016)
Success rate: 83%
Thomas Pieters 7/2
Europe’s next delivery man? His brilliant debut and excellent partnership with McIlroy suggests so,
Appearances: 1 (2016)
Success rate: 80%
Matt Fitzpatrick 9/1
Poor debut last time as an automatic qualifier and better candidates for a pick around this time.
Appearances: 1 (2016)
Success rate: 0%
Russell Knox 14/1
Irish Open champion and comfortable in the Americans’ company but needed better than T43 last weekend.
Lee Westwood 18/1
A 10-time playing veteran and already named a vice captain this time around but a wrong pick for Hazeltine and now.
Appearances: 10 (1997-99-2002-04-06-08-10-12-14-16)
Success rate: 52%
Eddie Pepperell 25/1
Would be another spirited rookie and like Pieters, three top-10s in last five starts.
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