Where would you rather be this weekend if you were getting ready for next week’s thrill ride that is the Ryder Cup.
At home, fine-tuning your game ahead of your sport’s greatest spectacle; keeping things ticking over in Vilamoura at the Portugal Masters before heading north to Le Golf National or letting it rip at East Lake in Atlanta, chasing the biggest pay-cheque of the year in an elite 30-man field duking it out for the FedEx Cup?
This column is guessing the third option would be most self-respecting professional golfer’s option. Chasing not just the $1.575 million first prize but also the whopping $10m bonus if you finish on top of the FedEx standings come Sunday night.
What better way to get the juices running for the always heightened drama and passions of the biennial team dust-up between Europe and the United States than by settling some personal scores in pursuit of golf’s most lucrative piece of silverware?
For Team USA linchpin Jordan Spieth there is the bitter disappointment of finishing number 31 in the rankings after the BMW Championship left him cut adrift following his tie for 55th. So too a European quartet of Alex Noren, Tyrrell Hatton and wild cards Ian Poulter and Henrik Stenson for whom the penultimate of four play-offs was where their US campaign ended.
A week off, recharging the batteries before a flight to France it is for that lot.
Sergio Garcia and Thorbjorn Olesen may argue that a week in Portugal in the company of their European Tour brethren is just the fillip required ahead of donning the blue and gold uniforms selected by their captain Thomas Bjorn and his wife Pernilla.
And in Olesen’s case that may be true as Bjorn’s fellow Dane prepares for a Ryder Cup debut for the rookie is still a European Tour player, venturing stateside only three times this season, finishing third at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational last month.
If Garcia were to peddle that line, though, it would be a tough one to swallow. The Spaniard, a surprising gamble from Bjorn to make him one of his four captain’s picks given his poor form this season, did not even make the first of the FedEx play-offs, failing, despite his best efforts, to make the top 125 in the standings on the PGA Tour.
If he does not have a good week at Vilamoura, the pressure will ramp up considerably by the time Garcia arrives in Paris.
Which leaves 11 of 12 Americans and half the European team among the Tour Championship field. The golfing gods have been kind in offering us up some first-round pairings that give us a taste of the battle ahead when the Ryder Cup kicks off near the Palace of Versailles on Friday, September 29.
With the draw allotted according to the top 30’s rankings, the pairing of numbers 24 and 23 sees Team USA’s Rickie Fowler playing alongside European debutant Jon Rahm, while another rookie Tommy Fleetwood pits his wits against captain’s pick Tiger Woods.
Open champion Francesco Molinari and Tiger’s fellow veteran Phil Mickelson go toe to toe while the final pairing of the day sees the highest ranked duo in the Fedex standings step up to the plate. New world No. 1 Justin Rose – who sits second in the FedEx ratings – and top dog Bryson DeChambeau will go at it with the Ryder Cup vibe running silently just below the surface.
Though with both men guaranteed the $10m bonus if they prevail on Sunday, their focus will be very much on the present.
It is quite a quartet of matches, all of which would whet the appetite for the final day’s singles a week on Sunday at Le Golf National.
The Rahm-Fowler match-up is intriguing given they finished seventh and eighth respectively in last year’s Tour Championship. Spaniard Rahm has almost drifted into the end of season finale, after failing to kick on in the second half of the season, from a successful start to 2018.
Fowler, on the other hand, is still be searching for his first victory of the year. However, he looks renewed and refreshed after missing the first two play-offs with an oblique strain.
His tie for eighth at the third, the BMW Championship a fortnight ago was built on three consecutive 65s over his first 54 holes at Aronimink and fresh legs could bode well not just this week but over three gruelling days of a Ryder Cup.
— Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) September 17, 2018
As for Tiger, it is simply remarkable he has made it as far as this in his comeback season after a string of back surgeries. Yet here he most definitely is, pain-free and back in love with his old-school putter that helped him to a tie for sixth at the BMW Championship.
He faces a match with a red-hot Fleetwood, the Englishman who finished two places behind Woods at Aronimink but finished the tournament like a train with back to back 62’s.
Woods may be looking to conserve energy, at least early on in a testing couple of weeks for his fitness, but you can expect Fleetwood to be eager to pick up from where he left off and outscore his playing partner in the opening round.