Early birdies can lay down Ryder Cup marker

Paul McGinley and his team celebrate their Ryder Cup victory at Gleneagles, with the next round of qualifying starting today. Picture: Jane Barlow
Paul McGinley and his team celebrate their Ryder Cup victory at Gleneagles, with the next round of qualifying starting today. Picture: Jane Barlow
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REMEMBER Espen Kofstad? Probably not and that’s no real surprise, really. After all, the Norwegian came nowhere near making the European Ryder Cup team, despite being quickest out of the blocks when he led after day one in the first counting event, the Wales Open, for last year’s match at Gleneagles. The fact that Frenchman Gregory Bourdy, who won that week at Celtic Manor, didn’t even emerge as a serious contender for Paul McGinley’s side is also an indication that little can be read into the M2M Russian Open, the start of the qualifying race for next year’s match at Hazeltine, as it gets under way today.

It would be wrong, of course, to suggest that the £736,000 tournament at Skolkovo Golf Club in Moscow is totally meaningless in a Ryder Cup context because the likes of Englishman David Horsey, Italian Edoardo Molinari or even our own Scott Jamieson could use a victory on Sunday as a springboard for big things over the next 12 months.

However, it won’t be until later in the year, with a run of events starting at the Dunhill Links and ending at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, that an early picture will start to emerge of the battle to be on Darren Clarke’s 12-man side in Minnesota.

The European Tour’s four-event “Final Series”, in particular, will provide a golden opportunity for someone to lay down a marker, just as both Victor Dubuisson and Jamie Donaldson did two years ago. First and second in the Turkish Airlines Open, they never looked back thereafter and went on to secure automatic selection for the match in Perthshire.

It was a similar story for Thomas Bjorn. The Dane won the second counting event, the Omega European Masters in Switzerland, last time around before chalking up an even more significant victory in the big-money Nedbank Challenge in South Africa before the year was out. In effect, his place was virtually secured before a club was swung in anger in 2014. Stephen Gallacher, on the other hand, had to wait until the start of that year to kickstart his Ryder Cup campaign, a successful defence of the Dubai Desert Classic lifting him into the world’s top 50 – a status that has almost become mandatory for any player with aspirations to be involved in the biennial event.

It probably won’t be until after the Masters next April that Clarke will begin to get a good idea of how his side is developing, though you don’t need to be a genius to predict almost half the line-up. Barring injury or an astonishing loss of form, Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia and Martin Kaymer will don European colours again, and rightly so.

As for the seven others who played at Gleneagles, they’ll have to tough it out with a whole host of hungry young Europeans to get back on the battlefield.

Even Donaldson, the match-winner on the PGA Centenary Course. Even Graeme McDowell, who beat Jordan Spieth in the singles. Even Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter, two great servants for Europe in the contest.

It is probably realistic to predict that there will be eight survivors from last time out, leaving four spots to speculate upon.

As things stand, Englishman Paul Casey looks a good bet to make his return, having last played in 2008, though, firstly, he’ll need to renew his European Tour membership after deciding to concentrate solely on the PGA Tour this season. Don’t be surprised, either, to see Luke Donald recapturing his best form when the Ryder Cup battle starts to heat up as he’ll be determined to bounce back from the disappointment of being narrowly pipped for one of McGinley’s Gleneagles picks.

As for potential rookies, top of that particular list right now are another Englishman, the ever-improving Danny Willett, and Irishman Shane Lowry, who had been knocking loudly on door after door before he won the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational last month. It would be a surprise if at least one of them doesn’t make it, although the competition will be intense.

Horsey, winner last time out in the Made in Denmark event, will be aiming to get into the mix, as will the likes of Bernd Wiesberger, Tommy Fleetwood, Alexander Levy, Thorbjorn Olesen, Alex Noren, Thomas Pieters, Andy Sullivan and Chris Wood. The list of candidates, in fact, is probably stronger than ever, such is the talent on the European Tour at the moment.

Can we expect to see a Scot in the team in just over a year’s time? Don’t underestimate Gallacher being back as there’s a fire ready to start roaring in his belly again. Close to the world’s top 50 and getting better with each passing year, Marc Warren can certainly catch Clarke’s attention, as can both Russell Knox and Richie Ramsay, who won his US Amateur title at Hazeltine in 2006.