THEY say that Ryder Cup teams don’t really start to take shape until after the Masters, the season’s first major. If that’s the case, then what has Paul McGinley, the European captain, learned about how his side might look at Gleneagles in September?
For starters, it would be an interesting mix if the qualifying race ended now rather than after the Italian Open in August. The nine automatic spots, as of today, are occupied, in order, by Victor Dubuisson, Jamie Donaldson, Thomas Bjorn, Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia, Rory McIlroy, Ian Poulter, Justin Rose and Luke Donald.
While there has been a lot of talk since that battle started in Wales last year about McGinley’s team possibly being top-heavy with rookies, that would only apply to Frenchman Dubuisson and Welshman Donaldson on that list.
Of the nine, Rose is the only one to have used his Masters performance – a tie for 14th – to move into that qualifying zone, doing so at the expense of Stephen Gallacher. Miguel Angel Jimenez, on the back of his superb fourth-place finish at the age of 50, has also jumped above the Scot on the world points list, with Swede Jonas Blixt up to 16th on that after he claimed a share of second spot on his Masters debut.
While Blixt, in his post-round press conference, momentarily forgot who was actually captaining the home team in Perthshire, there is no hiding the fact that the two-times PGA Tour winner is determined to make a concerted push to be in McGinley’s line-up.
“It would be a lifelong dream to be in a Ryder Cup team and I’m going to do everything I can, absolutely everything, to do that,” said the 29-year-old. “I’m going to try to play as well as I can in order that he [McGinley] doesn’t have a choice but to pick me.”
Jimenez has played in four Ryder Cups, including two as a winner. He was one of Jose Maria Olazabal’s vice-captains for the last match in Medinah but could be about to spark a sales rush in “See You Jimenez” hats later this year.
“I would like to play in the Ryder Cup and I would love to help Europe defend the Ryder Cup,” said the Malaga man, who is making his over-50s debut on the Champions Tour in Georgia this week but will be back concentrating on regular Tour events after that. “I need to focus on the European Tour,” he stressed. “If I don’t play over there, I won’t have as good a chance.”
Bjorn will bridge a ten-year playing gap in the event if he is on the team and the Dane cemented his position in that qualifying race by also finishing in the top ten at Augusta, “There’s a lot of great things that come with it,” he noted of that effort. “The positive feelings about the next three majors, for example. When you get your nose in early in the season, it kind of gives you a boost to go on, knowing that your golf is in the right direction.”
The next of those majors, of course, is the US Open, which takes place at Merion in June. Rose heads there as defending champion. “I’m looking forward to that,” said the Englishman. “I don’t know Pinehurst at all, so I’m going to spend a week there before the tournament. I’m going to really work hard from now until then so I keep my hand on the job.”
While still to fire on all cylinders this season, McIlroy looks as though he’ll make the team without having to rely on a wild card, which will please the European captain. He fired the best two weekend rounds – 71 and 69 – to finish a career-best joint-eighth at Augusta, alongside Bjorn and four others and is confident a win is just around the corner.
“I’m looking forward to a couple of weeks off before getting back to playing again,” said the two-times major winner. I’ve got two big tournaments coming up, Charlotte [venue for the Wells Fargo Championship] and the TPC [at Sawgrass]. I want to do well there and feel like I’ve got it to go and contend.”
As things stand, Lee Westwood and Graeme McDowell appear to be the players most in need of wild cards, though that could easily change in the weeks and months ahead. There are lots of big points still on offer and, though he may have fallen out of the automatic spots at the moment, Gallacher is playing in all of those events so can easily get himself back in there.
Tom Watson’s team also has nine berths up for grabs through the qualifying process. It’s now being led by Bubba Watson, who catapulted ahead of long-time pacesetter Jimmy Walker, due to double points being on offer in the Masters, with the other seven spots filled just now by Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed, Matt Kuchar, Jason Dufner, Phil Mickelson and Harris English. Injured Tiger Woods is down in 45th place.