John Huggan: In with a shout for 2014

Ian Poulter is almost certain to be in the European line-up after his heroics at Medinah. Picture: Getty
Ian Poulter is almost certain to be in the European line-up after his heroics at Medinah. Picture: Getty
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ONLY five events into an 11-month long process it is, of course, a ridiculous notion.

But, hey, this column has never wavered in its attempts to cover every aspect of golf’s inherent eccentricity. So what follows is no more than an inherently flawed attempt to identify the Europeans who will, just under a year from now, converge on Gleneagles to defend the Ryder Cup against a hyped-up horde of damned Yankees led by five-times Open champion and honourary Caledonian, Tom Watson.

First of all, let’s be clear that we cannot claim to be naming the 12 best European golfers. Oh no. In every Ryder Cup the side is actually made up of the 12 best European golfers who also happen to be members of the European Tour. Which is why the likes of Carl Pettersson, Fredrik Jacobson and Brian Davis – who choose to play most of their golf on America’s PGA Tour – were excluded from the qualifying process last time. On this occasion, Scotland’s Martin Laird will be able to accumulate cash/points only after 1 January, thanks to this shamefully discriminatory European Tour rule. So, for the purposes of this article, what is commonly (and falsely) labelled the “European” team will instead be called “The European European Tour Side”, or “TEETS” for short.

We can also eliminate with some degree of certainty almost any player not ranked in the world’s top 50. It maybe isn’t absolutely necessary to be within that elite group when qualifying begins, but spend more than, say, three months at 51 or higher and making the team as of right is unlikely. Without participating in the World Golf Championships – money and ranking points guaranteed – and all four major championships, a player would have to win maybe six times on the “regular” European Tour to have any chance. Even then he may not make it.

As is the case with all teams, there are racing certainties even this early in the qualifying process, men who, even if they don’t make themselves automatic “selections”, will surely be one of TEETS skipper Paul McGinley’s three picks. So, assuming at least some of them find something akin to their typical form in the next few months, the likes of Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood, Justin Rose, Luke Donald, Henrik Stenson, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell will form the nucleus of the TEETS squad. But nothing is certain. In fact, it says here that one of that magnificent seven will not be teeing it up in (hopefully) sunny Perthshire. Golf is a fickle game, one that takes little note of reputation.

Ian Poulter

Even if the 37-year-old Englishman doesn’t make himself one of the nine automatic qualifiers, it is surely a safe bet that the hero of Medinah will merit a pick. No one in the history of the Ryder Cup has so energised his colleagues, pulling them back from the very brink of defeat and leading them to a famous victory. You’d want him on your side, wouldn’t you?

Lee Westwood

Vastly experienced – this will be his ninth consecutive Ryder Cup appearance – Westwood’s sheer consistency makes him a banker to make the team. Yes, his putting can be a bit dodgy when it really matters, but the relentlessness of his long game makes him a perfect partner for almost anyone. Plus, if the younger lads need someone to go to for advice, Lee is just the man to get them going.

Henrik Stenson

You never quite know with the engaging and mildly eccentric Swede – his career has had more than a few ups and downs – but the Fed-Ex Cup winner’s form over the last few months has been consistently better than anyone. Should that continue, he would be an automatic qualifier by the year’s end. Henrik knows what the Ryder Cup is all about, too. The long-hitting former World Match Play champion holed the winning putt at the K Club in 2006.

Justin Rose

Now a major champion and one of the game’s steadiest performers tee-to-green, Rose is another ideal team member. Last time round he also proved himself capable of making the spectacular play at just the right moment. Finishing birdie-birdie to beat Phil Mickelson was just about the final stab to the collective heart of Uncle Sam’s by-then punch-drunk nephews. Rose’s exemplary sportsmanship is another reason you’d want him on your side.

Rory McIlroy

Yes, we’d need to provide an adequate alarm service given the young Ulsterman’s penchant for near-lateness at Medinah, but it is impossible to imagine any 12-strong side not benefiting from his upbeat personality. OK, 2013 has not – so far at least – been the best season of his still-fledgling career. But it’s another safe bet that 2014 will see a big improvement, one TEETS will need if ultimate victory is to be theirs.

Graeme McDowell

We want the former US Open champion on this team for only one reason – he was rubbish from start to finish last time at Medinah and so will have much incentive to put that pitiful performance behind him at Gleneagles. Enough said.

Sergio Garcia

Rather like Westwood, Garcia makes the team in spite of his putting rather than because of it. But, again like his English buddy, the mercurial Spaniard is way too good to leave out. This year any signs of a real revival have been scuppered by weak play over the final 18 holes of big events. He’s getting there though. And he’ll be at Gleneagles.

Thomas Bjorn

The glowering Dane – one of the game’s best wedge players – is off to a fast start with victory in the Swiss Alps, a win that moved him back into the vital top 50. The 42-year-old Bjorn has the obvious potential to be TEETS’ Paul Lawrie this time round – an experienced campaigner enjoying something of an Indian summer.

Paul Casey

A combination of personal and physical problems saw the former world No.3 absent from TEETS last time. But he’ll be back, albeit he needs a fast start in the qualifying race. Casey is the longest and perhaps the most naturally gifted of the current generation of Englishmen on tour. If he shows any form at all, McGinley could do a lot worse than pick him.

Martin Kaymer

The man who holed the winning putt at Medinah hasn’t quite been himself since the time he was world No.1. But no matter. There have been signs of life recently, enough to convince this observer he will do enough to make TEETS. Plus, how often do you get to see an excited German?

Matteo Manassero

The young Italian, right, holds the biggest title on the European Tour other than the Open. He looks and plays like Seve Ballesteros from 100 yards in. And he currently resides inside the world top 50. In other words, he ticks all the boxes – and then some.

Stephen Gallacher

Call me biased, but we need one Scot in TEETS at the home of golf. Gallacher has a great record on the not-so-great host venue. Only a select few hit the ball more purely. And his qualification would surely be a great boost for his ailing uncle Bernard.

No prizes for those who spotted the obvious odd man out. No Luke Donald. You heard it here first.