John Huggan: Europe’s biased Ryder Cup system

Danish golfer Thomas Bjorn. Picture: Getty
Danish golfer Thomas Bjorn. Picture: Getty
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IT HAS never been a secret. When, every four years, the Ryder Cup matches between teams purporting to represent Europe and the United States are held on a typically tedious course somewhere this side of the Atlantic (the last Old World venue of real quality was Walton Heath in 1981), the net proceeds go what most astute businessmen would no doubt see as an unhealthily long way towards funding the various operations of the European Tour until the next home game comes round.

The financial importance of the biennial battle cannot, then, be underestimated, not least by the host of green jackets lurking in their corporate base at Wentworth Club outside London.

All of which is why capturing Samuel Ryder’s little gold trophy on a consistent basis is so vital to the future health of the European Tour. Faced with an uncertain future amid continuing economic turmoil and the ever-present danger that wee Timmy Finchem and his not-so merry band of PGA Tour henchmen might just decide to significantly expand their sphere of operations outside the confines of the United States, executive director George O’Grady needs his strongest team at Gleneagles later this year. An occasional defeat at the hands of Uncle Sam’s nephews is acceptable, reasonable and inevitable, but a succession of losses – thereby reducing the pulling power of what has become golf’s most exciting event – would have potentially catastrophic consequences for the European Tour.

By extension, the qualification system designed to produce the 12-man European side is one that must, almost at any cost, identify those best equipped to see off five-times Open champion Tom Watson and his compatriots. The last thing non-playing European skipper Paul McGinley needs is too many “passengers”, those unable to handle the unique and historically peerless pressures of Ryder Cup play.

Still, it behoves the European Tour to come up with an honest method that allows every one of its card holders a reasonably equal opportunity to qualify for what is, for so many, a career-defining event. But it doesn’t. Not even close. In fact, only a fortunate elite has a realistic chance of winning enough money and/or world ranking points to guarantee a trip to Gleneagles.

Here’s how it works. Or doesn’t. En route to qualifying for the visiting side that so dramatically saw off the Americans at Medinah in 2012, Scotland’s Paul Lawrie played in 25 European Tour events, won ¤1,910,381 and finished tenth on what was once the Order of Merit. The total prize money on offer in those 25 events was a not insubstantial ¤94,472,486. In contrast, Robert Coles played one more tournament than did the former Open champion, the Englishman winning ¤223,345 and placing 104th on the money list. But here’s the catch. Purses in Coles’ 26 appearances added up to “only” ¤53,682,010, not much more than half of what Lawrie played for.

Closer examination only confirms the growing impression of a European Ryder Cup side dangerously close to being something of a closed shop. Perhaps most egregiously, those in the world’s top 50 are afforded an almost outrageous advantage. Not only do those leading players tend to compete for a lot more cash than those ranked 51 and lower, but too many of the events for which they are deemed eligible do not have 36-hole cuts, or full fields, or both. As such, they represent “easy money” and, in turn, a huge edge when it comes to Ryder Cup qualifying. Or not.

Take the current case of Thomas Bjorn. While it is easy to build a sound argument in favour of the glowering Dane’s inclusion in any Ryder Cup side – the former Scottish Open champion is one of the game’s best wedge players – his present position as one of the nine automatic qualifiers is largely because of his recent victory at the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa. In that invitation event there was no cut and only a 30-strong field. And, for winning, Bjorn picked up an incredible 46 world ranking points, only four fewer than Matteo Manassero earned for victory at last year’s BMW PGA Championship, the European Tour’s “flagship” event.

Ironically, too, Lawrie’s relatively poor play during 2013 now has him languishing outside the world’s top 100 and so affords him – barring almost immediate and multiple (big) tournament wins – virtually no chance of a third Ryder Cup appearance. Which beg some questions. How much influence should play outside the year-long qualification period have on an individual’s prospects? Shouldn’t the team be made up of those who perform best between August 2013 and August 2014, rather than those who holed more putts prior to that window of opportunity? Is this whole thing really legitimate?

There will be those who will have a straightforward response to all of the above – play better. But such glibness misses the point. No one is saying – not least this column – that there is a perfectly equitable system, one where every European Tour player has an absolutely equal opportunity. But the status quo is patently unfair and gives way too much of an edge to a privileged few – those who have earned top-50 status prior to teeing off.

A closer inspection of the numbers is telling. Since the turn of the century, only 32 golfers have represented Europe in Ryder Cup play (the US has used 38 players), lack of turnover a noticeable feature of almost every recent side. Only once have fewer than half of the previous team made the next one. And, last time, eight members of the 2010 side at Celtic Manor lined up again at Medinah. Once a player is in the Ryder Cup team only a pretty drastic loss of form – see Lawrie – or injury is likely to prevent a repeat appearance two years on.

It is a trend that shows no sign of dissipating. As of this moment, six of the nine automatic qualifiers for Gleneagles have previous Ryder Cup experience. Victor Dubuisson of France, Welshman Jamie Donaldson and Spain’s Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano are the only interlopers, a label each will be well aware of. All three must know maintaining their present positions will be pretty much their only route into the side. Nothing is ever completely certain, but it is unlikely any of them will merit one of the three captain’s picks available to McGinley. Only in exceptional circumstances has any skipper selected anyone outwith the aforementioned aristocrats. It can happen though. Most recently, Colin Montgomerie was all but compelled to give Edoardo Molinari a spot in the 2010 side. The Italian had won three times during the qualifying period but, starting outside the world top 50, was unable to qualify automatically – proof indeed of the current system’s inherent injustice. But Monty, in the face of background encouragement from assistant captains Darren Clarke and Bjorn (European Tour stalwarts as opposed to US-based “stars”), was persuaded.

Don’t be fooled, though. Amid the plethora of increasingly breathless features and profiles that will undoubtedly be written over the coming months, keep in mind that the European team will largely consist of men who qualified on a far-from-level playing field. Ryder Cup golf in the 21st century is more meritocracy than democracy – and many a mile from epitomising competitive sport in its purest form.