Here’s something to ponder. Could the European team for this year’s Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits be rookie-free. Unlikely, yes, but it’s a possibility after 17 counting events in the battle to make Padraig Harrington’s side for the trip to Wisconsin.
As things stand, the nine automatic qualifiers include two potential newcomers, Frenchman Victor Perez and Austrian Bernd Wiesberger, but the battle for spots is really starting to hot up following the completion of the European Tour’s three-event Desert Swing.
Lee Westwood, bidding for an 11th appearance in the biennial event, is just outside those automatic standings following his impressive victory in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. Fellow fortysomething Graeme McDowell is now occupying one of the spots after producing an equally-polished performance to land the Saudi International on Sunday.
Both probably thought their playing days against the Americans were over when they had to be content with vice-captain’s roles for Thomas Bjorn in France last time out, with Westwood believed to be the leading contender for the 2022 captaincy in Italy and McDowell potentially being lined up for the match at Adare Manor in 2026.
Isn’t golf great, though, that it can provide platforms for players such as Westwood and McDowell to come roaring back like they have and, as a consequence, now look as though they could do a job for Harrington as Europe bid to stage a successful trophy defence on the Lake Michigan shore in September.
Make no mistake, this really is going to be a hell of a tough team to make. Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Justin Rose and Tommy Fleetwood are all certainties. As, for me, are Sergio Garcia, the record points scorer in the event after vindicating his pick by Bjorn, and a rejuvenated Henrik Stenson, which takes us up to six and half the team filled. Make that eight if you add in Francesco Molinari, the five out of five man at Le Golf National though a bit slow in getting going this season, and Ian Poulter, who will probably have to produce some big performances over the coming months to earn his berth one way or the other but didn’t look finished yet the way he played on the last day in particular in 2018 as he took down Dustin Johnson.
If they keep up their eye-catching form, I’d also have Westwood and McDowell there. The Englishman looked like a spent force at Hazeltine in 2016 but, as he showed in Abu Dhabi, he is back to his best. As is McDowell, who played superbly in testing conditions in Saudi Arabia and there is a good chance the wind will be blowing at Whistling Straits.
The Northern Irishman can also knock in putts when they matter. “I always tell my kids we live in a nice house because daddy can putt,” declared McDowell, sporting a smile as wide as the Red Sea, on his way to securing his 11th European Tour win and first on the circuit for five and a half years.
That leaves only two spots and, if they were filled, for example, by Paul Casey and Danny Willett, both currently inside the top 30 or so in the world, we’d have that rookie-free scenario against a United States side being led by Steve Stricker, golf’s biggest “Cheeshead”, on his home patch.
Which spells out the task facing players such as in-form Dundee-based Perez, Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open title-holder Wiesberger and, of course, Open champion Shane Lowry as they bid to be among the Ryder Cup “Class of 2020”.
Lowry is desperate to make this particular team due to Harrington, a close friend, being at the helm. He will certainly not be picked, if it comes to that, on the strength of any relationship with the skipper. Having won a WGC on US soil, though, is something that could certainly be in his favour down the line, as well, of course, as that stunning display in tough conditons in last year’s Open Championship at Royal Portrush.
I believe Bob MacIntyre and Norwegian Viktor Hovland are both on Harrington’s radar, though it is going to take something really special for either of them to make the final cut. For MacIntyre at the moment, more important than this Ryder Cup is getting to the bottom of what is preventing him from hitting “Bob shots” right now and coming back out on tour, whether it is in the WGC-Mexico Championship in a couple of weeks time or later in the season, with that engaging smile back on his face and lighting up every single event in which he tees up.