Francesco Molinari locks up Ryder Cup spot

Francesco Molinari during the first round of the Johnnie Walker Championship.

Francesco Molinari during the first round of the Johnnie Walker Championship.

AUCHTERARDER, Scotland – And then there were four.

That’s the number of runners left in the race for European Ryder Cup spots.

Six started the sprint for the finish line when the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles began. Long before the first round concluded, one man’s withdrawal had dictated that four players – Peter Hanson, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Simon Dyson and Alvaro Quiros – will vie for the remaining two automatic positions on Colin Montgomerie’s 12-man team to face the United States at Celtic Manor, Wales, on Oct. 1-3.

Hanson and Jimenez, Nos. 8 and 9, respectively, occupy the last two automatic positions on the European points table. Dyson and Quiros are 13th and 15th respectively, and must win to have any chance of making the team.

Ross McGowan began the tournament in 12th position, and needed a first or second to force his way onto the team. However, his withdrawal from the tournament due to a recurring shoulder injury ended his chances of a Ryder Cup debut.

The silver lining is that McGowan’s disappointment guarantees a debut for Italy’s Francesco Molinari.

McGowan was the only man in the field this week who could have knocked Molinari out of the team. A McGowan win coupled with good performances by Jimenez and Hanson could have made the Italian one unhappy man. Instead Molinari will become only the second Italian since Costantino Rocca to play in the Ryder Cup.

McGowan struggled to an opening 5-over 77 and announced his race was over.

The Englishman has been playing through the pain barrier the last five weeks to try to make the European team. That much was obvious early in the first round.

The former University of Tennessee player began his round with a bogey at No. 10, and added bogeys at Nos. 13, 15 and16. He actually did well to limit the damage to a 77. He offset another four bogeys with three birdies.

“I’m obviously still struggling with the same injury,” McGowan said. “I struggled all the way round, and it’s probably not a wise move to carry on. Unfortunately, it’s the last event of the Ryder Cup qualification, and I won’t be able to make the team now.”

McGowan might have struggled around the PGA Centenary course at Gleneagles, but the same can’t be said for Dyson, Hanson and Jimenez.

Dyson fashioned an opening 68, a score that could have been at least two strokes better. Bogeys at the seventh and ninth holes, his 16th and 18th, knocked him out of the early lead.

Hot on his heels were Hanson (69) and Jimenez (70). Quiros was the only player to tread water in the opening round. He could only manage a level-par 72.

Dyson sent Monty a letter of intent with his opening round. The 32-year-old only has one chance to make Monty’s team.

A victory for the four-time European Tour winner can get him one of the automatic positions, with the proviso that Hanson finishes 44th or worse, and Jimenez 10th or worse.

Like McGowan, Dyson is playing his fifth week in a row to try to make his first Ryder Cup team. He knows this week is like no other.

“It’s amazing what your attitude can be like when you know you have to win,” Dyson said. “You can walk into a tournament and think, ‘we’ll give it a go but there’s always next week.’ Whereas this week, there isn’t next week.

“I’d love to play in the Ryder Cup. The fact that I’m pretty close and obviously got to win, it would be extra special if I did win and it earned me a place on Monty’s team.”

Edoardo Molinari has no way of qualifying to play with his brother even if he wins this week. The former U.S. Amateur champion has to rely on one of Montgomerie’s three wild cards. His opening 70 set him on his way. A victory for the Italian would make Montgomerie’s job just a little bit harder.

A first prize of 282,772 euros is on offer this week. England’s Richard Finch put himself in pole position to pick up that check with a bogey free 6-under 66 to take the early lead. However, he had to play second fiddle to the Ryder Cup story.

Only one thing matters this week, and that’s the tournament within the tournament. The race between the Ryder Cup four is where the real excitement is at Gleneagles.

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