European roundtable: Rory, Ryder Cup, more

Rory McIlroy during his Australian Open win.

From Rory to the Ryder Cup, European golf offers plenty of big storylines around the corner for 2014. Golfweek senior writers Adam Schupak and Alistair Tait take a look at five big questions that await some of the European Tour's best players, its business associates and its fans.

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1. What does 2014 hold in store for Rory McIlroy?

  • Schupak: I think Rory will be better than in 2013. How much will depend on whether he puts in the time and can improve his short game or if the distractions continue to prevent him from doing so. He ranked 147th on the PGA Tour in scrambling, 158th in sand-save percentage and 122nd in strokes gained-putting. That’s a recipe for mediocrity.
  • Tait: Let’s hope it holds a lot more than 2013. Hopefully the victory in Australia at the end of this year means Rory has put his troubles behind him. As Adam pointed out, Rory’s game is a little more “fragile” than previously thought. That was obvious from his 2013 campaign. I’ve been watching Rory since he was 14. I’ve often thought of him as mercurial. He’s unstoppable when he’s firing on all cylinders, and he’s middle of the pack when he’s off. He’s more Seve Ballesteros than Nick Faldo.

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2. The European Tour has a new chairman. David Williams comes from a commercial background. How significant is that appointment?

  • Schupak: It’s about time. Professional golf is big business, and a sophisticated one at that. In George O’Grady, you have leadership that understands the relationships with players and the value of the brand. The key for the European Tour is for the economy at home to improve; otherwise, the talk of the PGA Tour taking over the Euro Tour, which surfaced in 2013, will build.
  • Tait: It’s a significant appointment. Neil Coles was chairman for 38 years before Williams was handed the role. No disrespect to Coles, but he was a golf man. Williams has vast experience of the commercial world, which should help enormously. Thanks to its global reach, the European Tour has done well to survive the European financial collapse. Hopefully Williams can build on the tour’s ties with Continental Europe. Chief executive George O’Grady has given Williams a sound base from which to work, with recently renewed TV contracts with Sky Sports and Golf Channel. The Race to Dubai has been extended until 2017, and Rolex has signed up for another 10 years. Williams hopefully will bring a commercial outlook to add to those successes.

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3. What can we expect from the Europeans in the majors? Will this finally be Lee Westwood's year, or Sergio Garcia's?

  • Schupak: I think quite good. Justin Rose broke through in 2013 and has the game to build off that. Westwood and Garcia made strides with their putting woes. To win a major, they will have to come from behind on Sunday. The Euro I'd like to see in the hunt for a major is Matteo Manassero. He won't be 21 until after the Masters, so he has plenty of time ahead of him, but it would be something to see him have a shot at a major on Sunday.
  • Tait: It’s hard to look into the future and say who will win which major, but expect a continued run of success from European players in the tournaments that really matter. I’d love to see Westwood win one of the blue-chip events to get the “best player never to win a major” monkey off his back. He just needs one hot week and things to go his way for that to happen. I’m not so sure about Sergio. He’s always projected this “life isn’t fair” attitude that seems to hold him back. Seve Ballesteros believed it was his destiny to win majors. Sergio seems to think just the opposite. Aside from these two, this could be the year that Luke Donald, Ian Poulter and many others come into the frame. Pay particular attention to Paul Casey. He’s been close before, has the belief and is over the personal and physical obstructions that held him back.

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4. Can Henrik Stenson build on an excellent 2013 and become the first Swedish male major winner?

  • Schupak: The short answer here is yes. The trickier questions are: Can Stenson sustain his brilliance? Will he continue to have the same level of drive after winning both money titles in 2013? I think his pursuit of a major will motivate him in 2014, and he has the game to win any of the four majors.
  • Tait: It’s time for a Swedish man to get his hands on a major trophy after years of watching Swedish women attain major glory. Stenson’s the man who could do just that. He’ll be hoping the end of 2013 is an indication of things to come. He has the game. He now has the belief. It’s going to be interesting to see how he performs in the four marquee events.

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5. Is it a foregone conclusion that Europe will win the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles?

  • Schupak: Foregone conclusion? No way, says Tom Watson. The U.S. captain will choose his picks wisely and bring a team to Scotland that is tired of losing. I expect another tightly contested match that will hinge on a putt here, a putt there. The Ryder Cup will be the highlight of the golf season, and I can’t wait for late September.
  • Tait: No, but Europe will enter the tournament as the favorite, despite what the respective individual-player rankings say when the teams are announced. It’ll be close, and a good putting week can tilt victory toward either team, but if all things are equal, Europe will win. Why? Hunger. American golf fans, players and officials can argue all they want, but Europe just wants to win Samuel Ryder’s trophy more than the United States does. The Europeans can thank Seve for that. He instilled a desire to win that survives to this day. In Paul McGinley, Europe has a great man manager. I think he’ll out-captain Tom Watson and lead Europe to its sixth win in seven matches. I’m a huge Watson fan and hope he does well, but the appointment smacks of desperation. I’m not sure he’s going to have the same bond with his team as McGinley will have with his. So the U.S. players will need a hot week with their putters.
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