I wouldn’t want to be in Thomas Bjorn’s shoes right now. The European Ryder Cup captain has much to ponder before his team is finalized Sept. 5.
Thorbjorn Olesen’s fourth-place finish in the $1.7 million Nordea Masters moves him into the fourth automatic place on the world points list at the expense of “Mr Ryder Cup” Ian Poulter. As it stands, Poulter is going to require one of Bjorn’s four captain’s picks. The smart money says the Dane would prefer Poulter to make the team automatically rather than compatriot Olesen. Even if the 28-year-old is having a great season.
Bjorn’s team currently: Francesco Molinari, Justin Rose, Tyrrell Hatton, Tommy Fleetwood off the European points list joining Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy, Alex Noren and Olesen off the world points list.
Olesen, Noren, Rahm, Fleetwood and Hatton are all rookies. Five first-year players is about as many as Bjorn would probably like to face a strong U.S. team. That’s probably bad news for Russell Knox and Eddie Pepperell, who’ll be on Bjorn’s radar after excellent 2018 campaigns. It’s hard to see Bjorn opting to add a sixth rookie.
Darren Clarke had six rookies and lost badly at Hazeltine two years ago. That’s not to say a six-rookie team can’t win. Colin Montgomerie had six newcomers at Celtic Manor in 2010 and emerged victorious.
But Bjorn will want as much experience as possible heading to the match in Paris. Poulter, Paul Casey, Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia, Thomas Pieters and Rafa Cabrera Bello are all on the outside looking in right now with precious little time left to jump into the automatic places. There’s obviously not room for all six. So who does Bjorn choose if the status quo remains?
Poulter’s a lock after the season he’s had. He hasn’t played since 2014 at Gleneagles when he had his first poor match with a loss and 2 1/2 points. But he’s a better player this year. Besides, the loss came while trying to chaperone a nervous Stephen Gallacher around home turf. Poulter’s overall won/lost/halved record is 12-4-2 and he’s unbeaten in singles. The 42-year-old would be the perfect player to partner with either Fleetwood or Hatton.
Stenson hasn’t had the best season by his standards but it’s been pretty steady. There’s is no way Bjorn can leave the strong Swede off the team since he and Rose are a ready-made partnership. They are 4-2 together over the past two Ryder Cups. Plus, an all-Swedish pair in Stenson and Noren in Paris plays well.
Paul Casey re-joined the European Tour to play in this year’s match, after much consultation with Bjorn. He hasn’t played in the match since 2008, and it seems inconceivable that Bjorn won’t pick the Englishman. Besides, he enjoyed success paired with both Hatton and Fleetwood in the EurAsia Cup earlier this year.
That leaves one spot for Garcia, Pieters or Cabrera Bello. Garcia’s Ryder Cup record speaks for itself, but I think this is a match too far for the Spaniard, in much the same way it was for Lee Westwood two years ago. Garcia hasn’t shown much form this season and he wouldn’t make my team. It’ll be a big call for Bjorn to leave the Spaniard out, but it’s one he has to make at this point.
Both Cabrera Bello and Pieters made impressive debuts two years ago, with Pieters going 4-1 to the Spaniard’s 2 1/2 points from 3. Cabrera Bello has enjoyed a better 2018 campaign, while Pieters showed a return to form with sixth place in the PGA Championship to Cabrera Bello’s 10th place.
The last pick is a coin toss, but I’d opt for Pieters. He has that extra grit needed for Ryder Cup pressure.
Bjorn’s four picks are going to be very interesting. Gwk