Many questions surround this week’s Ryder Cup. Perhaps the most important are how many of the five rookies will be back on the European team two years from now, and who will excel to form the backbone of future European teams.
Europe is at a Ryder Cup crossroads. Some of those who carried the weight of previous teams are no longer good enough or too old to make the team. You only have to look at Thomas Bjorn’s backroom staff to realize that. Padraig Harrington, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald and Graeme McDowell are all vice-captains this time around.
Question marks hang over the future of senior members of Bjorn’s side. Henrik Stenson and Ian Poulter are 42. Paul Casey is 41. They’re approaching their sell-by dates and might have just one match each left in them. Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia are 38. They, too, don’t have many contests left.
Thankfully Rory McIlroy is only 29. It’s inconceivable to think of the next, say, six Ryder Cups without him. Francesco Molinari is 35 and will hopefully be around for a few more matches. That’s assuming he can come close to this year’s form, which is a matter of conjecture.
Which brings us to the five rookies.
If 2016 is anything to go by, then perhaps none of the newcomers will be in the European team at Whistling Straits two years hence. None of the six rookies at Hazeltine made this year’s European team, albeit many feel Spain’s Rafa Cabrera Bello was cheated out of a spot. He lost out because Bjorn chose Garcia as one of his wild-card picks.
Anyone who watched Thomas Pieters go 4-1 at Hazeltine would have automatically wrote him onto this year’s team and many more to come. He reveled in the cauldron of Ryder Cup competition. Yet the Belgian failed to qualify this year.
Many expected Matthew Fitzpatrick to be in Paris. He came close, but inconsistency throughout the season cost him dearly. Andy Sullivan, Chris Wood and Danny Willett all have gone missing in action.
So which of this year’s five newcomers – Alex Noren, Tyrrell Hatton, Jon Rahm, Tommy Fleetwood and Thorbjorn Olesen – will join McIlroy, and hopefully Molinari, to form the backbone of future teams?
The smart money would be on Rahm and Fleetwood to start long and fruitful Ryder Cup careers in Paris. Both are clearly world class, capable of winning majors. Rahm, 23, can join the Spanish Armada of Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal and Garcia by stamping his name all over the Ryder Cup records. Europe could do with him bringing the same passion to the match as those three.
Aside from what he’s done as a pro, Fleetwood has deep match-play credentials. He was involved in England teams from a young age and spent a lot of time in man-to-man combat on the fairways. At 28, hopefully he has a long Ryder Cup career ahead of him.
The biggest question mark surrounding Hatton is obviously his temperament. The 26-year-old’s anger-management problems are obvious. His Ryder Cup performance this year, and whether he plays in future matches, perhaps hinges on him getting on top of his temper.
Noren, 34, is the hardest worker on the European Tour since Vijay Singh. Rest assured he’ll practice his you-know-what off to make sure this isn’t his only Ryder Cup.
As for Olesen, the jury is out on the affable Dane. He’s not had quite the career many expected of him, albeit he has five European Tour wins. Olesen and Bjorn may pledge allegiance to the same flag, but it will be interesting to see how much playing time he gets this week.
The bottom line is Europe needs its young guns to stamp their mark in this Ryder Cup, or the crossroads may turn into a one-way street of American wins. Gwk