The Ryder Cup won’t begin for 231 days, but the past couple of weeks have altered what many golf observers deemed as an inevitable result into something more uncertain.
A blowout 19-11 victory by the U.S. against the International team at the Presidents Cup in October gave the Americans momentum for the 42nd Ryder Cup. The pairings that U.S. captain Steve Stricker assembled at Liberty National were a mix of past successes and new combinations that proved just as formidable.
To the delight of European captain Thomas Bjorn, a lot can change in four months.
Bjorn knew that he would have stalwarts Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose for the 42nd Ryder Cup on Sept. 28-30 at Le Golf National near Paris, but he also faced a few unknowns. Rory McIlroy was recovering from a rib injury, Lee Westwood and Graeme McDowell had their best years behind them and Ian Poulter struggled with a game not ready for primetime. The Europeans’ prospects were unclear.
However, from his captain’s perch, Bjorn continues to see many positive signs of a European resurgence.
In November, while visiting Le Golf National, Bjorn noted that 11 Europeans ranked among the top 21 players in the Official World Golf Ranking.
“You tell me a time where there's been 11 Europeans in the top 21 in the world,” he said. “It might have happened, but it’s not something that you see very often.”
Today, Europe has maintained its hold on the top portion of the OWGR, with 11 of the top 22; the U.S., by comparison, claims eight of those spots (rankings: http://bit.ly/1ibwqPL).
Englishman Paul Casey, who took up European Tour membership again so that he could contend for a Ryder Cup berth, traveled to Malaysia last month to play for Europe against Asia in the EurAsia Cup. Casey won both of his team matches, sporting a 2-1-0 record as Europe won, 14-10. With a Ryder Cup record of 3-2-4 in three matches, he could be a valuable part of Europe’s quest to regain the cup in France.
Casey, 40, hasn’t played in the biennial matches since 2008, but Bjorn and other Europeans had put a bug in his ear, and Casey finally agreed to rejoin the tour.
While Casey’s play has been a boost for Europe’s hopes, McIlroy’s return to form early in the year must have Bjorn grinning from ear to ear.
Injured for much of a disappointing 2017 campaign, McIlroy took time off late in the year to rest his injured ribs. He started 2018 with two strong showings: a tie for third three weeks ago in Abu Dhabi and runner-up the following week in Dubai.
McIlroy, 28, of Northern Ireland, hasn’t had back-to-back finishes that high on the European Tour since a runner-up in Abu Dhabi and a victory in Dubai at the start of the 2015 season.
That year, McIlroy placed fourth at the Masters, won the WGC-Match Play, was T-9 at the U.S. Open and won the DP World Tour Championship.
Jon Rahm, the long-hitting Spaniard, has not sneaked up on anyone in 2018. Had he repeated as champion two weeks ago in San Diego, the 23-year-old would have made it to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking in less than a year since turning pro out of Arizona State.
As it stands, Rahm already has won the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai at the end of last season on the European Tour and looks determined to push Dustin Johnson off the top of the world rankings.
Add Alex Noren, who lost in a playoff to Jason Day in San Diego, and Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who successfully defended in Abu Dhabi, and the European team that might have appeared to be rebuilding boasts a core group of eight players. At this point, Bjorn needs only to round out the team with four captain’s picks. Matt Fitzpatrick, if he doesn’t make it on points, possibly Poulter, Martin Kaymer and maybe Tyrrell Hatton and another rookie appear to be the top candidates.
Of course, this all seems a little fantastic after the lopsided U.S. victory two years ago in New Jersey.
Yet, in 2012 and 2014, the U.S. was highly favored in the matches, using the world rankings as a measure, but lost badly. Europe erased a four-point deficit in 2012 at Medinah near Chicago and won, 14½-13½, and two years later claimed a third consecutive victory, winning, 16½-11½, at Gleneagles in Scotland.
Bjorn can play another advantage this fall. Since 1985, the Europeans have gone 6-1-1 at home Ryder Cups, retaining the cup in the 1989 tie at The Belfry. All eight matches were contested on golf courses that held European Tour events.
The French Open has been played at Le Golf National 25 times since 1991.
“They still have a much better record going back the last 25, 30 years, so we go into an away game where I think we won, what, once in the last 30 years? Is that even right?” Jordan Spieth said about the U.S. team’s chances this year. (Actually, only once since 1983, in the 1993 matches at The Belfry.) “So it's no easy task.”
It’s a long way to September, but Bjorn has to be happy with how January has turned out so far, especially with a home game on the slate.
“There's no doubt any home team in any sport, they feel comfortable,” Bjorn said of returning to Europe. “When you walk on the first tee and everything is blue, that comes with a different kind of pressure. It comes with a pressure of having to deliver, but at least you know that everybody in that stand is with you. They want you to achieve things.”
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @AlexMiceli