News & Opinion

Europeans head to Augusta on a roll

 

The other day, a friend said, “The U.S. Ryder Cup team is going to thrash the Europeans for the next 10 years. We have the players we’ve needed, and we’ve finally gotten the captains and strategy right. We’re going to dominate.”

In the immortal words of Lee Corso on ESPN’s College GameDay, “Not so fast, my friend.”

It’s true that the Americans dismantled the Europeans, 17-11, in 2016 at Hazeltine National in Minnesota. But that’s not necessarily a preview of coming attractions. Europe will re-tool for this year’s matches at Le Golf National, outside Paris, and it could be a force.

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© GOLFFILE/FRAN CAFFREY
Rory McIlroy enters the Masters as the leader of a solid European cast.

© GOLFFILE/FRAN CAFFREY
Rory McIlroy enters the Masters as the leader of a solid European cast.

All of Europe’s best bets to make the side are in the Masters. And, given their form in recent weeks, half of them have half a chance to win next week at Augusta National.

Let’s look first at the usual suspects:

Rory McIlroy: Ranked No. 7 in the world, the Northern Irishman will be the physical and maybe even the spiritual leader of this year’s team. No one will forget for some time his singles match with Patrick Reed and the raw emotion with which McIlroy played the match. He will bring that fire to Paris, and it will be infectious.

Henrik Stenson: The Swede has slipped to No. 15 in the world and hasn’t played his best in the past year. But Stenson, who turns 42 on Thursday, is the consummate professional and will look at the Ryder Cup as part of his redemption.

Justin Rose: Now at No. 5, the 37-year-old Englishman will play in his fifth Ryder Cup. Rose will be one of the senior leaders and a steadying influence on the newcomers.

Sergio Garcia: It’s hard to believe that the Spaniard is 38 years old. The reigning Masters champion has played in eight Ryder Cups, a winner in five. That makes Garcia the player to whom everyone will look to set the tone.

Now, those who played in their first Ryder Cup in 2016 know what to expect:

Thomas Pieters: The Belgian made his debut on the world stage brilliantly with a 4-1 record, most of which came as McIlroy’s partner. Pieters, who played collegiately at Illinois, set the rookie points record for the Europeans.

Rafa Cabrera-Bello: The Spaniard, who is No. 22 in the world, was unbeaten in 2016, going 2-0-1. He was one of the bright spots for a mostly lackluster European team. He is a star in the making.

Matt Fitzpatrick: Although Fitzpatrick was 0-2-0 in 2016, the Englishman, a former U.S. Amateur champion, now has valuable experience in the crucible.

And, those who will play in the matches for the first time:

Jon Rahm: The highest-ranked European, at No. 3, the 23-year-old Spaniard has everything it takes to be a successful Ryder Cup player: passion, nerve and the ability to make putts. Can you envision a Garcia-Rahm partnership?

Tommy Fleetwood: A rising star in Europe – and now in the U.S. – Fleetwood has risen to No. 11 in the world on the back of four European Tour victories. The 27-year-old Englishman could be a perfect partner for Rose.

Tyrrell Hatton: As the owner of three European Tour victories, Hatton, 26, of England, looks as if he’s hitting his stride. An emotional player, Hatton has played on the PGA Tour. Some observers look at him as having a bad attitude. Don’t confuse that with fire.

Then, there is Paul Casey, who has played in three Ryder Cups, the most recent in 2008. The Englishman lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., and decided 10 years ago to forgo his European Tour membership, which has kept him off the European team.

Now, he has taken up his European Tour membership once again, with the expressed intent to make this year’s team. At age 40, Casey is playing some of his best golf, as evidenced by his No. 13 world ranking.

Whichever side your allegiances are on, you must concede that Europe enters next week’s Masters with the makings of a formidable team. It doesn’t include England’s Ross Fisher, who played on the 2010 team for Europe, and Italy’s Francesco Molinari, who has played in two Ryder Cups – 2010 and 2012 – both of whom will be playing at Augusta National.

Notice that we don’t mention stalwarts such as Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer or Ian Poulter. And it’s entirely possible that none of them will be captain’s picks for Thomas Bjorn.

If you’re Bjorn, you can’t help but like your team at the moment. And it certainly doesn’t look like a side that’s likely to be steamrolled by the Americans for the next 10 years. The U.S. will have its hands full in September for Europe’s home game – and that won’t be end of it. Not by a long shot.

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter:@mikepurkeygolf