Any keen follower of professional golf could have automatically selected two of Thomas Bjorn’s Ryder Cup picks yesterday, writes John McHenry.
Ian Poulter’s tremendous form all year, coupled with his Ryder Cup record (12-4-2) which includes an unbeaten run in the singles, made him, barring injury, an automatic selection for the team for Paris. Poulter’s very DNA is perfect for the Ryder Cup — his large personality and absolute fearlessness a huge asset to any European team, most especially one with five rookies seeking to win back a Ryder Cup, lost so tamely at Hazeltine National in 2016.
Paul Casey too is a great addition to the squad. That he was charmed back into rejoining the European Tour and committing to the Ryder Cup qualifying process by Bjorn for the first time since 2008 gives you an understanding of the high regard in which he is held by his captain. No one should doubt his big game temperament and current form and his successful partnerships with both Fleetwood and Hatton at the EurAsia Cup earlier this year makes the European team a much stronger force.
Henrik Stenson’s form has not hit his usual lofty heights this year, due mainly to an elbow injury, but nobody can possibly question his pedigree for the big occasion or indeed the impressive partnership he has struck up in the Ryder Cup with Justin Rose (4-2). With so many rookies, Bjorn needs solid pairings, especially around a tough and testing Paris National.
The one major surprise for me is the selection of Sergio Garcia. In my mind, he hasn’t shown enough form this year to merit a captain’s pick and while no one doubts his quality or his experience, nor indeed the passion that he can bring to a young and largely inexperienced team, carrying two (Stenson & Garcia) largely out of form players represents a risk to Europe’s chances of wrestling back the Cup from a USA team laden with major champion winners and form players.
That said, if anyone can recover from a poor season to save Team Europe, then it’s most likely Sergio.
I would have selected the on-form Rafa Cabrera Bello, who made an impressive debut in Hazeltine (2½ points from 3) as my fourth and last pick. I would even have selected Thomas Pieters (4-1) before Garcia but Bjorn obviously believes that Garcia has the grit and determination to deliver once again on one of the Spaniard’s happiest hunting environments.
Now it is now up to Bjorn to create the best possible environment for the players to perform and to get the chemistry of his selections right. Does he pair up according to experience, form, or friendships? All have worked incredibly well over the years.
For all the planning that goes into being a Ryder Cup captain, Bjorn’s success or failure will essentially boil down to one skill — finding the right two-man combinations to win points. The pairings are the toughest decisions of the week and there is no science to it. You have your thoughts of combinations and order but you also have to factor in instinct and feel and what you see from the players practising on the course.
The bottom line is winning and when you partner up with somebody, you are doing so for a reason, to win your match. That means hitting very good shots and making putts. It means performing at the highest level. Good chemistry alone doesn’t mean you’re going to win a match.
That said, the Europeans will hold one significant advantage at Paris National; an in-depth knowledge of a course that has hosted the French Open for 25-plus years, as well as the additional depth provided by rookies like Jon Rahm and Tommy Fleetwood. With four good pairings to find for each of the sessions over the first two days, that bonus could make all the difference.
In terms of course set-up and the three different playing formats used during the Ryder Cup, expect Paris National to be a far more exacting test than the one provided by Hazeltine National where the fairways were wide and the pins placed in the centre of the greens. As is the Europeans’ prerogative, expect heavy rough with narrow fairways in Paris with the pins tucked away. This should give Europe’s foursomes (alternate shot) pairings a significant advantage. But that advantage will have to be defended stoutly as the Americans usually come into their own in the better ball fourballs, where the best performers are the high birdie-makers. Here the US team holds an advantage but that can be offset by a tough course set-up and greater local knowledge of the tournament conditions.
Over the past 20 years, Europe has usually held the upper hand the first two days, then defended stoutly in singles. This year Europe, despite the obvious strength of the US team, starts out as the favourites in my mind but will need a near-perfect performance to win. That means dominating the first two days and winning over the partisan crowds . It will also mean getting a dominant performance from its stars. Stenson and Garcia will be expected to contribute handsomely to Europe’s cause.
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