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Has Team Europe learned from its mistakes at Hazeltine?

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With just a few days to go until the big event, excitement is building on this side of the pond. TV, any golfing websites you care to visit, and podcasts are previewing the 2018 Ryder Cup at Le Golf National.

For the European squad, Captain Bjorn has selected Henrik Stenson, Ian Poulter, Paul Casey, and Garcia to supplement the eight qualifiers; World No. 1 Justin Rose, Open Champion Francesco Molinari, four-time major winner Rory McIlroy, and the five Ryder Cup rookies–Tommy Fleetwood, Jon Rahm, Tyrrell Hatton, Alex Noren, and Thorbjorn Olesen.

Not a bad side for an underdog, but one question still lingers: Has Thomas Bjorn learned from previous European mistakes?

First, congratulations to the eight qualifiers — they’ve done their jobs, took their chances, and played their way onto the team. The fact that five of those are rookies will undoubtedly have played on Bjorn’s mind. The 2016 team were heavily criticized for having too many rookies, with five of the (then nine) qualifiers being debutants. Captain Darren Clarke also selected Thomas Pieters, meaning half the team were new to the unique environment of the Ryder Cup.

The knee-jerk reaction by the European Team following defeat in Hazeltine was to increase the captain’s picks to four, matching that of Team USA, thus effectively giving the captain the opportunity to select experienced players if the same situation arose.

Fast forward two years, and yes, five of the qualifiers are indeed rookies–and they make up a larger proportion of the team than those who qualified last time out. So in some regard, Bjorn’s decision on the experienced four picks seems to be justified. But with the greatest of respect to Chris Wood, Andy Sullivan, and Matt Fitzpatrick, this year’s rookies Tommy Fleetwood, Jon Rahm, and Tyrrell Hatton are at a level above and are constantly in and around the top of the world rankings. The other new boys in 2016 included Masters Champion Danny Willett, who had no form coming into the match, Rafa Cabrera Bello, who contributed 2.5 points, and Thomas Pieters, who top scored in the event with four points.

This year, World No. 15 Alex Noren is hardly an unknown quantity–he has played consistently good golf for the past two years on both sides of the Atlantic. The only “anomaly” on the team is Thorbjorn “the Thunderbear” Olesen. Currently World No. 44, he’s already been touted as the weak link in the European side by the U.S. media — a dangerous prediction given his recent form.

But even then, the five qualifiers this year mean that this team is different to that of two years ago. And for that reason, Thomas Bjorn did not need to load the team with experience, something that Darren Clarke got badly wrong last time out. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to point the finger at the out-of-form veterans Westwood and Kaymer–had they come to the fore it would have been seen as a stroke of genius. But they didn’t and were shown to be just that: out-of-form veterans.

So in that regard, it’s very surprising that Bjorn has gone the same way. Particularly given his own comments on Ian Woosnam’s team in the 2006 edition, when Clarke and Lee Westwood were selected.

He criticized Woosnam, stating:

“I haven’t heard a word off him for half a year, and I’ve spoken to several players who are on the team, and have been for a long time, and they haven’t either. What sort of captaincy is that? I have lost all respect for him.”

“My relationship with him is completely dead and will remain so. This will be the first time I don’t even watch the Ryder Cup on television, and you don’t know how sad that is, given how much I care for that tournament I desperately want the 12 players to be a success, but I want them to do it in spite of the captain.”

“If the decision was based on competitive results, then I could go along with it. But it seems there’s other reasons. He’s based his decision on results which happened five years ago.”

Bjorn went on to apologize the next day, but his feelings were made crystal clear by his outburst, particularly that last sentence. Parallels are certainly evident with his own selections of Paul Casey, and more so Sergio Garcia–deemed lucky by many to selected by the captain. Henrik Stenson caused a little concern with his injury; it’s contributed to his lack of points, and he’d have almost certainly qualified on merit if fit.

Ian Poulter was always going to be on the team–there can’t be an argument for his inclusion–and he only narrowly missed out on outright qualifying, losing out to Olesen, who would almost certainly not have been picked by his fellow Dane had he not accrued the required points. That undoubtedly put a bit of a wrench in the works, but to pick Casey, who’s not shown the form of late 2017/early 2018, and Garcia, who’s shown very little since his 2017 Masters win, are the ones to have caused controversy.

It has been suggested in certain circles that Casey was given assurances of a pick should he not qualify and this was instrumental in his decision to re-apply to the European Tour. Sergio however, was not the best pick. Everyone knows a firing Sergio is the first name on the team sheet, and Bjorn has since called him the heartbeat of the side. It seems he’s been picked for his role off the course more than that on the course, and this has left many feeling uneasy. By all means, have him as part of the side in some capacity, but one wonders how the likes of Rafa Cabrera Bello, three-time winner in 2018 Matt Wallace, or even 2016 hero Thomas Pieters are feeling after being overlooked.

Of course, all of these picks have the opportunity to prove their captain right in France this week. Should the Ryder Cup remain on these shores at the close of play on Sunday, Bjorn will be vindicated and hailed as a Ryder Cup legend. And such is the way of it: a losing captain will be labelled a flop, with every decision ridiculed.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. jack04553

    Sep 26, 2018 at 11:28 pm

    Great point! I will keep this in mind the next time. Thanks

  2. Jim

    Sep 26, 2018 at 3:49 pm

    Rory has 4 majors.

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