The chase to make Europe’s Ryder Cup team at Gleneagles next month provides a thrilling subplot to some big golf on both sides of the Atlantic this week and next.
With only two scoring weeks left, the fringe candidates, including some of Europe’s biggest names, must slug it out for the right to party in what promises to be one of the strongest teams sent out by a European captain.
Paul McGinley already has seven places locked down, occupied in descending order by Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose, Martin Kaymer, Thomas Bjorn and Victor Dubuisson. This leaves three Ryder Cup heavyweights arm-wrestling over the final two automatic places.
Jamie Donaldson and Graeme McDowell are the men presently in possession. However, high finishes by Luke Donald and Ian Poulter at the Barclays tournament this week or the Deutsche Bank Championship next week, and Stephen Gallacher at the Czech Masters and Italian Open, could result in bloody noses.
Welshman Donaldson has canned the idea of taking a three-week break in order to secure his spot automatically and competes on the European Tour in Prague in the same group as Gallacher. Both have set their hearts on Ryder Cup debuts, which for Gallacher, a Scot, would be an emotional bow on home soil.
Only three world-ranking points separate Donaldson in eighth spot, McDowell in ninth and Donald in 10th. Gallacher is 11 points further adrift in 11th spot, with 12th-placed Poulter the only other player who might qualify automatically, six back from him.
Donaldson is in the strongest position since a high finish at the Czech Masters in Prague, which starts today, will see him qualify via the European money list, irrespective of where he stands on the world points register.
Another Ryder Cup veteran, Lee Westwood, is so far out of contention via either qualifying mechanism that he is playing for a wild card. Back-to-back top 20s at the WGC-Bridgestone and the PGA Championship at Valhalla could not have come soon enough.
A top-49 finish at the Barclays will guarantee Westwood progression to the second FedEx Play-Off tournament, the Deutsche Bank Championship and more time to persuade Europe’s captain McGinley both of his form and commitment.
His final round of 63 at the Bridgestone was a sign that Westwood had rediscovered the keys to his swing and scoring. McGinley was encouraged but remarked that it was only one round and that Westwood would need to do more.
He did, shooting a 65 on the opening day at Valhalla to lead the season’s final major, where he eventually finished 15th. “Another decent week to build on,” Westwood said. “I was playing crap. Now I am playing better. I have a better idea of what I am doing and I feel a bit fitter. I am looking forward to playing again.”
McGinley concurred and is delighted at the response of his thoroughbred marginals. “It is great to see guys like Lee Westwood come good and show what they are capable of,” he said. “Ian Poulter and Luke Donald are the same, and guys like Jamie Donaldson and Graeme McDowell have shown how determined they are to hang on to their places on the team.
“When you see them all making a dash for the line it shows how much everyone wants to be on the team. I’m going to be spoiled for choice when it comes to naming my wildcard picks, but that is a situation all European captains find themselves in these days. You have to make some very tough choices.
“The guys have made it even more difficult for me, but it’s a problem I will happily deal with. The strength in depth we have is incredible.”