Of all the rabbits Paul Azinger pulled from his Ryder Cup top hat, his hard sell of a revamped selection process may have been the Valhalla VIP.
America’s five-of-six slide in the transatlantic grudge match did not bottom out because of a raucous Kentucky gallery or an ingenious pod system so much as it was saved by an overhauled selection process that favored a hot hand and the intrinsic value of a victory.
Just ask Colin Montgomerie, the European warhorse tasked with bringing Samuel Ryder’s chalice back home later this year. According to published reports, Monty pressed officials for a new system and more captain’s picks (suggesting, at one point, he wouldn’t mind 12 picks).
Officials met the Scot in the driveway, giving their captain an extra freebie and reducing the number of players who qualify off the World Ranking list (read: Europeans who play primarily in the United States) to four. However, the number of players picked from the European Tour list, which awards one point for every euro earned over the last 12 months, remained the same (five), a nod that should make the home tour more attractive and much more important in 2010.
It also creates a question for players looking to join Monty’s squad later this year in Wales. The World Ranking list, or at the least a captain’s pick, is the realm of the headliners – Lee Westwood, Padraig Harrington, et al. – whose focus is primarily on the PGA Tour and who are assured starts in the biggest events.
But if you’re not on a first name basis with Tiger Woods, Ryder Cup years present a dilemma for many Europeans who must decide whether to chase a Ryder Cup spot on the U.S. tour, or back home, if by back home you mean every continent where golf is played.
The only wrong answer seems to be a fractured, hectic schedule that tries to juggle membership on both the PGA and European Tours in an energy-sapping attempt to qualify on either list.
“I feel like I have the best chance of getting on the team through the World Ranking,” said England’s Luke Donald, who estimated he will play 75 percent of his 2010 schedule on the PGA Tour.
Northern Irish phenom Rory McIlroy seems to have subscribed to the same theory, earning enough as a non-member last year (11 starts, $849,000) to take up membership in 2010.
McIlroy and Donald, however, seem to be the exception to the rule this year.
Although the split European selection system has worked well since its inception prior to the 2004 matches – the far side of the pond is 2-1 under the duel process – Monty’s extra pick has reduced the room for error for American-based Europeans and made a year playing the European circuit much more appealing, particularly to younger players.
Like McIlroy, Oliver Wilson earned enough in ’09 thanks to top-11 finishes in three World Golf Championships for a PGA Tour card but declined membership. Instead the Englishman, who went to college in the United States and still owns a house in North Carolina, will play at least 15 European Tour events this year with an eye toward September’s matches.
“There are so many Europeans that are playing the U.S. Tour you have to worry you can make it based on the World Ranking,” said Rocky Hambric, Wilson’s manager with Hambric Sports. “Your best bet is playing in Europe especially if you’re a younger player and less likely to get one of the captain’s picks.”
Westwood and Henrik Stenson, both non-members in 2009, also turned down membership this year in the United States, although their status and Ryder Cup record would likely assure them a spot on this year’s team.
Although it’s still early in the selection process, the year’s first European Ryder Cup list was published this week and was dotted with the names of the next generation – McIlroy, Ross Fisher, Martin Kaymer and Francesco Molinari. Most of Class 2.0 will spend more time in Europe than the United States this year, and for Montgomerie that truth could be more encouraging than 12 captain’s picks, Dave Stockton Sr. on retainer as team putting guru and a Sergio Garcia resurgence.
The 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup team enjoyed a healthy collision of young and old. Phil Mickelson and Justin Leonard proved perfectly matched with Anthony Kim and Hunter Mahan. The result: a five-point American walkover.
Whether by design or destiny, the slightly tinkered European selection process could produce a similar concoction. And, as Monty knows, the outcome in Wales has probably already been decided. Just ask Azinger.