Europe's new rules for Ryder Cup qualifying greatly improve its chances of winning in 2018
ABU DHABI, UAE — OK, so the changes made by the European Tour with regard to the next Ryder Cup are some way short of the “panic” Old World officials and players emphasized they were keen to avoid in the immediate wake of the comprehensive 17-11 defeat at Hazeltine National last year. But more captain’s picks for Thomas Bjorn, a reduction in the number of appearances required to maintain European Tour membership, more points up for grabs in the second half of the year-long qualifying period and none for those competing in events opposite any of the eight tournament that’s part of the newly created Rolex Series is not exactly a short shrug over a quiet drink at the bar either.
Make no mistake about it—and despite the protestations of Bjorn and chief executive Keith Pelley—there will be those on the European Tour who will see all of the above as yet another bout of pandering to an already spoiled elite group of players able to compete on both sides of the Atlantic. Such an attitude is many things though: short-sighted, insular and unrealistic. From the days of Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam and Bernhard Langer, the European Tour has always been run with the needs and wants of the star names firmly in mind. This is no different.
Bjorn’s strong influence behind the scenes is obvious. Always one of the deeper thinkers in professional golf, the Dane has used his own experience when it comes to getting more in-form players into the team he will lead next year. When Bjorn made the 2014 side, he did so by playing extremely well very early in the qualifying period (which runs from September to August). By Christmas, nine months before the matches at Gleneagles, he was all but certain to make his third appearance for Europe. Trouble was, by the time the matches came around, Bjorn had been playing relatively poorly for almost three months, and many on the European Tour were performing better than he at that time. Little wonder then that Bjorn contributed only half a point to the home cause.
The other details in this announcement are equally unsurprising. Despite public support from the likes of Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood, the European Tour was never likely to open up Ryder Cup eligibility to all Europeans, whether members of the tour or not.
That is both a principled stance and one driven by hard cash. As is well known, the Wentworth-based organization relies heavily on the biennial contest with the Americans. Every home game is said to fund all tour operations until the next one comes four years later. So “encouraging” the leading players to compete as much as possible at home if they want to play in the Ryder Cup is a predictable and understandable motivation for the tour. Still, four appearances (other than the WGCs and the majors) doesn’t seem much to ask. Maybe now Englishman Paul Casey, the most high-profile non-member, will sign up in a belated bid to be part of the squad at Le Golf National next year.
Increasing the importance of the Rolex events, all of which carry a minimum $7 million purse, was both inevitable and smart. Knowing they can compete with the affluent PGA Tour only at certain times of the season, Pelley and his close advisers are clearly keen to grab those parts of the calendar where leading players of all nationalities turn their attention away from the U.S. Thus, three parts of the Rolex Series immediately precede the Open Championship. And a further four take place after the close of the PGA Tour season. Only the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in May appears vulnerable to more financially beneficial events elsewhere.
The bottom line, however, is that, under this new system, Europe is surely much more likely to field its 12-best players in France 20 months from now. That they so obviously failed to achieve that basic aim at Hazeltine meant changes were required, never mind Europe’s record of eight wins in the last 11 Ryder Cup matches. As Bjorn said, “Even the way in which we identified the winning 2014 team at Gleneagles was out of date, so we had to do something.”
What they have done is, to put it mildly, rather a lot. And all without a Task Force in sight.