Wednesday 20 September 2017

Misfiring big guns must find form or resurgent US could romp Ryder Cup

Graeme McDowell in action on the opening day of the Volvo World Match Play Championship in Caseres, Spain
Graeme McDowell in action on the opening day of the Volvo World Match Play Championship in Caseres, Spain

Karl MacGinty

NEVER mind the world rankings, the sleeping giant of American golf is awakening and could wrench the Ryder Cup out of European hands at Medinah in September.

At first glance, the European Tour still appears to be in a commanding position in global golf.

Once again, three of its members (Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood) are on top of the world going into Europe's annual showpiece, this week's BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.

It promises to be an enthralling week on the West Course. Spectators in their tens of thousands will watch the game's most exciting player, McIlroy, try to reinforce his position at No 1 and resist the challenge of defending champion Donald and fellow English favourite Westwood.

Since McIlroy's victory at the Honda in March, he

and Donald have played a private game of leapfrog on top of the world.

Yet behind this entertaining sideshow, all has not being going well for several of the players who underpinned Europe's Ryder Cup victory at Celtic Manor and who will be required once again to provide the backbone of Jose Maria Olazabal's team in Chicago.

For sure, last weekend's Volvo World Match Play in Finca Cortesin produced a champion, Nicolas Colsaerts (29), with enough raw-power to outgun even Bubba Watson at Medinah. The Belgian replaced Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano at No 10 in Europe's Ryder Cup rankings with Sunday's win.

More importantly, Colsaerts made it into the world top 50, giving him an invaluable chance this summer to polish his act in the Major arena. This could be the making of another Ryder Cup star.

But on recent evidence, several of the key players in the running for Olazabal's team are struggling, while their American counterparts burn up the fairways on the US PGA Tour.

Jason Dufner's second victory inside a month at Sunday's HP Byron Nelson Championship was the 18th by an American in 22 events on the US circuit in 2012. No fewer than 13 of those wins were achieved by players from the top 12 in the American Ryder Cup points list.

Of the dozen leading contenders for a place on the team captained by Davis Love III, only reigning PGA champion Keegan Bradley has yet to register a win this year, and the talented Boston-Irishman fell in sudden-death at Riviera.

Just six of Olazabal's top 12 have won this year: Colsaerts, McIlroy, Donald at Transitions, Justin Rose in the Cadillac, Rafael Cabrera Bello in Dubai and Paul Lawrie in Qatar.

Ian Poulter isn't even in the 12 and it was disturbing to note that this match play specialist's failure to break a cycle of

poor form during the defence of his Volvo title. Some commentators attributed the Englishman's recent difficulties to the completion of his new 20,000 sq ft mansion in Orlando. Even if Poulter did the hod-carrying himself, it would not explain the dramatic decline in his putting this year, sapping his trademark confidence.

Though Graeme McDowell made it into Sunday's final, sheer grit and character were never going to be enough to overcome the super-long Colsaerts in howling gales, not forgetting the occasional suicide shot by the Portrush man.

McDowell is a fabulous fighter so Olazabal will pray hard that the Portrush man breaks his 18-month win drought this summer.

Next month's US Open at Olympic, which has enough dog legs to fill a kennel, should suit G-Mac.

However, if it plays as hard and fast as expected, Wee-Mac may leave more than his heart in San Francisco. After his disappointing display at Augusta, this could be a tough year for McIlroy at the Majors.

The field at the British Open will have to tip-toe around Lytham's bunkers, while PGA venue Kiawah Island is a Pete Dye creation and McIlroy is not comfortable on his courses (Sawgrass, Harbour Town, Whistling Straits). The Holywood ace will need the patience of Job this summer if he's to carry good form and confidence into the Ryder Cup.

Donald's flop at the Masters has dulled last season's sheen; Westwood is becoming more tense and frustrated around and on the greens at the Majors as each one passes without a win; Martin Kaymer seems bereft of confidence and Sergio Garcia, ninth in the Ryder Cup charts, still misses too many key short putts to inspire confidence.

With seasoned Major winners like Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke so far outside the pale at present, Olazabal badly needs Europe's talismanic players to get back in gear this summer if Europe are to have any chance at Medinah.

Irish Independent

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