Heroes will emerge...
5th April 2016
The hunt for Ryder Cup qualification is a thrilling subplot to this year's Masters at Augusta, says Telegraph golf correspondent James Corrigan.
If you believe that The Ryder Cup is only about three days late in September then you probably also believe the US presidential election is solely concerned with one day in November. There is so much more.
Indeed, the build-up and the match itself cannot be separated. From the appointment of the captains to the qualification of the teams and the wildcard picks… when the first pairings tee off at Hazeltine that Friday morning, it will seem less like a beginning and more like another very important milestone in the journey of the biennial competition.
The first major of the season in Ryder Cup year is certainly circled in the calendar. The captains themselves will not admit it, but they will be scoring the Augusta leaderboards in earnest.
Both are in the field: Darren Clarke, for Europe, because of his win at the Open in 2011; Davis Love III, for the United States, because of his rolling-back-the-years victory at the Wyndham Championship last August. They will be on the property and on the lookout.
And no matter how diligently they try to focus solely on their own play it will be impossible for the duo not to have in mind the performances of the potential players in their teams.
The media will demand they speak about it and their own ambitions will demand they contemplate it. The Ryder Cup is the subplot that rumbles under at each and every PGA Tour and European Tour event, but at the majors in match year its resonance is prone to erupt above the surface.
Certainly the players will be thinking about it. Depending on the status of the contestants, there will be those leaving Georgia taking much consolation from their new positions on the points lists.
Of course, first place all but guarantees a berth on either of the line-ups, but second and even third, fourth, fifth and down can also go a long way to ensuring a seat in these most coveted of team rooms.
Challenges will be launched between those dripping pines, and Lee Westwood is just one protagonist who intends to signal lift-off on his attempt for a 10th successive appearance in blue and gold.
“You only need one or two good weeks at these big events and you’re right in there”
“You only need one or two good weeks at these big events and you’re right in there,” Westwood said. “Your mind is not on it at the time, but it is swirling around there at the back somewhere. Let’s just say that the qualifying points are a great by-product of playing well in the Masters.”
There will be other old heads doing their own maths as they try to climb the leaderboard. Ian Poulter, like Westwood, is way down the standings and could do with a bold showing at Augusta to restate his credentials. Do not write off the 40-year-old.
Poulter finished third in his last start – at the Puerto Rico Open – and was a fast-finishing sixth when shooting 67-67 over the weekend in Augusta 12 months ago. Poulter undoubtedly has the experience that Westwood believes is so vital around the National.
“You see the same names up there at the Masters year in, year out, because you learn that you don’t need your best stuff all the time, that there are ways and means of getting round that course,” Westwood said.
“You’ve got to miss it in the right place and not to attack so much. It’s not about the fantastic shots you hit that week, but about not getting out of position too often and limiting the bogeys.”
Not that the young Turks will listen after Jordan Spieth redefined what is possible for a 22-year-old in just his second Masters.
The enduring fascination of Tiger Woods apart, the new generation will monopolise the build-up and – although there will be those such as the Australian Jason Day and the Japanese Hideki Matsuyama who will be competing only with the trophy in mind – there are so many great fresh-faced Americans and Europeans in the field that there will be a sense of a changing of the guard.
Just consider Danny Willett, Matt Fitzpatrick and Andy Sullivan for Britain, and Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Kevin Kisner for the US. They and others are on missions to represent their team and all will realise the splash they could make on the greatest stage of all. Because if they can prove it there, they can prove it anywhere.
By their nature, the formats of matchplay and strokeplay differ wildly and there have been many characters over the years more suited to one rather than the other. But still, what the majors grant Love and Clarke is the chance to see the wannabes under the gun and trying to cope with pressure.
Heroes will emerge and they will not just be heroes for the week – but for that assignment that burns bright in the Minnesota future.