Who will win race for Ryder Cup places?

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Thomas Bjorn is the first European captain to have four wildcard picks

They are under starter’s orders, and from this Thursday will be off and running, in the race to qualify for Europe’s 2018 Ryder Cup team.

Once again, the qualifying system has been tweaked, as captain Thomas Bjorn seeks a line-up to win back the trophy from what seems certain to be an extraordinarily strong American side.

The qualifying period, which stretches from this week’s Czech Masters until next year’s Made in Denmark tournament, will yield eight players to be supplemented by four captain’s wildcard selections.

Of those automatic qualifiers, the first four will come from the European Tour’s money list, and the next quartet will be the continent’s top accumulators of world ranking points in the qualifying period.

The system is designed to accommodate those who loyally commit to the Tour and elite Europeans such as Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson, who follow a more global schedule based around the PGA Tour in the United States.

With four majors, four World Golf Championships and seven big-money Rolex Series tournaments all counting, this process should reliably yield Europe’s top eight players, with the rest coming at Bjorn’s discretion.

“I am so close to a lot of the players, many of them are great friends of mine, and I am trying to balance the captaincy with those friendships,” said the 46-year-old Dane.

“So many of those relationships extend beyond the Ryder Cup, and I’ve got to realise that I have got to be a captain of these players and some will be there and some will not.

“I have spoken to a couple of past captains already. I’ll try to speak to most of them along the way and gather as much information as I can from them.”

The biggest lesson Bjorn can learn from his predecessors is to avoid being swayed by past Ryder Cup reputations.

He is the first European skipper to have four selections, and the onus is on him to assemble the best dozen players to represent their continent.

This should mean taking account of results in the qualifying period more than the conventional wisdom of allowing past heroics in these biennial jousts to sway selection.

Two years ago, few people argued with Darren Clarke picking Lee Westwood, and in 2014 no-one queried Paul McGinley’s decision to choose Ian Poulter.

Both had served Europe with distinction.

Poulter (as a relatively in-form wildcard) inspired the ‘miracle at Medinah’ in 2012, when Europe came from 10-4 down to achieve one their most famous wins. But two years later he won just a single point.

Westwood, meanwhile, went to Hazeltine last year two points short of Sir Nick Faldo’s record of 25.

But he failed to add to his tally, losing all three of his matches.

Westwood (right) was beaten by Ryan Moore (left) in the singles last year

For both, it was a Ryder Cup too far, and the brutal truth is neither were among Europe’s top 12 players at the time of their selection.

Russell Knox was 20th in the world when he was overlooked by Clarke. Prior to that, Paul Casey was overlooked in 2010, despite the Englishman being in the world’s top 10. Colin Montgomerie went with the experience of Padraig Harrington, who claimed two out of four points at Celtic Manor.

Casey will need to rejoin the European Tour to be eligible for the match at Paris National next year.

The 40-year-old insists he is prioritising his family by sticking with the PGA Tour, and with the birth of his second child imminent there is little to suggest a change in this stance is likely.

Currently ranked 14th in the world, there are only five Europeans ahead of Casey. A brilliant matchplayer, Bjorn would do well to persuade him to rejoin.

Casey, like Knox in 2016, would be behind in the qualifying process because he cannot earn points until he joins the Tour. But this is the sort of scenario for which captain’s picks should be used.

Likewise if a leading star has been unable to automatically qualify because of injury, as might have been the case for McIlroy had this been a Ryder Cup year.

Sensibly, there will be a greater weighting for points earned in tournaments in the latter stages of the qualification process to reflect those players in form nearer the time of the match.

Points earned in these tournaments will be multiplied by 1.5 for the two qualification lists, starting in May at BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.

Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth are likely to be in a star-studded US team in 2018

Bjorn knows he faces the toughest of tasks coming up with a team to maintain Europe’s unbroken winning run in home matches, which began 20 years ago at Valderrama.

They are likely to face an American team that contains major-winning talent such as Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka, as well as the pugnacious Patrick Reed and seemingly permanent top-10 finisher Rickie Fowler.

“I am not worried because I see so much great talent out there and there are still those guys who have lots of experience too,” Bjorn said.

“The way it looks today it is going to be a well-balanced team, I would like to think.”

But who can we expect to represent Europe in France next year?

The four most likely automatic qualifiers from the world rankings are McIlroy, Spanish sensation Jon Rahm, Masters champion Garcia and last year’s Open winner Henrik Stenson.

This would leave an almighty scramble for the four spots from the Order of Merit – Justin Rose, Alex Noren, Tommy Fleetwood, Francesco Molinari, Rafa Cabrera Bello, Thomas Pieters, a resurgent Poulter, Martin Kaymer, Matt Fitzpatrick, Chris Wood, Danny Willett, Knox, Ross Fisher, Jordan Smith and Alexander Levy could all be in the mix.

It is clear Bjorn will have plenty of options from when it comes to his wildcard selections. It could be an onerous and controversial process, depending on the form of the leading lights over the next 12 months.

But, for what it’s worth, this is how I see Europe lining up in Paris: McIlroy, Rahm, Garcia, Stenson, Rose, Noren, Fleetwood, Cabrera Bello, Pieters, Fitzpatrick, Levy and Smith.

Five rookies, I know, but if they are the men in form, go with them.

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