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Tee to Green, Steve Scott: Ryder Cup intrigue starts, even with seven months still to go

Luke Donald has some difficult decisions to make as Ryder Cup qualification continues this summer.
Luke Donald has some difficult decisions to make as Ryder Cup qualification continues this summer.

Construction has begun at Marco Simone in Rome on the first tee complex for September’s Ryder Cup. Yes, already.

If the monster edifice that framed the first tee at Golf National in Paris in 2018 is to be surpassed, then those attending might be well advised to bring oxygen gear.

Not a great one for heights, your correspondent felt more than a little unsettled hanging on to a balustrade after climbing eight flights of stairs to get to the press viewing area on that first chilly morning.

That such a structure is being built now suggests strongly that recent events in golf have not dimmed the popularity of the Ryder Cup one iota.

They come in droves

The DP World/European Tour’s very existence probably depends on the Ryder Cup being golf’s premier box-office event when it’s held on this side of the Atlantic.

Without it, and especially in the straitened times the tour suffered during Covid, then the tour simply wouldn’t nearly break even.

People come in droves. What struck me about Paris in particular at the time was that while there were clearly a lot of French people there, I wouldn’t have estimated it was actually a majority of the fans.

Instead, they were in the main British and Irish. People were clearly prepared to pay the extra to come over to Paris, and they will be to Rome as well.

In terms of qualification, it’s really very early days. After just two months of 2023 we have Chris Kirk – by virtue of victory in the Honda Classic at the weekend – on the US points list.

Meanwhile, on the European standings, captain Luke Donald is looking at the unheralded Yannick Paul of Germany. He finished second in the last two events and elbowed Scotland’s favourite Frenchman Victor Perez out of an automatic spot.

Will either Kirk or Paul survive to qualify outright? Unlikely, you’d think. But it’s not unknown for someone to have a hot start and then hold on for a place.

Plenty of strong candidates in the qualifying mix

The other five in the six qualifying spots for Europe are Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy, Viktor Hovland, Shane Lowry and the emerging Irish hope Seamus Power. You’d really expect to see those five in Rome whatever way the qualification finishes.

Not too far away and primed for a strong season are Perez, Tyrrell Hatton, Alex Noren and Tommy Fleetwood. Matt Fitzpatrick hasn’t had a blinding start to the season but it’s hard to imagine a team without him.

Justin Rose has re-emerged with his win at Pebble Beach, and if he parlays that into a strong season then you’ve got to think Donald will want him onboard. He’s exactly thre kind of experienced and tested competitor that Europe has lost to LIV Golf.

And there’s just got to be LIV intrigue here, as well. No-one seems quite sure whether LIV players should, or might, or will be eligible for either Europe or the USA.

You’d think it a stretch. For a start, unless they really cash in on the majors, American LIVers aren’t going to get near qualifying.

Captain Zach Johnson has been uniformly hostile to the breakaway league. Although he’s been noncommittal so far, it’s a big leap to imagine him using a wildcard.

Similarly, you can’t see Luke Donald using any of his picks on LIVers. And the pending arbitration case between the LIV players and the DP World Tour counts here. Team Europe is not simply based on European birth. You need to be a member of the DPWT.

A curious case

And beyond that there’s really curious cases. Like Spain’s Adrian Otaegui, who is currently sixth on the European points list and ninth on World points list for qualification.

The 30-year-old from the Basque country played in several LIV events last year. He was also one of the three players who successfully forced the tour to back down on fines and bans before the Scottish Open last year.

Then, in what was considered a coup for LIV, he won the Andalucia Masters at Valderrama on the DP World Tour.

But is Otaegui even a LIV player anymore? He’s not on the roster that started their season last week in Mexico, nor is he one of their named ‘reserves’.

He’s not played in the LIV-affiliated Asian Tour International Series events. Instead, he’s played all seven DP World Tour events this season so far.

What happens to him now? Does the DPWT forgive last year and embrace him again, whatever the arbitration case result?

And could he even be in Rome in September?

The finish line few care about

LIV is up and running for 2023, but with the same narrative. The pre-tournament jibes, statements and press conferences in Mexico – including Sergio Garcia risibly calling Rory McIlroy ‘immature’ – provided the main stories.

This is actually the modus operandi by many in the modern golf media anyway, outside of the major championships.

Many writers show up for the pre-tournament stuff, the player interviews. They maybe stay for a round or two. But they’re rarely still there when the trophy is won on Sunday.

Once again LIV’s actual tournament – won by Charles Howell III – went by with barely a blip of recognition. Ratings on their new CW network were miniscule and not available in major markets like Southern California.

LIV communication and marketing people did a round of interviews talking up the league’s future funding and move towards teams’ self-sufficiency instead of the wide pockets of the Saudis.

They’ve clearly a long way to go.