Thomas Bjorn wants to see European players vying for Ryder Cup 'take control'

Phil Casey 29/08/2018
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European captain Thomas Bjorn wants his Ryder Cup hopefuls to “take control” of their destiny in the final qualifying event at his home club in Denmark.

Seven players are guaranteed a place in the team for September’s contest against the United States, with Thorbjorn Olesen in pole position to join Francesco Molinari, Justin Rose, Tyrrell Hatton, Rory McIlroy, Tommy Fleetwood, Jon Rahm and Alex Noren at Le Golf National.

Olesen occupies the final automatic qualifying place and can make certain of a Ryder Cup debut with a top-six finish at the Made in Denmark event, with England’s Eddie Pepperell and Matt Fitzpatrick needing to win and hope the Dane finishes down the leaderboard.

“It always comes down to the last qualifying event that somebody can do something so as a captain you want to see them go out and take control of the situation,” Bjorn, who will play the first two rounds alongside Pepperell and Martin Kaymer, told Sky Sports News.

“Eddie and Fitz have a lot to do in the way they need to win the golf tournament so it’s a big ask, but they are very capable of doing that. You’ve just got to sit on the sidelines and have a good look at it. It’s going to be interesting.”

Fitzpatrick, who lost both of his matches at Hazeltine in 2016, won the second qualifying event in Switzerland in September but has recorded just two top 10 finishes in 2018.

“It’s been my main goal to make the team all year but at the same time if it doesn’t happen, I’ve not played well enough to get myself on that team and that’s just the way it is,” the 23-year-old said. “I know what I need to do and it’s pretty simple really.

“Having the experience that I had (in 2016), not playing as much as I would have liked was obviously very disappointing after qualifying for the team, so it would be nice to make amends for that, particularly given that the team this year looks considerably different to the team last time.”

Olesen admits it is hard to avoid thinking about the Ryder Cup after a brilliant run of form this summer vaulted him into contention, but believes playing in front of a home crowd could work in his favour.

“It makes it easier to play this because it’s such a big event,” the 28-year-old said. “It’s an event I’ve dreamed of winning since we started it so that’s what I am trying to do, see if I can put myself in good position on Sunday and have a chance on the last eight or nine holes.”

Olesen will play the first two rounds alongside vice-captain Lee Westwood and Belgium’s Thomas Pieters, who is hoping to repeat his 2016 win in this event to boost his chances of a wild card.

“I did it last time but there’s so many good players trying to get in that are a lot closer than me as well, but a win or something close could do well here,” Pieters admitted.

Bjorn has four wild cards at his disposal but at least five strong candidates, with Pieters, Paul Casey, Ian Poulter, Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson all in need of a favour from the European captain.

“The idea of the picks is to be able to pick people that are coming into form and Thomas is probably coming into form more than anybody so it will be nice to have a look at him on the last week of qualification,” Westwood said.

“I played with him that first match (at Hazeltine) and didn’t play particularly well or he could have come out of it with five wins. His performance was brilliant that week, he certainly upped his game and looked very comfortable playing with Rory (McIlroy) so there’s a lot of positives on Thomas’ side really.”

Garcia’s poor recent form is more of a concern but Westwood added: “Sergio has played average going into Ryder Cups before and then when it comes round he really loves that atmosphere and ups his game and becomes a different player.

“Sergio is a tricky one because of his form but also because of the way he does play at Ryder Cups and his record.”

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Knockout unlikely as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson step into the PPV ring for exhibition match

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In the old days it was duels between Couples v Watson, Hogan v Snead and Norman v Faldo. Now later this year, it’s Tiger Woods v Phil Mickelson, a one-on-one match many want to see but perhaps two men a decade past their best form.

The showdown – dubbed ‘The Match’ – will take place in November at Shadow Creek Golf Course in Las Vegas with a winner-takes-all purse for the victor over one round, estimated to be around $9million.

Woods and Mickelson, the two richest golfers of their generation, rank first and second on the career prize money leaderboard (with $112.2m and $87.6m respectively), yet neither man will provide his own money for this exhibition match. In fact, the mammoth pot on offer for the winner is financed from sponsors KPMG and Nike.

And for all the media hype circulating, the reality is both players are long past their peak years and just merely cashing in while they can.

Woods, who has 14 major titles in the bank, is clearly the most decorated golfer of the modern era behind the great Jack Nicklaus and even despite his recent upturn in fortunes at the PGA Championship in Bellerive earlier this month, has not tasted that winning feeling at any event since the Bridgestone Invitational in 2013.

Similarly, Mickelson, a five-time major champion who is currently ranked at World No22, has diminished as a force in recent years. He triumphed at the WGC-Mexico Championship back in March but that was his first tour success in five years.

Neither are in the top eight for Team USA ahead of September’s Ryder Cup showpiece in Paris, with the two golfers relying on captain Jim Furyk for two of the remaining four captain picks.

There is no doubt 42-year-old Woods and Mickelson, 48, are class acts and can pull a crowd on any given day, but it’s difficult to say how this set is up to be a genuine spectacle.

For both Americans, driving used to be their bread and butter but recent statistics show that is no longer the case, with Woods ranked 175th and Mickelson at 199th in the PGA Tour driving accuracy percentage rankings.

And what makes this so-called pairing more ambitious is the fact it’s only available on pay-per-view television. A price has not been announced yet for viewers, but the PPV aspect is a surprise considering every golf tournament is mostly aired live on network or cable television.

While boxing, MMA and wrestling have long been separate paid for entities, this golf exhibition has the potential to be a huge flop.

Nobody is going to pay a fee to watch just 18 holes of golf. Add in a possible eventuality that either Mickelson or Woods could pull away during the round, then quickly, it might become a one-sided contest and make for seriously poor viewing, leaving disappointment among the paying punters.

But even if it isn’t a success, the winner will still leave Sin City with a substantial jackpot fee – and no doubt, the loser with a hefty appearance cheque from the sponsors and commercial partners involved.

As a fan of both players, not putting this spectacle on free to air television and seeing the golfers put their own money to the cause, ruins the essence of what otherwise could be an intriguing battle.

If this match was played 15 years ago, it might interest more people, but it’s difficult to agree or be excited with this when neither are in the top echelon of players in the world at the moment – and will most likely not win a major again.

A $9m pot is sure to spark the interest of any golfer or sports person but ask any top player in the world and they would choose a green jacket or major win any day of the week over a short-term PPV bank balance booster.

For all the fun and hype it may create, it’s difficult to be enthused by the concept and it actually makes a mockery of a game built on tradition, sportsmanship and passion for the game over financial reward.

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Third major in 14 months shows Brooks Koepka belongs in conversation of elite players in his generation

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Sunday’s win at the PGA Championship was the latest installment of Brooks Koepka’s steady rise to domination of world golf.

The 28-year-old Florida native collected his third major in 14 months and further cemented his status as the leading light in the current crop of young stars excelling in the game.

But for all Koepka’s excellence in achieving this monstrous feat at such a young age, he is still somewhat underappreciated – an argument that seems ludicrous after his latest major triumph.

He may have the square jaw, the high-watt smile and the comic book character looks, but this hasn’t been enough to capture the attention of the American public who seem to dislike the fact that he doesn’t watch much golf, stays low key and shows little emotion.

But the resilience he showed to fend off Tiger Woods in St Louis will certainly make his rise less underappreciated now and catapult his stature to new heights.

Rory McIlroy – at 29 – may be the elder statesman with his four majors, Jordan Spieth is close behind on three and Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas are level on one each. And with Rickie Fowler still to get off the mark, this proves how difficult these tournaments are to win.

Indeed, with his recent successes over the last year, could Keopka be the late bolter in this generation to end up with the most majors?

It’s difficult to say at this stage but he is in the ideal position, with a powerful game off the tee and an arrow-like short game contributing to his success. He’s young, fearless, his game is fresh, he has no big commitments outside of golf, no business interests and there is no expectation on his wide-spaced shoulders.

In his 20 major appearances to date, the Jupiter resident has eight top-10s and six top-5s, with seven straight top-25s coming before he even lifted his first major at Erin Hills last year.

In non-majors this year, he has two second place finishes, five top-10s and seven top-25s in 13 tournaments, with his overall consistency putting him third in the FedEXCup standings behind only Johnson and Thomas. Two of the men currently setting the bar for American at present.

The desire is clearly there and his career-threatening wrist injury at the beginning of the year – where he missed the Masters – made him realise how important the game is to him and how much he loves competition.

He’s at a wonderful stage now but that expectation is only going to increase as he moves on in life. For all the skills and mental toughness needed on the course, it will be interesting to see if he will possess the same freshness and drive to win trophies in three to five years time.

All these guys have the potential to win on any given week but it comes down to the hunger, the ruthlessness, the selfishness to put golf first before other things comes in and contaminate the mindset. Koepka needs to keep this form up and not let the outside music distract the melody he is making.

Players like Tiger Woods and Spieth may be household names in the US, but Koepka certainly has a bright future in the game ahead of him. And with the Ryder Cup taking place next month, he has the chance to further showcase his sheer class as America bid to defend their title on European soil.

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