The rising generation of Americans dominated 2017 after Spaniard Sergio Garcia’s memorable Masters triumph, laying down a marker ahead of next year’s Ryder Cup in Paris. Brooks Koepka, 27, claimed the US Open title, before Jordan Spieth’s third major crown at the British Open and his fellow 24-year-old Justin Thomas’ breakthrough victory at the USPGA Championship.
Add in world No1 Dustin Johnson, and United States Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk has a formidable team more than capable of repeating October’s Presidents Cup thrashing of the Internationals. The US are the favourites to retain the trophy come next September at Golf National, but they haven’t won on European soil since 1993 at The Belfry.
“We have 25 years of scars to overcome,” Furyk said in Paris in October.
“I don’t want (them) going in there being overconfident that they are the greatest team. I want them going in with a chip on their shoulder that they have something to prove.”
Europe’s stars had a mixed season, although 37-year-old Garcia produced the year’s stand-out moment by ending his wait for a major title by edging out Justin Rose in a thrilling Masters play-off in April. Garcia’s compatriot Jon Rahm stole a few headlines by rising to world No4 in his first full season as a professional, but four-time major winner Rory McIlroy was plagued by injuries and loss of form as he failed to win an event for the first year since 2008.
American players received most of the plaudits for their major winning exploits, but Europeans like Tyrrell Hatton, Rafael Cabrera Bello and Paul Casey slid slightly under the radar to finish 2017 inside the world’s top 20. “You tell me a time where there’s been 11 Europeans in the top 21 in the world,” said Europe’s Ryder Cup skipper Thomas Bjorn.
“It might have happened but it’s not something that you see very often.
“So that’s a very strong European team.”
Tiger’s back, again
A year that began with a failed attempted injury comeback from Tiger Woods, ended with the 14-time major champion starting another return. The 41-year-old pulled out of February’s Dubai Desert Classic with a back injury, but after surgery and an appearance as a Presidents Cup vice-captain, he produced a promising performance in the Bahamas earlier this month.
“I knew I was going to be able to play all four rounds, that wasn’t going to be an issue,” said Woods, who also missed all of the 2015-16 season with back trouble, after finishing tied-ninth at the Hero World Challenge.
“I was still scratchy with my irons. I drove it pretty good, made some good putts.”
The chances of Woods adding to his major tally – and reviving his bid to chase down Jack Nicklaus’ all-time record of 18 titles – will become clearer when he returns to Augusta National for the Masters. A first major triumph since the 2008 US Open may seem a long way off but Woods could still be a force to be reckoned with if fully fit – he won five PGA Tour titles and reclaimed the world No1 spot in 2013 when he last managed a full season.
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Few men know more about Ryder Cup golf than Darren Clarke, a four times winner as a player and once as a non-competing vice-captain.
His captaincy at Hazeltine may have ended in defeat last year but he believes an up-and-coming crop of Europeans can trouble an elite American team in the summer.
In an exclusive interview with Sport360° on behalf of Swiss luxury watch brand Audemars Piguet, Clarke talks Ryder Cup 2018, the chances of old heroes Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter making the team, and why golf is taking its toll on the younger generation.
How good are Europe’s prospects in next year’s Ryder Cup?
I think Jon Rahm has been incredible this year – you see what he’s achieved from just turning pro to becoming No4 in the world. He’s been amazing. Tyrrell Hatton’s had a fantastic year as well, and Tommy Fleetwood’s had that breakthrough and he’s been battling with Justin Rose. Sergio Garcia – there’s so many of them.
So I think the Ryder Cup is going to be exciting again, but saying that the Americans are very, very strong right now. Our captain Thomas Bjorn has got his hands full but I’m sure the team that we’re going to have will be very strong as well.
How do you balance the younger generation with more experienced players in the Ryder Cup?
It depends how many rookies make it again. There were six of them at Hazeltine – I’m sure there will be three or four at least this time. The rookies nowadays aren’t like what they used to be though, they’re more worldly wise and more renowned players. They seem to come through very quickly and play very well very quickly. It will be interesting to see how those guys perform in France. But the good thing about playing the Ryder Cup in France is that we have played a tournament there for so long (Open de France), so we know the golf course really well.
Is it soon time to wave goodbye to Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter as Ryder Cup players?
That’s just the way professional golf is – but that’s not to say Poults or Lee won’t make the team again, they’ve got a really good chance of making it again. But competition for places is getting even more challenging. So yes, while you’d like them to walk out onto the tee, if they haven’t performed all year, you’ve got to maybe have another young guy who has played really well. It’ll be down to Thomas if they don’t qualify.
You’d want them to have a good start to the year and show a little bit of form later in the summer if they don’t make one of the automatic spots.
There’s personalities you want for making the team. Guys who will speak out, guys who will be respected and listened to, and both Lee and and Poults would be two of those sort of guys.
We’ve seen Rory McIlroy battle injury this year. How tough is the modern game on players?
The demands of what they do now and what they physically put their body through, hitting the ball so much faster, it’s much more than it was in my day. That’s why so many guys are getting injured now – because there’s so much torque and speed being generated to maximise distance. It’s like tennis, when the serve started becoming more important than a few years ago. But how much can bodies cope through? So we’ll see how many of the younger generation can keep on playing for a longer period of time.
How can golf tours help protect players?
They’re talking about making tournament golf balls softer to slow it down, maximum speeds you can hit, but they’re still hit the golf ball the same way. There are a lot of people saying we need to rein it in, especially with some of the older courses becoming a little defunct, but at the same time, you or I as a golf fan want to see guys hit it 350 yards. We are an entertainment business.
What’s in your sights in 2018?
I’m doing corporate stuff, commentary and still playing so I’m busy as I’ve ever been. I’ll be playing the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in January. I’m still playing a bit because I turn 50 next August which is when I can start the senior tour. I’ve had a pretty decent career and once you’re a professional golfer and a competitor that never leaves you. So I want to get out onto the Champions Tour and start winning again.
Justin Rose continued his march to the summit of the European Tour’s Race to Dubai rankings with his second victory in a row at the Turkish Airlines Open.
The Englishman, who came from eight shots behind to win the WGC-HSBC Champions in China last week, is now within touching distance of Race to Dubai leader Tommy Fleetwood after securing a thrilling one shot win in Antalya.
Rose birdied three of his closing four holes in a final round six-under par 65 for a one stroke win at 18-under par tally on the Regnum Carya course.
The Rio Olympic champion and world No.6 went into the final day trailing by two shots but after a third birdie of his round at the ninth, Rose found himself among three sharing the lead at 14-under par.
The win is Rose’s 10th European Tour success and comes just a week after he captured the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai.
“This is an incredibly sweet moment and it is like a bus as you wait ages for one and two turn-up at once,” he said smiling.
“Today was a different type of win but then they are all different in their own way, and to hole that birdie putt on 18 was special as a lot of tournaments I have won have been two putts on the 18th green.”
Rose, who won the Race to Dubai title in 2007, moved from No. 3 on the Race to Dubai to replace second-ranked Sergio Garcia and now only trails compatriot Tommy Fleetwood by 134,893 euros.
Fleetwood posted a last day 68 for a share of 23rd on eight-under par.
Rose also has moved to the top of the European Ryder Cup standings and closer to a fifth European Team cap.