All Roads lead to Medinah

All Roads lead to Medinah

In Switzerland, and across the globe, the year-long race to make Olazábal’s 12-man team has officially begun

It was Sir Winston Churchill, undoubtedly an illustrious European, who once said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”

Churchill certainly knew a thing or two about building successful teams and inspiring greatness from all men around him, and this week another renowned European comes to the forefront of the golfing world as José Maria Olazábal’s tenure as Team Europe Captain for The 2012 Ryder Cup in Medinah begins.

In Switzerland, and across the globe, the year-long race to make Olazábal’s 12-man team has officially begun as the Ryder Cup Points List opens its books for another year. There has been no shortage of drama in previous years’ qualification, with potential for glory and heartbreak lurking around every corner for Europe’s top golfers.

And it is a testament to the significance and passion that this biennial contest evokes that in previous years there has certainly been much Churchillian toil and sweat exhibited by the players fortunate to have made the Team.

Often at the forefront of memorable Ryder Cup moments was the late, great, Seve Ballesteros. The competition ran in his veins; it defined him as a player and endeared him to the world, and there were plenty of tears along the way.

There were also certainly tears in County Kildare in 2006 after Darren Clarke inspired Team Europe to victory over the United States just weeks after the passing of his wife, Heather.

Perhaps because golf is normally considered, for such a large proportion of the year, as an inherently individual pursuit, that to be a member of team competing for a page in the history books means more to these players than any monetary reward.

While the trophy donated for competition in 1927 by Samuel Ryder was originally valued at £250, in the world of golf it is now priceless – just ask the players that shared a timeless moment at The Celtic Manor Resort last October after Graeme McDowell’s heroics in the final singles match.

The Ryder Cup is simply a contest like no other in the sport, irrevocably entwined with the emotions of the individual and the Team. It has an allure all of its own and that is why players so determinedly wish to be involved.

This year, of course, sees a reversal of automatic qualification criteria, as per Captain Olazábal's request, with the leading five players from the European Points List holding precedence over the leading five from the World Points List.

The Spaniard said: “The only reason that I asked for a change in the criteria is because I believe that it will give me the strongest team possible to defend The Ryder Cup.

“I looked over the last few qualification processes, going back to 2004, and was satisfied that my proposal would give me the strongest team on paper. We are going to have a very strong team but I just felt that this would give the team the best chance to keep The Ryder Cup and that is what we all want.”

Medinah Country Club, situated on the outskirts of Chicago, and September 25th 2012 might both seem like a far-away place and date, but looking back through history provides illuminating evidence that the period between traditional starting point, the Omega European Masters, and the conclusion of the year’s Race to Dubai, can be as important as any in staking a claim for a place in the following year’s showpiece.

A fast start, then, could be considered imperative, and this is reflected in the strength of the field present at this year’s event at Crans Montana.

Six of The 2010 Ryder Cup Team have travelled to Switzerland this year, including the defending champion Miguel Angel Jiménez, Martin Kaymer, Rory McIlroy, Edoardo and Francesco Molinari and World Number Two Lee Westwood.

It is true that all facts are subjective, but it is worth taking a look at some key moments in the initial stages of the 2009-10 Ryder Cup qualification race in order to reflect the importance of a strong start this year.

After the Omega European Masters of 2009, no fewer than three of the final 12-man Team that would play at The Celtic Manor Resort were already present in the combined Ryder Cup Points List; after good placings in the Swiss event, Jiménez and McIlroy had already forced their way into the initial reckoning.

Early days, yes, however in golf the impact of momentum cannot be underestimated.

It is interesting to also note that after winning the Portugal Masters on the 18th October 2009 Lee Westwood was propelled into the combined Ryder Cup Points List for the first time. Westwood would, of course, go on to finish in poll position in the standings come the conclusion of the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles in 2010, and following his initial entry in the previous October, the Worksop man at no point dropped out of the automatic qualification spots.

So while a good start is certainly useful, consistency over the year also goes well rewarded.

Big tournaments will indisputably always have a telling impact on the shape of a final Ryder Cup squad, and this was evident two years ago as Ian Poulter and Ross Fisher climbed into the combined points list after their respective wins in the Barclays Singapore Open and the Volvo World Match Play Championships in October 2009.

By the start of November 2009, five players who would make the final team were already in situ in the top nine of the combined points list, while eight of the 2010 team were present in the 20 leading challengers.

Even more tellingly, at the conclusion of the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai places were already beginning to appear more solid, even at this early stage of qualification, after top-ten finishes for McIlroy, Westwood, and Francesco Molinari.

Further top-ten finishes followed in the Hong Kong Open for McIlroy, Molinari, and Poulter, and when the final putt dropped in the season-ending Dubai World Championships no fewer than six of the final Team Europe members were already within the nine automatic qualification places, with nine of the final 12 also present in the top 20 challengers.

Crowned Race to Dubai champion for 2009, Westwood was never deposed from his primary spot in the combined points list, and runner-up Rory McIlroy also finished the year in second place in The Ryder Cup rankings, where he would also eventually qualify the following August.

It is fair to say, then, that there is plenty left to play for this calendar year during these embryonic stages of The Ryder Cup race. Previous form suggests those that put themselves round-and-about come the end of the season have a good chance at making the final Team.

Perhaps even Challenge Tour graduates will fancy their chances at snatching a spot, after Edoardo Molinari so dramatically forced his way out of the Challenge Tour ranks and into the 2010 Team following an incredible birdie-strewn finish at Gleneagles on the final day of qualification in August 2010.

Irrespective of the past, the message is clear: the players who start fast and remain consistent throughout the season will be those on the road to Medinah.

Olazábal will know he needs not issue a fervent rallying cry to his men, and said himself: “At the end of the day, it is the players who are the stars and it is the players who hit the shots.”

After the exhilarating success of The 2010 Ryder Cup at The Celtic Manor Resort, with the world watching open-mouthed at sporting theatre of the very highest calibre, every European Tour player will be looking ahead to Medinah, and to September 2012, with an eye on a Ryder Cup spot and with it a shot at golfing history.