Changes to the European Ryder Cup qualifying system

At the end of 2016, incoming European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn made it clear that there were going to be changes to the way players qualified for the European team ahead of the 2018 matches in France. The main reason for this wasn’t so much that the Europeans were just soundly beaten by six points at the hands of the Americans, but more that Team Europe didn’t give themselves the best possible chance to compete with the way the qualification rules had been drawn up.

Bjorn announced on Wednesday that some changes were in fact decided on ahead of the 2018 Ryder Cup, and while some of them should in theory help the European side, they didn’t go quite as far they could have and I think there’s a chance that it could end up costing them. Here are the changes:

  • The number of captain’s picks is being increased from three to four

Okay, Bjorn is off to a great start with his changes, as he follows in the footsteps of outgoing American captain Davis Love III who increased his captain’s picks from three to four ahead of last year’s Ryder Cup. Love’s move was in stark contrast to 2014 American captain Tom Watson, who said that he would rather not have any captain’s picks and that he would prefer that all of his players made it on points, which I always thought was a little insane. To me, if I’m the one in charge of a team, I’d want as much control as possible over the roster, but since we’re never going to see the teams comprised solely of captain’s picks, increasing the number from three to four is a good thing for Bjorn.

As a point of reference, if these rules were in place last year, Matthew Fitzpatrick would have been the player who missed out on automatic qualification. You can essentially call this the Russell Knox rule.

  • More points will be available in events at the end of the qualifying period

The second big change is that events towards the end of the qualification period will have more points available, meaning that players who are in-form will have a better chance of making the team on points. Seeing as how we don’t have many details yet on how this is going to play out, it’s difficult to look back on 2016 and piece it together but it stands to reason that if these rules were in place, that Thomas Pieters wouldn’t have required a captain’s pick and that Darren Clarke could have gone elsewhere with his final selection. This makes sense as well, and should give Bjorn a little more freedom to go with a player who might not be playing that well but could be an impact player versus the guy who is on a good run of form.

  • Points cannot be earned in other worldwide events if they oppose the Rolex Series

The Rolex Series is a group of eight events with higher prize money on offer, and are meant to be the biggest events on the European Tour. This is one of the new initiatives that Keith Pelley has introduced in his time at the top of the European Tour, and it’s a good thing for everyone involved that the European Tour is raising the bar in terms of prize money for marquee events. With the way that they’ve scheduled the Rolex Series against lesser quality PGA Tour events, my guess is that more of the top European players will come over to play, but ultimately, I don’t really see this changing much in terms of the standings.

Unfortunately, for those wanting the most competitive Ryder Cup possible, those are the only changes that are being made. This means that for 2018, players are still going to be required to be members of the European Tour to become eligible for selection. Considering all of the discussion around Paul Casey’s exclusion from the team in 2016 because of this requirement, including from Rory McIlroy who told Chris Solomon back in November that he’d like to see the rule abolished, I thought that it would be removed but that isn’t the case. Apparently, the reason for this is that while Bjorn would like to guarantee that the best players are available to him for selection, he also wants to ensure that the European Tour can remain competitive with the PGA Tour, and the thought is that if they remove the membership requirement for the Ryder Cup, that they can’t compete.

It’s no secret that the European Tour has struggled to keep their homegrown talent in Europe, as many have flocked to the PGA Tour where the purses are usually substantially higher, and this has definitely had a knock on effect for the Ryder Cup. Back when the Ryder Cup was expanded to include continental Europe in 1979, most of the top European players stayed in Europe unless there was a major championship being played. This led to a real feeling of the Ryder Cup being the PGA Tour versus the European Tour, but now though, players from all countries move around so much that this notion doesn’t really exist anymore, at least to the fans watching. It’s not the two tours going head to head: it’s simply Europe versus the United States, and with this European Tour membership rule in place, it seems possible that despite the above positive changes, Europe won’t be putting out an optimal group of twelve players against an extremely talented and young American side.

To that end, Bjorn has promised that he will talk with players like Casey, Knox, David Lingmerth and Jon Rahm about joining the tour going forward, with the only requirement being that players must play four non-major or WGC events on the European Tour to retain their cards. That doesn’t sound like too much to ask, but considering all of the factors at play when the players decide their schedules each year, you shouldn’t be surprised if some of the players still decline. Players are creatures of habit, and for someone like Paul Casey, who has managed to get his game back on track in recent years after struggling for quite some time, he may not think it’s worth it to change everything up for one event every two years. This is especially true for players like him who are a little older, but could also apply to someone like Rahm who is just trying to get his career off the ground.

When it comes to the health of the European Tour, all of these changes make sense as does not changing the membership requirement. As it relates to the Ryder Cup though, it’s going to be interesting to see if Bjorn is successful in his recruiting pitch because if he’s not, it’s going to be even tougher for Europe to win the cup back in France.

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