Ryder Cup qualifying resumes: Who will feature for Team Europe?
Nick Dougherty looks ahead to the start of the European Tour's new Race to Dubai season at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and the resumption of the race to qualify for Padraig Harrington’s European Ryder Cup team
Last Updated: 19/01/21 8:32am
The Ryder Cup qualification campaign gets back underway this week and is going to be a big feature of the next few months. We were disappointed to miss the Ryder Cup last year, but it made sense with what was happening in the world and was the right decision to postpone until this time around.
It will be interesting to see how Padraig Harrington's team develops and finding out who will feature at Whistling Straits will probably go down right to the wire. It's likely the amount of new blood that earns their way onto the team will dictate the sort of players he goes for with his picks.
Is there going to be a changing of the guard? Are we going to see the likes of Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson, Paul Casey, Justin Rose and Ian Poulter once again, or are we going to see a few of them displaced by the likes of Viktor Hovland, Robert MacIntyre or Matt Wallace?
If Westwood plays solidly this year then I cannot imagine him not being in that team, even if he misses qualifying, just because of the experience that he brings. Garcia's Ryder Cup record also makes it hard to think about him not being involved, especially with the Spaniard a winner on the PGA Tour this season.
Danny Willett, Bernd Wiesberger and Victor Perez are all currently in the team as things stands but there is obviously still a long way to go in qualifying, so there will be plenty of jostling for positions before Harrington's team is finalised in September.
Big-name players like Rory McIlroy, Tommy Fleetwood, Jon Rahm will certainly be on the team and Matt Fitzpatrick is also likely to feature, given the way he keeps delivering good results, plus I really cannot see Tyrrell Hatton missing out.
Hatton is going to go from strength to strength and he could easily win the Race to Dubai playing a mixed schedule this year, given the quality he has. His confidence is high after a great 2020, so you would fully expect his brilliant play to continue and see him also threaten more in majors.
We have seen him in contention on the PGA Tour as much as he has in Europe over the past year or so, winning the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth to go with the win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational back in March.
You see patterns in how people develop and how they press on from being a multiple winner to competing on both tours and moving up the world rankings towards the top 10. Sometimes that slows you down and makes you look like you are struggling, but Hatton has done it and established himself to the world.
Hovland is another player I expect to be in there. With the game he possesses I expect there will be more wins for him in 2021, so he could even be one of Harrington's potential picks if he had to be.
Another who I really hope does make it is MacIntyre, who claimed his breakthrough European Tour title last season and really has the potential to be the next shining light for Scottish golf. Players can struggle adapting to becoming a European Tour winner and their expectations changing, but he is a very mature player with some good people guiding him. With his consistency, it would be no surprise to see him kick on and tee it up for Team Europe.
There's going to be some pushing and pulling from a lot of notable names and there could well be a big shift in the type of players we see in the European Team, so there is an opportunity for guys that are looking from the outside to force their way into the Ryder Cup picture.
Stars gather for Desert Swing
Some of the best players in the world are teeing it up over the next three weeks in the Middle East, with strong fields in all three tournaments and plenty of potential storylines as usual, so we could not ask for a better start to the new European Tour season.
This stretch of tournaments are some of my favourites in the calendar and we begin with a Rolex Series event in Abu Dhabi, where it will be exciting to see the likes of McIlroy and Justin Thomas teeing it up.
The nature of the pandemic has shaped the way players have picked their schedules, with the simplicity of moving with the European Tour for a run of tournaments resulting in arguably the strongest fields we have seen at these events in a very long time. A few will leave after this week, but plenty have agreed to play all three because of how it makes sense for them.
We want to see more of the best players playing against the best players, not just on the PGA Tour like we are used to seeing a lot of the time, but also here in Europe. Thomas is one of many of the American contingent coming over during the next few weeks and it feels like there's been a bit of a rejuvenation in that mindset of golfers wanting to prove themselves all around the world.
I love that Collin Morikawa joined Patrick Reed in coming over to try and win the Race to Dubai last year and it will be great to see him back in Dubai next week for the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, while Bryson DeChambeau adds a lot of flavour to the field at next month's Saudi International as US Open champion.
The European Tour also deserve a lot of credit for the work they have done to put on such an international schedule, given the complexities with each country having their only rules, restrictions and travel corridors. It's immensely impressive how they have pulled it all together and made as safe an environment as possible to responsibly continue live golf during these times.
There is still a lot of sadness in the world that is going on way beyond golf, but hopefully these events can help entertain people back in the UK through the weeks ahead in lockdown. Seeing a bit of sunshine and some of the world's best in action each morning can hopefully lift your spirits a little, so we look forward to you joining us for what is going to be an entertaining three weeks.
Watch the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship throughout the week live on Sky Sports. Live coverage begins on Thursday from 3.30am on Sky Sports Golf and Sky Sports Main Event.