Bjørn gambles on experience to complement in-form rookies

Thomas Bjørn is the captain of Europe’s Ryder Cup team. (Reuters pic)

PARIS: Europe captain Thomas Bjørn will entrust a handful of Ryder Cup veterans, including the struggling Sergio García, to accompany a quintet of rookies into battle against a fearsome United States team in Paris.

Bjørn, the first Dane to qualify for the Ryder Cup as a player in 1997, plumped for the vastly experienced García and match-play maestro Ian Poulter, as well as Henrik Stenson and Paul Casey with his wildcard picks.

The four players have combined for a total of 20 Ryder Cup appearances – double the number of Europe’s eight automatic qualifiers which include the likes of Rory McIlroy and top-ranked Justin Rose.

Francesco Molinari, this year’s Open Championship champion, closed out victory in the ‘Miracle at Medinah’ in 2012, but the rest of Bjørn’s charges are untested in the biennial showpiece.

Among the newcomers, Alex Norén and Tommy Fleetwood have fond memories of Le Golf National as winners of the French Open the past two years, while world number seven Jon Rahm adds to Spain’s proud Ryder Cup tradition.

Tyrrell Hatton defended his Alfred Dunhill Links Championship title before triumphing at the Italian Open last October to effectively lock down his place, with Thorbjørn Olesen bagging the last qualifying spot a fortnight ago on home soil.

It was the inclusion of García that prompted the most debate as the 38-year-old missed the cut at all four majors and produced just one top-10 finish since April.

However, that came at this year’s Ryder Cup venue, and the 2017 Masters champion’s rich pedigree in an event he debuted in as a 19-year-old ultimately swung the pendulum in his favour.

“The one thing about Sergio is that he’s the heartbeat of the team. It’s like a football team going without their captain, that’s what it’s like for us,” Bjørn said after revealing his captain’s picks.

“All four bring loads of experience, points, and know how to win and lose and they will bring plenty of heart,” he added.

Poulter, a talisman for Europe in past Ryder Cups, has returned to form this year after missing the 2016 defeat at Hazeltine.

He had slipped outside the top 200 in the world at the start of 2017, but reversed his slide with victory at the Houston Open in April.

“When he gets confident, he hits that European badge hard,” said Bjørn. “He is a man for the occasion and he is a special person.”

García, McIlroy, Rose and Stenson are the only holdovers from the 17-11 defeat two years ago, while Casey, 41, returns to the fray having last played at the 2008 edition.

Stenson has been hampered by an elbow injury, but the Swede is expected to reprise his successful partnership from recent Ryder Cups with Rose.

“Stenson and Justin Rose love each other and you have to look at how other players react to the players coming in,” said Bjørn.

The US are sending a team comprised of nine major winners in their quest for a first away win since 1993, with the resurgent Tiger Woods set for his first Ryder Cup appearance since 2012 following his remarkable comeback from spinal fusion surgery.

Yet both Woods and Phil Mickelson have losing records across a combined 78 matches in the competition, and Fleetwood said Europe won’t be intimated by the opposition.

“Most of us guys on the European team play on the same tournaments against Phil and Tiger week in, week out at the moment,” the Englishman said last week.

“You can’t deny that they’re the best golfers ever and they always will be. But when you tee it up, you’re just playing another golfer; it doesn’t matter who it is.”