European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn provided a timely reminder that September’s renewal of hostilities with the United States is fast approaching this week when he named four vice-captains.
If that announcement focused a few minds among the leading players then so will the beginning of a new phase in the qualification process, in which points are now worth 50 per cent more than before.
The mechanism, designed to afford in-form players the edge in the battle for eight automatic spots on the European team, takes effect at the BMW PGA Championship tomorrow, where a number of Ryder Cup hopefuls on the fringes of Bjorn’s plans can significantly enhance their prospects.
Defending champion Alex Noren currently occupies eighth place in the rankings, a position that leaves him vulnerable heading into the qualification run-in.
The Swede illustrated his class at Wentworth 12 months ago when he broke the West Course record with a dazzling final round of 62 to come from seven strokes behind and win the European Tour’s flagship event.
It was his finest hour, and though Noren has shown flashes of that form since – he has a second-place finish and two third places in the US this season – he is yet to add another title and remains within reach of a chasing pack of rivals for a Ryder Cup place who are also in action at the PGA Championship this week.
A resurgent Ian Poulter is hottest on Noren’s tail, having capped a dramatic turnaround in fortunes by winning his first tournament since 2012 at the Houston Open in April.
Europe’s long-time Ryder Cup talisman failed to qualify for the 2016 defeat at Hazeltine and, while he might expect to be a prime wild card candidate should he miss the mark again, Poulter is back in the form to leave nothing to chance.
Fellow Englishman Matt Fitzpatrick, part of Darren Clarke’s beaten team two years ago, is enduring a mixed season yet remains just outside the qualifying places and posted an improved 12th-place finish at this event last year.
He can take heart from the fact that five of the last five winners at Wentworth have been home players.
Paul Dunne, currently 11th in Europe’s Ryder Cup rankings, is enjoying a purple patch.
The young Irishman has been top-10 in four of his last five outings, not including the Golf Sixes event in St Albans earlier this month – an unofficial European Tour event – which he won alongside countryman Gavin Moynihan.
His only previous win, meanwhile, also came on UK soil, at the British Masters last year, where he mustered a 61 to see off none other than Rory McIlroy.
Just behind Dunne in the reckoning is Paul Casey, who won at Wentworth in 2009 and has resumed European Tour membership after a three-year hiatus partly in the hope of returning to the Ryder Cup side.
Casey finished in the top five on his last outing, at the Wells Fargo Championship, and already has one win this season, also in the US.
With four months to go until the first tee shot in France, Bjorn and his new vice-captains Lee Westwood, Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell and Luke Donaldo, will be watching with interest.