Henrik Stenson and Luke Donald are the leading contenders to captain Europe in the 2023 Ryder Cup, with Lee Westwood’s move to withdraw his name from the running leaving the European Tour with a decision that is far from straightforward.
Sources close to the European camp believe Stenson is the obvious frontrunner to succeed Pádraig Harrington for the biennial event should he wish to lead Europe in Italy. Speaking this week at the Hero World Challenge, Stenson suggested he is yet to make up his mind.
“Like a lot of people, I thought Lee was going to be next in line,” Stenson said. “But I heard that he now wants to focus on his own game and feels like it is going to be too much of a clash at this point in his career and the time frame.
“We’ll see what happens, but I have certainly got some experience as a vice-captain [at Whistling Straits this year] and we’ll see if we need to put on the big shoes in the future. It’s still early to tell on that but it’s good to be part of the conversation.”
However, there are complications. Stenson, aged 45, may well choose to continue to dedicate time to his playing career. “I feel like if I can get my came to where I want it to be and where it it can be, I can have another Ryder Cup in me,” he admitted.
That Stenson’s name appears on the list of players competing in the 2022 Saudi International, a bête noire for the European Tour, is also problematic.
“There’s obviously different wills and the Saudi International was a European Tour event for three years,” Stenson said. “A lot of the players you saw announced had agreements to go back and play even before we knew it was going to be on the same week as a European Tour event. You have players who signed up for multiple years a year back or so who have a commitment to go back there and play.
“It is one of those situations and I can only say that I had an arrangement to come back and play. It’s been a good tournament on the schedule and it fitted in once again on my schedule. I will fulfil my commitment to go and play there and what happens in terms of the tour, who knows? I believe there’s a European Tour event in Ras al Khaimah the same week. The other one was planned ahead of that one and you can’t be in two places at the same time, I found that out a long time ago.”
Nonetheless, with Europe’s Ryder Cup captain due to be confirmed early in the new year Stenson’s Saudi connection inevitably raises eyebrows. Westwood, who has taken a swipe at the European Tour, is also in the Saudi field.
Donald would, in theory, be a more simple sell albeit his reputation in the game is not as strong as Stenson’s. A former world No 1, Donald appeared in four Ryder Cups and was on the winning team each time. Still only 43, the Englishman’s playing career has suffered in recent times but he was a Ryder Cup vice-captain in both 2018 and 2021. That element of succession planning will inevitably appeal to the European Tour.
Further, for now less likely, options for Europe include turning to Graeme McDowell or even asking Thomas Bjørn to repeat his success from Paris in 2018. Anybody offered the European captaincy must also balance chances of success with the strength of a United States team who swaggered to a record, 19-9 victory in Wisconsin. Ian Poulter is thought to have his eyes on captaining Europe at Bethpage in 2025.
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Stenson’s belated defence of the Hero World Challenge opened with a low key 72 at Albany. Rory McIlroy, Abraham Ancer and Daniel Berger claimed the early lead with 66s. McIlroy recovered impressively from a double bogey seven at the 9th, his second shot having landed in water. “I was proud of myself playing the back nine in five under was a good response,” McIlroy said. “I am right in the tournament.
“I wish it was a different time of the year the way I’m playing but there’s no reason why I can’t pick up again in January and keep playing the way I’m playing. I’m pleased with where my game is. I really turned a corner after the Ryder Cup.”
Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Webb Simpson are five under.