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Monday, 16 August 2004
The Ryder Cup race, which started 43 tournaments and 11 months ago, reaches its climax over the next fortnight with the first five Members of the European Team bound for Oakland Hills Country Club decided at the conclusion of this week’s World Golf Championships – NEC Invitational at Firestone Country Club, Akron, Ohio, where Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke returns as defending champion.

A total of 31 European Tour Members are eligible, but with the withdrawal of Thomas Björn through a shoulder injury and Retief Goosen after a jet ski injury, some 29 Members will tee up in Ohio.

Much of the focus will be on the European Ryder Cup race. Under the new qualification system adopted for the first time for The 35th Ryder Cup Matches, to be played ay Oakland Hills Country Club, Bloomfield Township, Michigan, the leading five players from the World Points List after the WGC – NEC Invitational will qualify for the European Team.

The following week, the remaining five qualifiers will be determined after the BMW International Open at Golfclub Munchen Nord-Eichenreid through the European Points List. Ryder Cup Captain Bernhard Langer will also announce his two wild card selections who will face the United States and attempt to retain the Trophy from September 17-19.

The five players currently in the frame through the World Points List are, in order, Padriag Harrington of Ireland, Sergio Garcia of Spain, Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland, Miguel Angel Jiménez of Spain and Lee Westwood of England.

That leaves Swede Fredrik Jacobson, sixth in the World Points List and 12th in the European Points List as the leading challenger gunning for a place in Bernhard Langer’s European Team.

Jacobson closed the gap on Westwood to 8.02 points in the World Points List, and on current predictions for the points available, Jacobson needs to finish at least 13th to have any chance of passing Westwood, and that providing Westwood finishes outside the top 59.

England’s Luke Donald, currently tenth in the World Points List, can also force his way into the team via this route but needs to finish at least tied second with one other player or better.

The battle for places through the European Points List is also coming down to the wire and with the English duo of David Howell and Ian Poulter ineligible for the WGC – NEC Invitational, there is a chance for some of the other runners to steal a march on them before the final counting event in Germany.

Paul McGinley of Ireland heads to Akron, Ohio, brimming with confidence after his final round 69, one of only two sub-70 scores on the final day at Whistling Straits, lifted him into joint sixth, finishing the final Major Championship of the 2004 season as the leading European.

Frenchman Jean-Francois Remesy is one place outside the qualifying spots, but like Howell and Poulter, is ineligible for the WGC – NEC Invitational, opening the door to Joakim Haeggman of Sweden, who dropped out of the last qualifying place after the US PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, Kohler, Wisconsin. A good week could put Haeggman back on course for a second Ryder Cup cap.

The gap between Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els at the top of the Official World Golf Rankings is as close as it has ever been during Woods’s current five year tenure at the top, with Singh just 0.1 behind Woods and Els only 0.55 adrift. Singh is clearly the form player in the world and heads to Akron on a high following his US PGA Championship triumph while Els finished just outside the play-off in joint fourth place and both are gunning for the World Number One spot this week.

Clarke goes into his defence of the WGC – NEC Invitational on the back of a strong week in Wisconsin where he challenged throughout until falling away over the closing holes. Twelve months ago he struck a huge blow for European golf with a stunning victory to become the first player, after Tiger Woods, to win more than one WGC event following his previous victory in the WGC – Accenture Match Play.

Woods remains one of the favourites having won three of the previous four championships to be held at Firestone Country Club. He has won nine WGC events in total, amassing €10,243,333 in 15 events.

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