Ludvig Åberg just might have gate-crashed golf’s biggest party.
The 23-year-old Swede never was going to qualify automatically for this year’s European Ryder Cup team. The process started last September, and he spent the first nine months of it completing college duties at Texas Tech while his fellow continentals were traipsing the world in search of the valuable points they hoped would earn a golden ticket to Rome later this month.
But with victory Sunday in the DP World Tour’s Omega European Masters in Crans Montana, Switzerland, bookended by a pair of superb 6-under par 64s, the youngster apparently has pushed himself near the head of the queue of the outsiders looking in.
Ahead of, and during last week, the chatter about the former No. 1-ranked amateur in the world and two-time winner of the Ben Hogan Award was rising in volume. It was not so much that he had finished fourth in July’s John Deere Classic and also last month’s D+D Real Czech Masters, as good as those efforts were.
It was more the manner of his introduction to the pro ranks. Statistician Justin Ray reported that since his debut in July at the RBC Canadian Open, Åberg led the PGA Tour in strokes gained off the tee – ahead of Rory McIlroy and Scottie Scheffler, no less.
European captain Luke Donald witnessed for himself what Åberg had to offer. Sky Sports presenter Nick Dougherty reported that, after Donald was paired with Åberg in the Rocket Mortgage Classic, the captain had gushed that the Swede’s driver is a “huge weapon” and that he owned a “wow factor” comparable to McIlroy’s.
In ticking birdies at Nos. 14, 15, 16 and 17 in the final round at Crans-sur-Sierre Golf Club, overhauling a faltering Matt Fitzpatrick in the process, Åberg added to his burgeoning reputation. So much so that his invite to Rome is now deemed close to inevitable.
It is entirely possible that the Swede has simplified, rather than complicated, the options for Donald, who will reveal his captain’s picks today.
Even the doubters were swayed by his performance. In midweek Eddie Pepperell had spent time in the Sky Sports commentary box and fretted about the implications should Åberg be selected. “You have to respect the qualification process,” he insisted.
By Sunday tea-time he had tweeted: “Classy stuff from Ludvig Åberg. Some player that guy and he will definitely be in Rome.”
The Englishman then added: “Do not envy Luke Donald now!”
Yet it is entirely possible that the Swede has simplified, rather than complicated, the options for Donald, who will reveal his captain’s picks today.
Consider first the automatic qualifiers. In tying for third, Fitzpatrick confirmed his participation in a third Ryder Cup, joining automatic qualifiers Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Viktor Hovland and Tyrrell Hatton on the team. Scotland’s Robert MacIntyre also sealed a spot Sunday from the European points list.
Fitzpatrick knocked out Tommy Fleetwood as a world points qualifier in the process, but that element of the exercise was almost certainly moot: whichever of the pair didn’t automatically qualify was pretty much guaranteed a pick (alongside, it is also widely assumed, Justin Rose and Shane Lowry, creating a strong backbone of eight players, all of them with Ryder Cup experience).
The genuine qualifying jeopardy lay elsewhere, in the race to become the third qualifier in the European points list. Though Robert MacIntyre finished T55 in Switzerland, behind top challengers Adrian Meronk of Poland (T13) and Yannik Paul of Germany (T20), the Scotsman earned the trip to Rome for his Ryder Cup debut.
That makes up a roster of nine players pencilled in for Rome. The remaining trio, unless Donald pulls a very wild rabbit from his hat, will be rookies, so the guesswork that is always inherent in wild-card selection is multiplied.
Donald will utilise knowledge of what the pretenders already have accomplished, together with the statistical wizardry of vice captain Edoardo Molinari, whose algorithms will aim to predict what they can achieve in the near future.
Austria’s Sepp Straka, winner of last year’s Honda Classic and this year’s John Deere Classic, is thought to be part of the equation. His ability to go low was displayed in carding a 62 to confirm the latter victory, and he rubber-stamped his case by finishing T7 in the PGA Championship and T2 in the Open.
Meronk may also hold a slight but significant advantage. A two-time winner in 2022, he added victory in this spring’s Italian Open at the Cup-hosting Marco Simone. He also holed the winning putt in January’s Hero Cup.
That particular warmup exercise went well for Italy’s Guido Migliozzi and Francesco Molinari, but neither has maintained the pace. Migliozzi played last week’s final five holes in 6-under to surge to T13. It was a reminder of his audacious ability to go low, but was far too little and far too late. Molinari, Edoardo’s younger brother, was named as another vice captain last month.
Who, then, will take the final spot? Paul was injured midsummer and probably will pull up short. Dane Rasmus Højgaard revived his hopes with victory in the Made in Himmerland in early July, but his progress also has been disrupted by injury, and he is not at his best.
His twin brother, Nicolai, also is a past champion at Marco Simone, and his skills from the tee might well impress Molinari’s laptop. He claimed a top-five finish in Switzerland, but Italy, the spiritual home of motorsport, is likely to be short of this particular turbo twin power.
“I’ve been asked about it [the Ryder Cup] a lot. I try to just play golf and see where that golf takes me. Luckily today, I’m sitting here with a trophy, so it took me quite some way."
Frenchman Victor Perez started 2023 with victory in Abu Dhabi, but his quest for inclusion appears to have run out of steam for a second Ryder Cup in a row. Ditto the quest of Ireland’s Séamus Power.
Right up until Sunday lunchtime, the notion that Åberg might pinch a spot ahead of these hopefuls seemed to be anything from necessary to disrespectful, depending on point of view.
Åberg finished at 19-under 261, two strokes ahead of compatriot Alexander Björk and radically altered the complexion of all discussion.
“It’s a pretty surreal feeling, to be honest,” Åberg told Sky Sports when asked about his chances of making a precocious Ryder Cup debut. “I always [thought] that I could do it. I figured a win would put me in a good position. Honestly, I’ve done a pretty good job of not thinking about it too much.”
The arguments will not end because, as Zach Johnson discovered last week, wild cards prompt very wild opinions.
But Åberg began last week as a possible starter in Rome, and he ended it a probable.
“I’ve been asked about it [the Ryder Cup] a lot,” Åberg said. “I try to just play golf and see where that golf takes me. Luckily today, I’m sitting here with a trophy, so it took me quite some way.
“Any European growing up is watching the Ryder Cup, you want to be on that team. To be in those conversations is very flattering.”
Sweden lost a Ryder Cup captain during this campaign when Henrik Stenson signed with LIV Golf. The nation might have found a superstar.