Burning questions for 2017 European Tour season

The European Tour kicks off a brand new season this weekend with co-sanctioned events in Australia and South Africa, even though the dust has hardly settled on last season. Such is the frenetic nature of professional golf these days that the merry-go-round just never stops.

Ian Poulter makes his European Tour comeback at the Australian PGA Championship after a 14-week absence due to arthritis in his right foot. The Englishman missed out on a place on the European Ryder Cup team, although he was at Hazeltine as a vice captain. Poulter played just twice on last year’s European Tour as a result. He is one of the headline acts along with Adam Scott.

The Alfred Dunhill Championship runs in conjunction with the Australian PGA, with defending champion Charl Schwartzel looking to win the tournament for a fifth time. European Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke is also in the field.

The 2016 season was a fairly successful one for the European Tour, even though Europe lost the Ryder Cup for the first time since 2008. Here are some key questions to ponder for the 2017 season.

• • •

Who will breakthrough on the major front?

Danny Willett and Henrik Stenson flew the European flag in the tournaments on that matter this year, with Willett winning the Masters and Stenson triumphing at the Open Championship to become the first Swedish male major champion. Justin Rose became the first Olympic Golf gold medal winner since 1904, with Stenson taking silver.

Paul Casey and Matthew Fitzpatrick finished fourth and seventh at the Masters. Shane Lowry was second at the U.S. Open. Can these players make the jump from contender to major winner?

Sergio Garcia was fifth at the U.S. Open and Open Championship, albeit a distant fifth in the latter behind Stenson. We’ve been waiting a long time for Garcia to get his hands on a major. Ditto for Lee Westwood. Will they conquer their putting problems and finally join golf’s most prestigious club?

How about players who finished strong this season, like Alex Noren or Tyrell Hatton, who was 10th in the PGA Championship and a distant fifth in the Open Championship? Sounds ludicrous to suggest these two, but then not many would have picked Willett to slip on a green jacket in 2016.

• • •

Will Rory McIlroy add to his major tally?

By his own admission he was pretty disappointing in the majors this year. He surely can’t go through 2017 and not contend in the marquee events. He’d love to kick it off with victory at the Masters and complete the Grand Slam. Wouldn’t we love to see that happen?

• • •

What impact will the Rolex Series have on the European Tour?

Chief Executive Keith Pelley announced this new series of $7 million+ tournaments during the DP World Tour Championship, Dubai with the promise it would keep young players from jumping to the PGA Tour. Most players I spoke to said it would do no such thing but did say they would probably play in the tournaments.

More importantly, will the big names play in them? McIlroy said he wouldn’t be changing his schedule so he won’t play all seven of them.

Will the likes of Rose, Poulter, Luke Donald, Graeme McDowell or even the exiled Paul Casey come back from the PGA Tour to play in these events? It’s not going to look too good if Pelley can’t get the strongest possible fields.

• • •

Will the European Tour change its Ryder Cup qualification process?

My view is the captain should get to pick his entire team, not just three wild cards. I know, I know, that’s never going to happen, but the captain shouldn’t have to leave out form players like Casey and Russell Knox. It will be interesting to see if captain-in-waiting Thomas Bjorn decides to change the qualification system.

• • •

What will Pelley pull out of his hat next?

We’ve already had players being allowed to wear shorts in practice, a bit of night golf, the Rolex Series and even six-hole match play contests in the upcoming World Super 6 Perth. The Canadian is trying to inject a bit of vigor into the European Tour, and should be commended for trying. What he really needs, though, is more big money events in February, March and April to stop young players like Fitzpatrick, Lowry and Andrew “Beef” Johnston from jumping to the PGA Tour.

Rory McIlroy