Henrik Stenson has been told he must choose between the Saudis’ Super Golf League and the Europe Ryder Cup team if he wants to become his continent’s next captain.
Stenson, 45, is considered the leading contender to replace Padraig Harrington in what is emerging as a three-horse race.
While there have been discussions over reappointing Thomas Bjorn, the victorious 2018 captain, in response to the record defeat in Wisconsin four months ago, it is understood that the role now lies between Stenson, Luke Donald and Robert Karlsson.
Normally, the decision by the selection panel – which includes the three most recent Europe captains – would be made this week in Abu Dhabi, but sources have revealed that the decision will be delayed until late next month.
A main factor in this apparent procrastination – you have to go back almost 20 years to when the unveiling will have been so late – is the ongoing review by Ryder Cup director Guy Kinnings in the wake of the 19-9 humbling at Whistling Straits, America’s biggest win yet.
However, the spectre of the Saudi Arabia public investment fund and the mooted formation of a global tour to lure big names from the two main circuits, the PGA Tour and the recently renamed DP World Tour, hangs over the sport and, indeed, over this candidacy race.
Stenson, the 2016 Open champion, has a contract with the Saudi International and will again be paid six figures to appear in the Asian Tour event next month. Wentworth HQ is reluctantly allowing players to take centre stage at King Abdullah Economic City. It is what happens next that will be crucial.
After months, if not years of speculation, the Saudis are finally expected to launch their Super Golf League, with all eyes on the heavyweights receiving seven-figure sums. Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods have already expressed their intention to remain loyal to the traditional tours, both of which have warned would-be rebels that they will face lifetime bans should they accept the sheikhs’ millions.
Along with Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau, Stenson has been linked with the SGL, with reports indicating he has been offered $30 million. So will he opt for the Saudi gold or the blue and gold? “It is a heck of a decision,” an inner member of Stenson’s coterie said. “It’s complicated not only by the huge amounts on offer.
“This [captaincy] could be his one and only chance with so many big Europe figures about to come into the picture for future matches. But then, it’s far from guaranteed he will get it this time anyway, with Luke obviously having a strong shout and the case for Karlsson seemingly strengthening by the day.”
Donald has acted as a vice-captain in the past two matches, and as a player was in four winning teams. But his chances may be weakened by the fact it would mean four Great Britain and Ireland captains from the last five editions.
Yet more than this there is a growing sense within the tour that the captaincy should not simply go to the next legend on the rank, but to the most qualified candidate, as Paul McGinley was in 2014. Karlsson is being cast in the same light, with the 52-year-old Swede apparently mightily impressive in his two vice-captain stints.