Europe vs. United States battle at 2018 Ryder Cup crucial for European Tour

WENTWORTH, U.K. -- Padraig Harrington gets it. He understands that the 2018 Ryder Cup is both trivial and also fundamental for European golf; a rich combination of the absurd and the significant.

A paradox? Oh, without doubt. A huge one, as big as the Eiffel Tower, which will be used as a backdrop to this year's match in Paris and, to hijack another tourist attraction, as complex and ambiguous as the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles.

After his opening round in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth last week the Irishman was asked what he brings to the team as a vice-captain. His eyes sparkled and he grinned, the smile of a man amused on more than one level.

"Well, I think maybe I see the bigger picture," he said. "I'm not the type who makes much noise or anything like that. I like to stay at the back and maybe think a few things through."

The bigger picture. He was alluding to what will happen in the heat of battle, but it's a phrase that resonates with reference to Europe's relationship with the Ryder Cup because, make no mistake about it, members know how essential the match is to the well-being of the European Tour.

Back in 1981 it was struggling to find a sponsor. Two of the best offers were £80,000 of cigarette coupons or £100,000 of Green Shield stamps; today the event is grandiose enough to claim itself among the top five most-watched sporting events on the planet.

It is an unfathomable leap and with it comes a responsibility. The match needs to remain a corporate favourite; hosting it once every four years bankrolls the Tour; the team's players are therefore representing not only themselves and their teammates, not only their countries and their continent, but also their Tour, their fellow Tour members, their colleagues and their future.

That's the bigger picture and it is why Harrington added, this time with steely eyes: "We need to stop the American momentum. We need to win it back."

Pressed to speculate on stepping up to the captaincy in 2020, Harrington cut in quickly. "I'm not concerned with the future, I'm only concerned with this year," he said, and then repeated: "We need to win it back."

What of Ryder Cup trivia? Of the endless questions concerning who will make the team? Harrington was asked if he thought compatriots Shane Lowry and Paul Dunne could earn selection and it was at this point his ability to see the bigger picture took on another hue.

"Between myself and [fellow vice-captain] Graeme McDowell I'd say we've the ability to block vote," he deadpanned. "There are four captain's picks in theory, but I'd be saying there's just the two because Shane and Paul have got two of them locked in thanks to us. We'll be making sure, don't be worrying about that."

Classic Harrington, gently mocking our love of Ryder Cup conjecture, tickled at the opportunity to fan the flames. Not that the fire ever needs much encouragement.

The Americans are feared, not least because the modern generation has a fraternal sense that hints at stronger unity than in the past. They also boast recent major triumphs, but the Wentworth vibes were bullish with four months to go.

Fans, journalists, commentators, ex-pros, caddies; they all agree on eight. A core of Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia looks assured. The trio of Jon Rahm, Alex Noren and Tommy Fleetwood might be rookies but have all excelled on the world stage in the last 18 months. Paul Casey and Henrik Stenson need to move through the gears, but if they do so their ticket to Paris will be assured.

Ian Poulter was straightforward when asked about his recent form boost. "Hard work, determination and Ryder Cup," he said. He was vice captain last time and it proved motivational. "There's nothing like playing," he said. "And this team is shaping up quite nicely."

If those nine make it, there are three spots up for grabs. Tyrrell Hatton leads the points race but has hit a form a slump. Matthew Fitzpatrick might be heading in the opposite direction.

Francesco Molinari, a three-time runner-up at the host course Le Golf National, revived his own hopes with the win last week and then revealed he had not looked at the points list. Not because he was unconcerned, but because he was: He knew he was struggling and "it's not nice to see you're so far back".

The giddiness of the what-if game is such that even when 21-year-old English rookie Sam Horsfield completed a second round 68 to lie second on Friday he was asked, in connection with his American accent (his family moved to Florida when he was five) and in spite of the fact he's only ever made two top tens on the European Tour, if he's had any doubts about who he'd represent in the Ryder Cup.

"Oh no," he said without hesitation. "Absolutely not. No way." In one sense, as a protege of Ian Poulter, he'd never say anything else. In another it demonstrated again what the match means to European golfers. It's the marrow in their bones.

Perhaps the golfer with the toughest task this summer is Alex Levy, the man most likely to fly the French tricolor in September. The 27-year-old is a five-time winner on the European Tour who re-committed to the game last year, almost as if those victories had taken even himself by surprise. He started working with Pete Cowen on his swing and Phil Kenyon for his putting.

"I had two reasons to train harder," he explained. "One, because I want to improve as a player and I want to climb the world rankings. And two, yes, okay, for the Ryder Cup."

Levy is a hugely engaging performer. He plays with a broad smile and a roguish swagger, which makes it easy to assume he is fearless and yet when interviewed he often talks of lacking confidence. The reluctant introduction of the big match is an echo of this. He is wary of carrying the weight of personal, let alone national, expectations.

"I think maybe I have to accept that it is a good thing to be asked," he said. "If I get the questions it is because people believe I am good enough."

Cowen believes he is and so do many others. There is also a sense that we'd like him to be there for what he offers as a character as much as a golfer. The key is that he performs in the Rolex Series events and the majors. He is currently 13th on the points list so perhaps his doubts are also realistic: He has much to do.

French involvement in the team is assured however. Captain Thomas Bjorn did not turn to a local when announcing his vice-captains (Lee Westwood and Luke Donald join Robert Karlsson, Harrington and McDowell in those roles), but the French press are aware that Gregory Havret and Raphael Jacquelin will undertake a lesser role.

It's a smart move. They will be the go-to men who will help the locals appreciate the enormity of what they are hosting and ensure smooth passage for the team. Another paradox but one Bjorn is alive to: The details that matter when completing the bigger picture.