European Ryder Cup race hots up in Paris
The 100th edition of the French Open gets underway on Thursday, holding far more significance than in previous years, but still without some of Europe's top players.
The tournament has double points on offer for Europe's Ryder Cup hopefuls, as well as counting as two events in the Race to Dubai, after the European Tour attempted to dissuade their biggest stars from ignoring the event in favour of the WGC Bridgestone Invitational in the United States.
Four-time major winner Rory McIlroy answered the call, as did Masters champion Danny Willett, but a host of the continent's biggest stars decided to stay away.
The ramifications for Europe captain Darren Clarke and his Ryder Cup selection could prove vital, as he may have to use a wildcard pick on a player who would otherwise have qualified for the team to play at Hazeltine in September automatically.
Having said that, six of the nine players who currently occupy automatic spots will be taking part at Le Golf National in Paris, with Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose the absentees, although all three look set to make the Ryder Cup team anyway.
England's Lee Westwood is well-placed to jump into one of those nine places with a good performance in continental Europe's oldest national open.
The 43-year-old collapsed in the final round of the US Open at Oakmont, but has been in fine form since finishing as runner-up to Willett at Augusta National in April.
"Historically, I've always played the French Open," said Westwood, who has won more European Tour titles than anyone else in the field.
"I'm feeling much more comfortable and I start to feel like I can contend week in, week out. Since the Masters I have been up there on the leaderboard in Ireland, and would have finished fifth with a four on the last instead of a six."
Willett missed the cut at the BMW International Open in Germany last week, but after a hectic few weeks the Englishman is confident that he can turn that disappointment into a positive.
"It's been a while since I had the weekend off, but maybe it's what I needed after a long stretch," he said.
"Some people say I've had a bit of a dip since the Masters, but it depends what you class a lull as. The US Open was tough, but I finished third at Wentworth and was leading in Ireland until the last day, so it hasn't been too bad.
"I guess I'm judged by different standards after Augusta, but I'll have to get used to that."
- Troon places up for grabs -
Austrian Bernd Wiesberger is the defending champion, after taking over from 2013 and 2014 winner Graeme McDowell with a three-stroke victory 12 months ago.
The top four players in the top 12 who are yet to qualify for next month's British Open will receive invites to Royal Troon, adding to the intrigue.
The reason that this tournament clashed with the Bridgestone Invitational, which is usually dual-sanctioned by the European Tour, is because the Firestone event had to move from its usual spot between the British Open and the USPGA Championship to accommodate golf's return to the Olympics.
The competition in Rio has been hit by a series of withdrawals, including McIlroy, and on Tuesday world number one Jason Day and Shane Lowry pulled out because of fears over the Zika virus.
Irishman Lowry has also decided to skip the French Open in favour of defending his Bridgestone title.
Despite the absences though, with eight major champions and four former world number ones going head-to-head on the 2018 Ryder Cup course, the centenary edition could prove to be one of the best.
© 2016 AFP