Paul Dunne got an early birthday present from European Ryder Cup skipper Thomas Bjorn when he was named in the EurAsia Cup team in Hong Kong today.
While a win in the $2 million UBS Hong Kong Open on Sunday would be the perfect way to celebrate his 25th, the Greystones star was eventually an automatic qualifier for the 12-man team that will defend the EurAsia Cup presented by DRB-HICOM at Glenmarie Golf and Country Club in Kuala Lumpur from January 10-12.
With Justin Rose, Jon Rahm, Sergio Garcia, Rory McIlroy and Francesco Molinari unavailable, Bjorn's top 10 available players from the final Race to Dubai standings were Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton, Ross Fisher, Rafa Cabrera Bello, Alex Noren, Matt Fitzpatrick, Bernd Wiesberger, Henrik Stenson, Dunne and Thomas Pieters.
The Dane then added England's Paul Casey and Frenchman Alexander Levy as his two wildcards with Shane Lowry, a EurAsia Cup player in 2016, not making the trip this time.
“The interest from the players has been very strong and you can see that from the fact that the ten automatic qualifiers come from within the top 20 of the final Race to Dubai Rankings," Bjorn said. "That is a good indication of what the EurAsia Cup is becoming, and I think European golf is in a great place right now.
“I’m very encouraged by the make-up of the team and we are strong from 1 through to 12. I have some great experience in terms of six players who have experienced Ryder Cups, as well as the 2016 Open Champion in Henrik. But I also have some exciting young talent led by Tommy and Tyrrell.
“Obviously Tommy has had an amazing year and deserved to be crowned European Tour Number One last weekend. But Tyrrell has also had a great season, the highlights of which were his back-to-back wins in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and the Italian Open last month.
“As captain, I am looking forward to seeing how all 12 deliver on this particular stage. It's a different kind of format to what they are used to week‑in, week‑out, so it will be interesting to see how they react to that environment.
“It’s a great honour for me to be captain and I’m looking forward to going to Malaysia in January to face what I know will be a very strong Asian team. We want to win the EurAsia Cup again and I believe we are going with a team very capable of doing that.”
Captain Bjørn also expanded on the reasons behind choosing Paul Casey and Alex Levy as his two wildcard selections.
“It was a really hard task because there are so many good European players to choose from,” said the Dane. “All have legitimate claims and all are well qualified to be on this team, so it was a tough choice to have to make. But in the end, I went for Paul and Alex.
“Once Paul announced he was rejoining the European Tour, and therefore making himself available for selection, that decision was a no-brainer for me. He is a wonderful player with a lot of experience and I think the young guys can learn a lot from him.
“He's also got a fantastic match play record and not just in Ryder Cups. He is comfortable with where he is in his life right now and him wanting to part of the EurAsia Cup team also shows his commitment to the European Tour and the road he is now on.
“Following on from that, I picked Alex as he is a player that has impressively risen through the ranks in the past few years. He has wonderful French character and flair as well as a lot of attitude and passion for the game. He is also very consistent which can be a great asset in match play.
“I have assembled a team which will hopefully go out and retain the EurAsia Cup, but I also have one eye on next September and selecting Alex will give him a feeling of being part of what a team event feels like, as I know it's very much on his mind to try and make The Ryder Cup Team.
“Therefore, to get him into the fold, help him develop, and give him great opportunities for the future is important. But this is also deserved for what he's delivered over the past couple of years. He got very close to qualifying for the team automatically and I think he definitely deserves his chance.”
The biennial event traditionally gives the European captain a chance to see some potential Ryder Cup rookies in matchplay combat, and Dunne is unquestionably one of Europe's rising stars.
Now 77th in the world, Dunne's three-stroke win over McIlroy in last month's British Masters marks him out as a potential debutant at Le Golf National in Paris next year.
"The season has been fantastic, getting my first win was a big step and gives me a lot of confidence in my ability to close going forward," said Dunne, who is currently fifth in the European Ryder Cup rankings.
"It has been a year where I have achieved what I wanted and more but still feel there is more in there. It's a great building block, opening doors moving forward."
There’s an eternity to go before the team for Paris is settled but Dunne can improve his chances by moving closer to his goal of breaking into the world’s top 50 with a win in Hong Kong.
A second win of the year would mean beating the likes of Race to Dubai winner Tommy Fleetwood or Ryder Cup players Rose, Garcia or Rafa Cabrera Bello.
And given the emotional highs and lows they went through in Dubai, Rose and Fleetwood may find it hard to get up for another fight.
Dunne should be highly motivated to finish the year on a high, and while he’s already in next year's World Golf Championships and The Open thanks to his Race to Dubai finish, he will be keen to move even closer to the world's top 50.
Irish golf already has two Hong Kong winners in Pádraig Harrington (2004) and Rory McIlroy (2011).
And Dunne could not have a better draw as he bids to join that exclusive club as he tees it up with four-time champion Miguel Ángel Jiménez and Thailand’s Kiradech Aphibarnrat, who was joint second with Shane Lowry in Dubai last Sunday.
As new European number one Fleetwood pointed out, winning in Hong Kong is all about strategy and control and Dunne has the short game to make hay.
"You're never going to overpower it," said Fleetwood who began his triumphant 2017 campaign with a third-place finish in Fanling last year.
"You need to position your golf ball. There's a few players that have done well here, I think Miguel is a perfect example – he's dialled-in and he knows his game."
As some of Bjorn's potential Ryder Cup stars do battle in Hong Kong, world number two Jordan Spieth defends his Emirates Australian Open title at The Australian Golf Club in Sydney.
The American must win to keep alive his hopes of ending the year as world No 1. And he will have to do it with his coach Cameron McCormick on his bag as regular caddie Michael Grellar has just become the father of a baby boy.
"Cam’s more ‘just shut up and hit it, quit taking so long’,’" said Spieth, who will be keeping a weather-eye open for Australian rival Jason Day.
“He’s more (about) reaction, pick the club. I’m not sure yet. It’ll be fun talking through clubs with him.
"Cam has the highest golf IQ of anyone I’ve ever talked to. I’ve learned so much from him in the last 10 years, 11 years."