Europe's Ryder Cup stars outplaying U.S. counterparts early in season
Ryan Young / US PGA TOUR / Getty

Paul Casey had ascended to the top 10 in the world in 2010, peaking at No. 3 - but Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie overlooked the Englishman as a captain's pick for that year's matches, as Casey didn't earn enough points and make the team on merit.

Casey, 40, hasn't played the biennial matches since. He rescinded his European Tour membership - making him ineligible - but this year he's had a change of heart and is eager to represent his side of the Atlantic once again.

And after Sunday’s dramatic victory on the PGA Tour, it looks like Casey - along with many on Europe's Ryder Cup side - are rounding into form as things ramp up to this year's competition at Le Golf National, just outside Paris.

Casey fired a 6-under-par 65 Sunday to steal a victory at the Valspar Championship, needing only 21 putts (the fewest by a PGA Tour winner in 18 years) in the final round. He moved to 12th in the Official World Golf Ranking after his victory, and one look at both the leaderboard from last week and golfers around him on the world ranking list shows that although the American side is coming off a trouncing at the 2016 Ryder Cup - and boasts a team chock-full of some of the world's best - the European side won't be going down without a fight this year.

In the top five at the Valspar Championship included Ryder Cup stalwarts Sergio Garcia (fourth) and Justin Rose (T5). This comes just a week after Spaniard Rafa Cabrera Bello tied for third at the WGC-Mexico Championship with Englishman Tyrell Hatton. Garcia, Casey, Sweden's Alex Noren, and Englishman Tommy Fleetwood also notched top-15 finishes.

The Official World Golf Ranking has Spain's Jon Rahm at No. 3 and countryman Garcia at No. 9, while Fleetwood, Casey, Rory McIlory, and Hatton are at No's 11-15.

Ah yes, McIlroy.

We've made it six paragraphs into a story about the European Ryder Cup team and haven't mentioned the four-time major winner, and arguably the biggest emotional shot-in-the-arm on the losing 2016 team.

Although McIlroy hasn't found the winner's circle on any tour since 2016, he will be the leader of this team and as McIlroy goes, so goes the European team.

With the Ulsterman having embraced the leadership role as he bridges the gap between the old guard of Rose, Garcia, British Open Champion Henrik Stenson from Sweden, and even Casey, along with the younger generation, this is why the team could stand up nicely to the American side that is going through a full-on generational shift.

Current Ryder Cup Standings

USA Europe
Justin Thomas Tyrell Hatton
Dustin Johnson Justin Rose
Brooks Koepka Ross Fisher
Phil Mickelson Matthew Fitzpatrick
Jordan Spieth Jon Rahm
Matt Kuchar Tommy Fleetwood
Brian Harman Sergio Garcia
Patrick Reed Rafa Cabrera Bello

Europe will have four golfers from a "European" points list combined with four from a "World" points list, plus four captain's picks. The American side will have eight golfers via an ongoing points list, plus four captain's picks.

There are some rookies sprinkled throughout both sides, and there are some veterans on the outside looking in that would be in need of a pick - also on both sides - but if the last two weeks on the world's biggest stage are any indication, the European side is eager to retain the cup once again after having held onto it for eight out of the last 11 contests.

Casey is now right on the cusp of making the team on merit, and said captain Thomas Bjorn already texted him after his victory with some words of encouragement to get over the hump. A little further down the list on the European side includes two-time major winner Martin Kaymer, as well as Ian Poulter and Thomas Pieters, the latter of which earned the most points of a Ryder Cup rookie in history in 2016 and a player whom McIlroy called a "stud."

Casey said Sunday one of the biggest inspirations for him is the opportunity to compete against the next wave of stars.

"It's becoming a young man's sport and so it's very rewarding to be able to go up against the young guys and still beat them and still compete with them," said Casey. "It's one of the reasons I want to play a Ryder Cup ... I want to play against a different generation."

Whatever the inspiration, given the play from the European side's big names of late along with the assumed success of the American side - driven by Justin Thomas' two, almost three wins this season, Dustin Johnson with a stranglehold on world No. 1, and the chance for Tiger Woods and Mickelson to re-live some past glory - we could be on track for a Ryder Cup for the ages.

Adam Stanley has written about golf since 2011 for PGATOUR.com, LPGA.com, and the Canadian Press, among other organizations. He is a frequent contributor to The Globe and Mail and is a graduate of Carleton University's School of Journalism. Find him on Twitter @adam_stanley.

Comments
Europe's Ryder Cup stars outplaying U.S. counterparts early in season
  Got something to say? Leave a comment below!
SEE MORE STORIES