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Europeans suffer Ryder Cup quandary

The Masters is on their minds, and understandably so. It is just three weeks from the year's first major, typically the most anticipated of the four, the long period since the last one the basis of anticipation.

But the Ryder Cup, especially in Europe, is never far from thought, either, and the majors typically have a way of helping sort out the madness.

A quick glance at the current standings shows some pretty high-profile European Tour players are bound to be left off the squad that will face the Americans in September.

"With the depth we've got now, it is going to take a lot of good play, especially in the majors and the world events," said England's Paul Casey, who didn't make the 2010 European team and was not picked by captain Colin Montgomerie despite status as a top-10 player in the world. "There are a lot of great players, and there is just incredible strength."

The core of the European team that defeated the Americans by a single point two years ago at Celtic Manor will likely remain intact with Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer leading the way. They are the top four ranked players in the world.

Justin Rose put himself in good position with his victory at the WGC-Cadillac Championship, and Sergio Garcia has surged up both the European points and world lists after two late victories in 2011.

But several highly ranked players find themselves on the outside looking in at this point. Casey is ranked 27th in the world, Ian Poulter is 29th and Robert Karlsson 31st, and they would be in need of a captain's pick -- again, we're way early on this -- if the race ended today. Padraig Harrington, a six-time team member, is well out of the running, as his world ranking has slipped. Same for reigning British Open champion Darren Clarke.

Two members of the 2010 team -- brothers Francesco and Edoardo Molinari -- are also well outside the top 10. Same for Miguel Angel Jimenez.

Graeme McDowell, the hero from 2010 who clinched the winning point for the Europeans, is holding down the last spot at the moment -- which is somewhat surprising when you consider that he is ranked 17th in the world.

"There are probably 20 guys vying for those 12 spots," McDowell said. "The European team is going to be seriously strong, we've got Sergio playing well, a number of great players.

"My schedule this year was all about picking up some Ryder Cup points. If you get too disconnected from the automatic spots, you've got a huge task on your hands. I'm not playing in Europe much in the first five months, and when I go back, I don't want to have too much catching up to do."

Europe made changes to its selection process this year, reversing the order of how it picks the automatic qualifiers.

The first five team members will be chosen from the European points list, which is compiled based on money earned in European Tour events starting this past Sept. 1. Right now, the top five on that list are McIlroy, Kaymer, Peter Hanson, Rose and Paul Lawrie.

The next five come from a world points list. This is not to be confused with the world rankings. A player's world ranking points earned from Sept. 1 on are used to compile this list. Right now, the top five are Westwood, Donald, Garcia, Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and McDowell.

In another change, captain Jose Maria Olazabal elected to go with just two at-large selections rather than the three Montgomerie had in 2010. (U.S. captain Davis Love will have four at-large picks; the eight automatic U.S. qualifiers are determined based on money earned on the PGA Tour through the PGA Championship.) The European team will be decided following the Johnnie Walker Championship in late August.

"For anybody to be in those top 10 spots, they will have to play really well during the season from September to September," Olazabal said. "So I think those guys deserve to be in the team, if they are in those top 10 spots. And I think two picks is good enough in the sense that you might have a scenario like we have at the moment with Paul Casey being injured [the Transitions Championship is just his second tournament of the year due to a shoulder injury], and if [he] gets his game back, he might be OK to be in the team.

"You have to look for those scenarios where you might have players that maybe are not playing well early in the season and then they get hot, like it happened to Edoardo [Molinari in 2010] who just made the team just coming from the Challenge Tour. So I think those couple of spots are plenty."

But to show how competitive the situation is, the Europeans have 19 players among the top 50 in the world. (The Americans also have 19.)

"I couldn't complain last time around," said Rose, who failed to gain a captain's pick despite winning twice on the PGA Tour in 2010. "You make the team or you don't; and if you don't make the team, you're in someone else's hands and that's never a good place to be. So certainly want to make the team by my own right. I've got some work ahead of me still but I've had a great start to the campaign."

Rose and Casey were left off the team two years ago; Donald and Harrington were selected, along with Edoardo Molinari, who won the last qualifying event.

This time, it's difficult to imagine Donald -- who was No. 1 in the world for nine months -- not making the team on his own. Same for Rose, who is well up both lists.

"There was a big fight between myself, Padraig, Casey, Justin, and that's a good problem for a captain to have, when they have a lot of people to choose from and there's people fighting to get on the team," Donald said. "Obviously I think there will be another close contest, as it always is."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.