Stat attack!: Ryder Cup preview

By John AntoniniSeptember 23, 2014, 4:05 pm

Pundits from Ladbrokes to Las Vegas are pegging the European Team as a solid favorite in this week’s Ryder Cup at Gleneagles in Scotland, and have offered several reasons for such a proclamation. The U.S. doesn’t have Tiger Woods. The Europeans have Ian Poulter. The Europeans are playing at home. Half of the American team has appeared in one or fewer Ryder Cups.

They’re all solid reasons for a broad statement on who will win, but which team is really the stronger team? Let’s try to find out.

Tale of the tape 1: World ranking

 U.S.   Europe
 4 Players in top 10 in world ranking 4
 9 Players in top 25 in world ranking 8
 16.33 Average world ranking  19.92
 196 Cumulative world ranking  239
 2,337.88 Cumulative ranking points in 2014 2,158.48

The U.S. team as a whole ranks slightly better than their counterparts. The Americans have an average rank of 16.33, with no player lower than 33rd (Webb Simpson). The Europeans, meanwhile, have an average rank of 19.92 as three players (Stephen Gallacher-34, Ian Poulter-38 and Lee Westwood-44) rank lower than the lowest-ranked American.

The American team has gained slightly more points on the world ranking in 2014 (a number that’s weighted with recent events carrying more value).

Most world ranking points gained in 2014 among Ryder Cup players

 Player Team Points gained
 Rory McIlroy Europe 521.80
 Bubba Watson U.S. 321.71
 Sergio Garcia Europe 281.00
 Jim Furyk U.S. 280.17
 Rickie Fowler U.S. 267.89
 Martin Kaymer U.S. 231.51

Fewest world ranking points gained in 2014 among Ryder Cup players

 Player Team Points gained
 Ian Poulter Europe 45.99
 Thomas Bjorn Europe 87.21
 Webb Simpson U.S. 95.69
 Lee Westwood Europe 95.80
 Victor Dubuisson Europe 111.71
 Jamie Donaldson Europe 124.27

Tale of the tape 2: 2014 victories and major performance

 U.S.   Europe
9 Combined worldwide wins in 2014 12
1 Combined major wins in 2014 3
15 Combined top-10s in majors in 2014 12

The Europeans outdistance the Americans in total wins in 2014, 12-9, a number that’s directly attributable to Rory McIlroy’s four victories. However, a closer look at the American tally show there hasn’t been many of recent vintage. Hunter Mahan is the only U.S. player with a victory in the last five months.

Wins in 2014 by U.S. Ryder Cup members

 Player Victories
 Zach Johnson Hyundai Tournament of Champions
 Matt Kuchar RBC Heritage
 Hunter Mahan The Barclays
 Patrick Reed Humana Challenge, WGC-Cadillac Championship
 Jimmy Walker Sony Open, AT&T Pebble Beach
 Bubba Watson Northern Trust Open, Masters

Only two of the Europe's 12 wins came before the Masters, with McIlroy, Justin Rose, Martin  Kaymer and Graeme McDowell combining for nine wins since the Players. Overall, eight Europeans and six Americans have victories in 2014.

This is the first time since 1999 that all four reigning major champions (Bubba Watson, Martin Kaymer and Rory McIlroy) will appear in that year’s Ryder Cup. The 1999 group included Jose Maria Olazabal, Payne Stewart, Paul Lawrie and Tiger Woods.

Tale of the tape 3: Ryder Cup history

 U.S.   Europe
 29   31
 43-52-18   69-42-18
 17-19-6   25-15-8
 16-17-9   27-15-8
 10-16-3   17-12-2

In individual matches, the Europeans have the edge in every game. Although the U.S. record in fourball and foursomes isn’t horrendous, this group of Europeans is above average in both specialties. In singles, it’s not even close. Only three American players (Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk and Zach Johnson) have a singles victory. Every European player who has previously appeared in the Ryder Cup has won a singles match.

Mickelson and Furyk have combined for 17 of the American’s 29 previous appearances. They’ve only won twice each, as part of the U.S. wins at Brookline in 1999 and Valhalla in 2008. Neither played in 1993, the last time the American’s won in Europe, when the Tom Watson-captained team took a 15-13 win at The Belfry.

However, if you remove Mickelson and Furyk, the American combined match record is a very respectable 20-17-8. They’re likely to play well in the team matches. Will they stumble on Sunday, as they did in 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2012? That’s the million-dollar question.

The U.S. Ryder Cup team


He was 3-0 while teamed with Mickelson in 2012
He beat Poulter and Garcia en route to a third-place finish in the 2014 WGC-Match Play
In seven Ryder Cups, the only time Furyk had a winning record was 2008 (2-1-1)
At 6-4-1, he’s the only U.S. player with a winning Cup record in at least 10 matches since 2002
He’s unbeaten in fourball (2-0-2), but he’s never teamed with a member of the current U.S. squad
Mahan’s 17-6 mark in the WGC-Match Play includes a 3-3 record against players on Europe’s Ryder Cup team
Since 2002, he’s 6-5-3 when teamed with a Cup rookie, 1-5-1 in other team matches
Brash and confident as his “top-five player” comment attests, he’d make a good foil for the equally cocky Poulter
He Mutt-and-Jeff’ed with Watson for a pair of fourball wins in 2012 at Medinah
He was 6-0-0 in two Junior Ryder Cups and 2-0-1 in the 2011 Walker Cup
He’d make a nice team with Fowler, the only players with top 10s in all three U.S. majors in 2014
He’s 5-2 overall with Simpson, including a 3-1 mark in last year’s Presidents Cup

The European Ryder Cup team

He’s making his return to the Cup for the first time since 2002. Garcia, Westwood and Captain McGinley were among his teammates
He enters the Ryder Cup on a high note, with a T-4 at last week’s Handa Wales Open
His incredible WGC-Match Play run included a 1-up win over Watson in the third round
At 39, he’s the oldest rookie in the matches, about one year older than the 38-year-old Donaldson
He’s 8-2-1 in foursomes, but only 2-4-0 in singles. Plus, he’s lost to Fowler and Kuchar in the last two WGC-Match Play’s
Since 1990, the only players to win the U.S. Open and a Ryder Cup single match in the same year are McDowell (2010) and Pavin (1995) 
His only partner in 2010 and 2012 was McIlroy. They have a 2-3-1 overall record
As the reigning PGA champ in 2012 he beat 2011 PGA winner Keegan Bradley in singles
His 12-3-0 record gives him the best winning percentage (80%) in European history (minimum three matches)
He’s 2-0 in singles, with both wins coming over Mickelson (1 up in 2012, 3 and 2 in 2008)
He returns to the Cup for the first time since 2008. He clinched the 2006 Cup for Europe with a win over Vaughn Taylor
With 21 points won, he’s fifth on Europe’s all-time list behind Faldo, Langer, Monty and Ballesteros

One final thought: Perhaps Europe’s biggest secret weapon is its captain. Paul McGinley has represented Europe or GB&I in a professional team competition 12 times as a captain, assistant captain or player. His team has a record of 11-1 in those events. The only loss came at the 2009 Royal Trophy. Europe won all three Ryder Cup’s in which McGinley appeared. He was an assistant captain in 2010 and 2012, both won by Europe. 

If you haven't already done so, please follow me on Twitter at @johnantoninigc

Getty Images

McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

Getty Images

Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

Getty Images

Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

Getty Images

McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.