Five predictions for the 2014 Ryder Cup

By Jason SobelSeptember 22, 2014, 7:30 pm

Last week, the PGA of America issued some propaganda that perfectly exemplified the recent struggles of the U.S. Ryder Cup team – even if it was clearly unintentional.

The organization began circulating movie-type posters featuring captain Tom Watson and the names of his assistants and 12-man roster, hailing them as "The Redeem Team."

Nice thought, but just like so many other well intentioned ideas for the team over the past decade-and-half, something was destined to go wrong.

And there it was, over in the bottom right corner of the poster. Continuing with the movie theme, the Ryder Cup team was rated "Extreme Drama" – and shortened to "ED."

All that was missing was a tagline: “If your match lasts longer than four hours, consult your physician.”

Here’s guessing the 65-year-old Watson didn’t get too excited about that one.

And here are five more bold predictions entering this year’s edition of the Ryder Cup.

Tiger Woods

1. Tiger Woods’ absence will mean the U.S. team wins – or maybe loses.

Those who regularly pray at the altar of Tiger Woods Is The Worst Person Ever have readily kept this statistic handy for daily message board comments in caps lock, oozing with vitriol: Since the turn of the century, the U.S. has only won one Ryder Cup – and that was the only one that didn’t include Woods.

The unsubtle points here? Tiger is a me-first guy who couldn’t care less about the team; he’d rather hang with his buddies in Europe’s team room; he chokes in big-time competitions and – quite possibly – he hates America.

Just because none of those things are true doesn’t keep people from using these assumptions to back their own story.

OK, so Tiger’s 13-17-3 overall record isn’t exactly the stuff of Billy Casper or Lanny Wadkins. You know who else has struggled for the U.S. side? Everybody. I suppose it’s human nature to want to place blame on a single individual for a culture of losing, but Tiger couldn’t have done this alone. This isn’t the NBA. His teammates can’t stand around setting picks and hope he puts up a ton of points and sinks the game-winner for good measure.

Woods won’t play this week. If the guys in red, white and blue rekindle the magic of 2008, it will once again send the truthers scurrying to their message boards to connect some dots that shouldn’t be connected. And if they lose again, he’ll somehow be blamed for returning from injury too soon during the summer, getting hurt again, taking himself out of consideration for the Ryder Cup and – yes – screwing over his country.

Talk about your lose-lose, huh?

The simple fact is, the U.S. team can win with Tiger or without him, and it can lose with or without him. That might not be enough of a scolding hot take in today’s sports parlance, but it’s the truth. His absence from this year’s festivities won’t mean the team will win any more than his presence would have meant it would lose. 

Ian Poulter

2. Ian Poulter’s eyes will remain inside his skull this time.

First things first: I’m of the belief that even if Poulter finished DFL at the Lake Nona member-member this summer, he locked up a spot on Europe’s team two years ago. No questions asked, no looking back.


I’m still having a hard time buying the narrative that just because Poulter looked like Seve Ballesteros’ spiky-haired second coming at Medinah, he’s going to replicate those magic moments at Gleneagles, too.

Poulter played as if he’d sold his soul to Samuel Ryder last time, his eyes bulging further out of his skull with each birdie celebration. But that doesn’t mean he’ll do it again. That doesn’t mean every putt will drop at this one. That doesn’t mean he’s automatic for five points.

It doesn’t mean anything, really.

What surprises me the most is that it seems like people are fully expecting this. Everyone appears so stuck on the idea that Poulter can simply show up at the Ryder Cup and dominate that they’re forgetting his only top-10s of the year have come in China and Memphis. They’re overlooking that he’s slipped so far in the world ranking that he’s behind Kevin Na. They’re thinking with their memories instead of applying the most logistical strategy possible to analyze upcoming competitions.

Past performance is rarely a predictor of future results.

Just think of the pressure Poulter will be under: He’s playing some of the worst golf of his professional career and he’s being expected to win every match he plays. That’s a dangerous combination. It’s also one that is easy to see not having a happy ending.

If that’s the case, expect the golf world to go into collective shock. When Poulter fails to make everything he looks at on the greens, when his previously bugged-out eyes are being rubbed in disbelief because the birdies are tougher to come by, everyone will insist they didn’t see it coming because it didn’t happen last time. That’s a poor excuse, though, for just failing to see what he’s been doing lately.

Patrick Reed

3. Patrick Reed is going to play better than everyone – except Reed – thinks

People can’t stand Reed. And when I say people, I mostly mean those who don’t know much about him and couldn’t pick him out of a lineup, but remember his “top-five” comment after winning at Doral and take personal offense to a golfer believing in his own abilities.

But there might be small factions of people who can’t stand Reed that also have to share a team room with him this week. It’s little secret that he isn’t exactly the most popular guy on Tour. As one player whispered recently, “The next time he eats with us in player dining will be the first time.”

Now, we can sit at the local 19th hole for hours and argue whether being an individualistic guy in an individual sport should really be perceived as a negative, but it’s pretty obvious that this is a player with a major chip on his shoulder who prides himself in proving people wrong.

Well, guess what? If I was building my very own successful Ryder Cup prototype, this exact personality trait might be the first thing I downloaded into the microchip in his cerebral cortex.

Reed is a fiery dude who will have absolutely no problem laughing when the European supporters cheer a poor shot and gesticulating toward them when he hits a good one. He’ll be unlike most competitors who have trouble removing the 51-weeks-a-year of “gentlemanliness” from their Ryder Cup emotions.

That won’t be a problem for Reed. He doesn’t care what people think of him. The irony of that mentality? Employing that exact approach to ruffle feathers and play great golf at Gleneagles might very well endear him to American fans who months ago wrote him off as a cocky kid who needs to know his place.

It will just go to prove that attitude is a wonderful thing to have – as long as it’s on your team.

Matt Kuchar and Lance Bennett

4. Lance Bennett will provide the U.S. team with an inspirational rallying cry.

Back in 2006, Darren Clarke served as the heart of the European side, earning three emotion-filled points in the wake of his wife’s death. Two years ago, captain Jose Maria Olazabal invoked the memory of Seve Ballesteros so often that he was in the forefront of each player’s thoughts throughout the week, both on and off the course.

A team doesn’t have to overcome death in order to claim victory, but it has proven to unify players in the team room, bringing a group of individuals closer together for the good of the cause.

Bennett, the longtime caddie for Matt Kuchar, will be making his return to the bag at Gleneagles. On Aug. 27, his wife, Angela, passed away suddenly. Since then, there’s been an outpouring of support – not only from his fellow loopers, but from players, as well.

That support certainly hasn’t been limited to players on this team and not even just Americans, but having Bennett around should provide an extra jolt of inspiration.

I know what you’re probably thinking: These guys shouldn’t need it. Competing for their country should be inspiration enough. They shouldn’t need the death of a caddie’s wife to make them hungrier to play inspired golf.

The whole situation is analogous to the “Think Globally, Act Locally” campaign. Players can’t see millions of Americans huddled around their TV screens rooting them on. They can’t tangibly feel how much this would mean to a nation that couldn’t care less how many Presidents Cup titles it’s won.

But they can look into Bennett’s eyes and understand what it would mean to him – and what it would mean to his family. There’s no telling the importance that type of impact that could have.

Many of the team’s caddies got together a few weeks ago in Denver. When the subject of Bennett came up, they all talked about wanting to carry him around on their shoulders after a U.S. victory. There’s little doubt some of the players would be right there with them, propping up a likeable man who could use a few smiles these days.

Ryder Cup

5. If you’re expecting a blowout, go watch the Presidents Cup.

Since these are bold predictions and the U.S. team is a lowly underdog and – full disclosure – I’m an American-born citizen, this is probably the part where I’m supposed to go full Lee Corso. You know, slip under the desk for a minute, and then emerge in patriotic regalia topped by an Uncle Sam chin beard and top hat while orchestrating the crowd into a hastily contrived version of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Not so fast, my friends.

Despite my birthplace allegiances, when it comes to international team competitions, I’m only a fan of the law of averages.

That’s why this missive from former assistant captain Paul Goydos, as part of his keynote address during the recent U.S. Senior Amateur and reported by Sports Illustrated’s Gary Van Sickle, rings so true.

“The Ryder Cup is basically a coin toss,” Goydos told the crowd. “If I tossed a coin 10 times and it came up heads seven times, I wouldn’t immediately think that coin is defective.”

This should come as good news to a U.S. roster which has been accused of being defective pretty frequently over the years.

And really, it’s being accused of this before the first shot is even struck this week. Phil Mickelson gave up on the FedEx Cup. Jim Furyk can’t close on Sundays. Hunter Mahan and Webb Simpson are no Billy Horschel and Chris Kirk. Pessimism has reigned supreme in recent weeks.

What I haven’t heard – and again, call it an American bias if you will – is similar worry over the state of the European team. Martin Kaymer has looked eminently mediocre since the U.S. Open. Lee Westwood has looked that way since the last Ryder Cup. Stephen Gallacher and Jamie Donaldson are unproven on this stage. Victor Dubuisson is a wildcard in every sense of the word.

So, why is Europe considered such a heavy favorite? Beats me. I think it’s some combination of the fact that Rory McIlroy looked unbeatable for a month, Ian Poulter and Sergio Garcia have looked unbeatable in this competition before, and they’re playing a home game.

But those things should hardly spell doom and gloom for their counterparts.

Think about it: For years, the American side was a prohibitive favorite “on paper” and yet those plucky Europeans would look like the dominant team once it started.

There are a few logical conclusions here. One is that it’s brutally difficult to play with a target on your back, especially on home turf. The other is that a coin which lands on heads seven times out of 10 is likely to come up tails at some point.

This will be that point.

Even though they’re not supposed to win, even though Europe is the favorite and the U.S. is without some prominent potential team members, even though pessimism has reigned throughout the 50 states, this column is about bold predictions, so here it comes:

The U.S. will win the Ryder Cup.

Somebody pass me that Uncle Sam top hat.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.