GLENEAGLES, Scotland – On this the wise guys seem to have a consensus – the U.S. Ryder Cup team is a distinct underdog in this week’s matches.
Just don’t tell any of the American players.
“I don’t see it that way,” Zach Johnson said. “In ’12 it was the other way around, with the U.S. team having the advantage, so it’s irrelevant.”
It was a common theme among the players who spoke to the media on Tuesday at Gleneagles. So much so, one could almost hear the affable Herm Edwards glaring down and explaining, “You play to win the game.”
While captain Tom Watson’s dozen may eschew the role of underdog, that doesn’t change the perception held by many on both sides of the transatlantic divide that a U.S. victory on Sunday would be a surprise.
While the line varies, bookmakers in the United Kingdom have the Europeans as clear 4-to-6 favorites. In fact, the odds for a one-point American triumph (12 to 1) are better than a three-point European victory (8 to 1).
But then the Europeans have come by their advantage honestly. The Continent has won seven of the last nine matches and the last time the American side won an away game (1993), half of the U.S. team was in elementary school.
There is also the issue that for the second time in seven years the American team is without this generation’s best player (Tiger Woods) and arguably the U.S. team’s most intimidating player (Dustin Johnson).
Conversely, the European team will be led by the current world No. 1 in Rory McIlroy and the winners of three of this season’s four major championships.
“The European team is loaded,” Watson conceded. “But when the matches start at 7:35 [a.m.] on Friday morning, there's going to be quality of play going on. We'll just see who wins.”
European captain Paul McGinley also surprised some American players when they showed up and thought Mike Davis had set up the course for this week’s matches, complete with 8-inch-deep rough and narrow fairways that looked more like a U.S. Open venue than one of the historic Open Championship rota layouts.
It may be the American national championship but the USGA philosophy seems to favor players from the Continent considering four of the last five U.S. Open winners are European.
With three days to go before play begins, the second-guessing has also started over Watson’s captain’s picks. While Hunter Mahan, Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson may have been inspired choices on Sept. 2, when Watson announced his selections, Billy Horschel’s magical FedEx Cup finish, not to mention Chris Kirk’s season, has stirred armchair captains everywhere.
Even Bubba Watson, who some have labeled the U.S. player with the biggest target on his back, has been scrutinized for his 3-5-0 Ryder Cup record, prompting a few to question if it should be the other Watson (Tom) hitting meaningful golf shots this week.
But if these 40th matches have the feel of a nine-point rout, like the 18 1/2-to-9 1/2 loss the U.S. suffered at The K Club in 2006, McGinley doesn’t see it.
“The bottom line is, this is a very, very strong American team,” he said. “The favorite tag or not favorite tag is irrelevant as far as I'm concerned. We're going to have to play really well to win this Ryder Cup. I certainly won't be underestimating this American team or Tom.”
And as underestimated teams always do, the U.S. side is viewing the perceived role as a slight, a bulletin board filled with reasons to prove those who see the actual play as a formality wrong.
“The underdog role is one that's kind of fun, to be honest with you. When I went up against Nick Faldo in my first Ryder Cup, there wasn't one person that expected me to beat Nick Faldo that day,” said Jim Furyk, who defeated Faldo in Sunday singles in 1997, 3 and 2. “The underdog role is great. You have everything to win and nothing to lose. I never really looked at it as an intimidation.”
On Tuesday, McGinley planned to have Sir Alex Ferguson, a former Manchester United manager, speak to his team. When asked if he planned to bring in an inspirational speaker this week Watson smiled, “I’ve already given them some talks.”
As a Plan B, Watson may want to track down Joe Namath to speak to his team this week because if the “paper” underdogs pull off a victory it may be the biggest upset since Broadway Joe led his New York Jets to the title at Super Bowl III.
Just don’t tell the American players.