Too Early to Panic


Matteo Manessero moved up to No. 33 in the world ranking after his victory in Malaysia on Sunday – which came two days prior to his 18th birthday.

Let’s put aside for a second how precocious a talent Manassero is and consider that he is now the 13th highest ranked European in the world. If the 2012 Ryder Cup team were selected today based on the rankings, Manassero wouldn’t make the team.

That’s a little bit scary if you are U.S. captain Davis Love III. Even scarier: By the time The Ryder Cup rolls around 18 months from now you can almost bet that Manassero will be on Jose Maria Olazabal’s team. In all likelihood so will six of the current top-8 in the world. And most of them should be on an upward curve since many are not yet 30.

“We’re going to have the home court advantage at Medinah,” Love said recently. “And we’re going to need every last bit of it.”

Even if one looks at the rankings as flawed, they do present a decent barometer of where the power has swung in world golf. It is NOT in the direction of the United States. Oh sure, nine of the world’s top 30 are still Americans but three of them – Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk – have passed their 40th birthday and one of them, Tiger Woods, is an old 35 based on all that has happened in his life.

Among the 13 Euros in the top 33 only one – Miguel Angel Jimenez is over 40 and if he is on the next Ryder Cup team it will probably be because Olazabal wants one wise old head among all the youngsters. Most of the Euros are in their 20s and early 30s. About the only ones not likely to be better players at the end of 2012 than they are right now are Lee Westwood and Padraig Harrington.

That’s not to say the U.S. isn’t without gifted young players. Dustin Johnson, Nick Watney, Hunter Mahan and Rickie Fowler have great potential and none of them are 30. But the Euros can answer with Martin Kaymer (who has already won a major and been ranked No. 1) Rory McIlroy, Alvaro Quiros, Francesco Molinari, Martin Laird and Manassero – none of who are close to 30. That doesn’t count recently turned 30 types like U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, Luke Donald, Paul Casey, Justin Rose, Ian Poulter and Eduardo Molinari.

What this represents is a sea change in the way we look at the Ryder Cup. For years, the Americans strength was depth: the feeling most years was that if the U.S. could get to Sunday singles within hailing distance of Europe, it would win. The notable exception to this rule was 1995 at Oak Hill when Europe came from behind to win on Sunday. More often than not though, U.S. victories have hinged on singles play, most notably in 1999 when Europe led 10-6 going into the singles and Ben Crenshaw’s team staged its rally to come from way behind and win. Love still remembers that weekend vividly.

“I remember walking into our team room on Saturday night and Ben was on the TV screen pointing his finger at the media and saying, ‘I have a feeling about this team,’” Love said, laughing. “I turned to someone and said, ‘Did he just say he thinks we’re going to win?’”

Crenshaw said it and his players backed it up the next day but Love knows his team had better not dig too deep a hole because there aren’t likely to be a lot of singles matches in which a U.S. player is an overwhelming favorite to win. Even in 2010, the U.S. won the singles matches 7-5. Europe’s victory was built during the rain-delayed final session of foursomes and four-balls when it built a 9 ½ - 6 ½ lead that the U.S. couldn’t overcome.

Four veteran players have been the heart of recent U.S. teams: Woods, Mickelson, Furyk and Stricker. All have had mixed results which is probably why Europe is 6-2 since Mickelson played his first Ryder Cup in 1995. Woods and Furyk followed two years later. Woods has only played on one winning team (1999) since he missed the matches in 2008 following his knee surgery.

It isn’t unfair to say those four are going to need considerable help from the younger U.S. players if Love’s team is going to win. What has to make Love nervous is seeing one young European player after another coming along who appears to be on a path to real stardom. As a golf fan, Love appreciates just how talented the kiddie corps are and what their potential is to do good for the game.

As the U.S. Ryder Cup captain seeing them up close right now may be costing him a fair amount of sleep.