Now that Corey Pavin has made his captain’s picks, here comes the hard part.
With apologies to those who got the “It’s not you, it’s me” call from U.S. Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin late Monday, the four wildcard picks were largely low-hanging fruit. “Away games” are mean, soul-searching affairs and the U.S. team room already had its quota of rookies.
If Rickie Fowler is an investment in the U.S. side’s future, Pavin’s other three picks are about the here and now. Tiger Woods, Zach Johnson and Stewart Cink have all weathered the unfriendly confines of overseas Ryder Cups, and when the phone calls had to be made, that mattered.
Now Pavin must play matchmaker if he has any chance to nix an overseas Cup drought that spans nearly two decades. The heroics of Valhalla aside, the last time an American team stole one on Continental turf was in 1993 at The Belfry.
That’s 17 years. Cicadas don’t simmer for that long.
To put the ’93 matches in perspective, Davis Love III, one of Pavin’s assistant captains this time around who is being groomed for his own turn in the big chair, was a Ryder Cup rookie and 51-year-old Raymond Floyd, a captain’s pick and the oldest competitor in match history, helped secure victory with an emotional singles win over José Maria Olazábal.
Outside of Wrigleyville, it may be sport’s most omnipresent schneid.
For those who base their concept of pressure on Saturday afternoons, Celtic Manor is akin to “The Swamp” or “Death Valley” in terms of what Pavin’s dozen can expect, and no one knows the rigors of the away game better than Woods.
Three of Woods’ five Ryder Cups have been played in front of hostile crowds and the American anchor has traditionally pulled the home team’s top player, which only serves to intensify the partisan atmosphere. He knows there’s only one way to survive the European punchbowl.
“You want to play well enough to make the crowd go quiet,” Woods said.
Johnson tried to hush the 13th man at the K Club but had little luck. In his defense Johnson had the misfortune of drawing Darren Clarke, the emotional core of the European team whose wife had recently passed away, in his Sunday singles match in 2006.
“I didn’t know what to expect and when I got to the first tee the crowd went bonkers,” said Johnson, a rookie in ’06 who lost to Clarke, 3 and 2. “When I handed him that putt on the 16th (hole) I got emotional for him. It stunk, I wanted to win the match but the golf gods were not on my side.”
The golf gods, to say nothing of Colin Montgomerie, will have similar options in Wales. Among Monty’s crowd pleasing options will be the all-Northern Irish duo of Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, the all-sibling tandem of Edoardo and Francesco Molinari, and the all-England choice of Lee Westwood, who is fresh from a calf injury and will likely play the role of on-course captain for the Euros.
Whether Pavin – whose style so far seems to be twofold: take few risks and say even less – burrows from 2008 captain Paul Azinger’s highly successful “pods” system or plods his own course remains to be seen, but his ability to mix and match his dozen, along with his group’s putting fortunes, will likely decide the outcome.
On Tuesday Pavin said, “nothing is set in stone” as far as possible pairings, but history suggests there are some combinations he’s already penciled into the lineup card.
The 1991 matches at Kiawah were the last time the U.S. won the foursomes frame, going 6-1 on the way to a rousing one-point victory, and the American side has a Mendoza Line-like record since then, going 4-10-4 in alternate shot the last two decades.
To stem that trend Pavin will send Woods and Steve Stricker out early and often. The duo swept foursomes and four-ball play last year at the Presidents Cup, going 2-0 in alternate shot.
A Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler marriage also seems in the cards. Lefty savors youthful projects, teaming well with Anthony Kim in 2008 at Valhalla, another energized cup rookie, and Sean O’Hair last year at Harding Park.
The options become less obvious after that, but Jim Furyk was undefeated in foursomes play in 2008 and would mesh well with the likes of a veteran such as Zach Johnson or Stewart Cink.
In this case less really is more. The danger of over thinking the pairings is what gave us that Woods-Mickelson 0-fer Friday experiment at the 2004 matches.
For Pavin, the heavy lifting has already been done by Azinger in 2008 and Freddie Couples last year at Harding Park. Whether he was paying attention remains to be seen.