MEDINAH, Ill. – On paper this is a push.
Europe has the world No. 1 and the spirit of Seve Ballesteros. The American side has the world No. 2 and the friendly confines of Medinah. Man for man, team for team this Ryder Cup has no room for those who bet the chalk.
Maybe not since the late Ballesteros was in his prime has the biennial, cross-Atlantic grudge match been such a tossup, which would explain the 20,000-plus who flocked to this northwest Chicagoland suburb on Wednesday to watch 24 players practice.
“Both teams are just playing so well, it’s hard to figure out what you do,” U.S. captain Davis Love III conceded. “Why would you sit anybody out? They’re all playing great.”
This week’s buzz was eclipsed only by a palpable feeling of unease. The Europeans have owned this event, having won nine of the last 13 meetings. Just ask them, they will tell you.
“The Europeans since ’95 have been dominant in this competition,” said Justin Rose. A day later his likely partner when play gets underway early Friday Ian Poulter added, “We have been very dominant in the Ryder Cup over the last 10 years.”
Dominant, got it. In politics they call that staying on message, and, with apologies to those who bleed red, white and blue, perfectly justified.
It’s been more than a decade since the U.S. side won consecutive matches (1991-’93) and the American Triumvirate of Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk and Tiger Woods rank second, third and third, respectively, on the all-time matches-lost list.
When it comes to America’s Ryder Cup fortunes, as U2’s Bono once crooned, “throw a rock in the air, you’ll hit someone guilty.” For his part, however, Woods has owned, perhaps unjustly, America’s failures in the matches.
“In order to win cups, you have to earn points and we certainly have not earned points,” said Woods, who has played on just one winning Ryder Cup team in his Hall of Fame career and has a soft-hitting 15-14-2 record. “Phil, Jim and myself have been put out there a lot during those years. So if we are not earning points, it's hard to win Ryder Cups that way.”
Woods, Mickelson and Furyk have searched for answers and partners throughout their Ryder Cup careers. Woods has played with a dozen partners in six matches while Lefty and Furyk have had 13 different wingmen with varying levels of success.
But if the core of the U.S. side can only have painful association with recent history, this year’s lineup features an infusion of new faces sans the scars of past defeats. Brandt Snedeker has never had to watch a European celebration – or, for that matter, played a foursomes or fourball match. Keegan Bradley, Jason Dufner and Webb Simpson have never been subjected to a team from the Continent rolling in putts from Valderrama to The K Club.
For Love, what the U.S. team lacks in experience it makes up for in naïve nirvana, young minds uncluttered by ghosts of cups past.
“They may be rookies here at the Ryder Cup, but they’re major championship winners, they’re FedEx Cup winners,” Love said. “They’ve done a lot, they’ve played a lot of great golf, and they’re really comfortable, confident guys.”
They’re also good putters, and as European broadcaster and short-game guru Mark Roe figured earlier this week, Samuel Ryder’s member-member is always, “a putting contest.”
Snedeker, fresh off his $10 million haul at last week’s Tour Championship, is No. 1 on Tour in strokes gained-putting, while Bradley, Simpson and Dufner all rank in the upper third of Tour putters.
But if Love is leaning on the newcomers, European captain Jose Maria Olazabal will, like most of the captains that came before him, depend on three key pairings.
In this the Europeans enjoy an embarrassment of team riches. Rory McIlroy, the world No. 1 who has won three of his last five PGA Tour starts, has played with just one partner (Graeme McDowell) and is 1-1-1 in team play; Luke Donald likely has only one partner he’s interested in, Sergio Garcia who he is a perfect 4-0 with; and Justin Rose and Ian Poulter, the emotional core of the European team, went 2-1 in 2008 at Valhalla.
If Europe is going to win for the first time on American soil since 2004 at Oakland Hills it will likely depend on the play of Ollie’s “Big 3,” if not world No. 1 in particular.
At 23, McIlroy has been affixed with a bull’s eye, according to some U.S. players. That’s lofty ground for someone playing in just their second Ryder Cup. But if the Ulsterman has proven adept at anything, beyond winning majors, it is keeping the hype in context.
“This week I’m not the No. 1 player in the world, I’m one person in a 12-man team, that’s it,” McIlroy said. “It’s a huge compliment that people are saying they want to beat me and whatever. Whoever wants to take me on, they can take me on.”
“Whoever,” of course, would be Woods in a Sunday single’s shootout for cup and country, the desired, albeit unlikely, marquee to finish the week. Yet, as McIlroy pointed out, to make this a two-man show would be to ignore the facts.
In the past, the European side has countered a perceived lack of depth with a handful of go-to pairings, but for the first time all 24 players at Medinah are ranked inside the top 35.
It is a depth of field that makes this Ryder Cup an even-money push, a statistical and psychological draw that may be no good for betting but perfect for all those who favor the show over a sure thing.