NEWPORT, Wales – Good thing for the Americans the Ryder Cup ultimately comes down to golf shots, not style points.
U.S. captain Corey Pavin, his voice unsteady at the opening ceremony Thursday, introduced the 11 players on his squad and was about to sit down when he realized each team had 12 to a side.
He overlooked Stewart Cink, one of his captain’s picks.
Then came the lineups for the opening session, with Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker in the third slot. It was the first time since 1999 that Woods was not in the first match, leading European captain Colin Montgomerie to suggest the Americans were trying to hide him.
Leading off for the Americans in fourballs is Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, a big hitter whose driver broke on the range.
Asked if Europe already felt it was 1-up based on Pavin’s gaffe, Montgomerie said:
“I suppose that was a mistake. He just missed the one. He read the wrong name, but that was just unfortunate. I think he was very, very good in covering his tracks. It went very well. It was a first-class show up there.
“And yes,” he added, “we are 1 up.”
Europe had other reasons to feel confident about winning back the Ryder Cup when the matches get under way Friday. It has not lost on its home soil since 1993, and the crowd can play such a huge role in golf’s biggest bipartisan event.
It was evident on the final day of practice, when fans gave a standing ovation from the bleachers behind the greens on the back nine of Celtic Manor just at the sight of the European players approaching the green.
By Sunday, all that matters are the points on the board.
The Americans, who won two years ago at Valhalla to end a decade of European dominance, need only 14 points from the 28 matches to take the 17-inch gold trophy back home.
“I cannot wait,” said Ian Poulter, who will join Ross Fisher in taking on the Woods-Stricker tandem. “This crowd tomorrow is going to be electric. The roar on that first tee will be sensational. I can’t wait to hear it and I can’t wait to get pumped for it. I can’t wait to give them some feedback.”
The big mystery was the weather.
Celtic Manor already is lush and soggy from rain in recent weeks, and the forecast is for more rain and blustery wind for most of the day. And while Montgomerie said he didn’t try to alter the setup, it has become clear that the best strategy is to play out of the short grass.
This is one of the longest American teams in history. But the straightest?
They should find out immediately with a compelling match – Mickelson and Johnson, who play big-money games just about every week on tour, going against Lee Westwood and PGA champion Martin Kaymer, Europe’s best player and its most recent major champion.
For Westwood, it will be his first competition in six weeks while he recovered from a calf injury. Playing his seventh Ryder Cup, he went to Montgomerie a few days ago and asked to be in the leadoff match.
Montgomerie had thought about U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy leading off.
“It was just seen that Lee should hit the first shot,” Montgomerie said. “I think it’s a real honor to do that, and I’ve had that honor twice. And it’s only right that Lee Westwood at this time should have that.”
McDowell and McIlroy, the duo from Northern Ireland, play in the second match against Georgia Tech alums Cink and Matt Kuchar. For now, that deprives fans of a McIlroy-Woods match of any form. McIlroy had said he would “love to face” Woods, and Woods countered with a no-nonsense “Me, too,” that stirred Ryder Cup tensions.
Stricker is the 12th partner for Woods in this event – two short of the Ryder Cup record. But everyone saw this one coming. They went 4-0 at the Presidents Cup last year, the first tandem in any cup to do that in 30 years.
“Hopefully, Tiger and I can go out there and do the things that we know how to do,” Stricker said. “And, hopefully, it’s good enough for a win.”
Montgomerie stoked speculation, however, by feigning surprise that Woods was in the middle of the lineup.
“I was expecting Tiger to go first or fourth,” he said. “I think Tiger being hidden is a different move. But, as we all know, every point is important wherever it might be. It’s a very difficult game, mind you, probably the two best putters on the U.S. team.”
He was even more surprised to see Bubba Watson and Jeff Overton – a pair of rookies whom many consider the most likely affected by Ryder Cup nerves – in the final spot against Padraig Harrington and Luke Donald.
In doing so, Pavin sat out Jim Furyk and Hunter Mahan.
Furyk is the only American with three victories this year, including his $11.35 million payoff for winning the Tour Championship and FedEx Cup on Sunday.
“He’s been counting the money, and he’s been very tired,” Pavin said with a laugh.
Mahan went unbeaten in all five matches at his Ryder Cup debut two years ago. Pavin said only that four players have to sit, and he planned to get all 12 a match on Friday.
“If you have any better suggestions, I’d love to hear them,” he said. “I guess it’s a little too late for those suggestions.”
Nothing matters now.
Starting Friday, it’s all about winning holes, winning matches, putting up points. The morning fourballs are to be followed by four alternate-shot matches in the afternoon.
Montgomerie made it clear how badly he wants to get his team in front quickly, putting his best two teams at the top of the lineup.
“My goal is to lead Friday evening if at all possible,” he said. “It’s all set up for that. That’s the plan.”