ATLANTA – With the final piece of Davis Love III’s Ryder Cup team in place, it’s time to get to the important stuff.
As difficult as Sunday night’s final pick was for the American captain, the bigger challenge in the coming days will be to fit the U.S. puzzle together in a way that ends Europe’s dominance in the matches.
That heavy lifting has already started.
“We know who is going to be playing with who, when they’re going to be playing, what matches,” Mickelson said earlier this month.
The blueprint has been in place for weeks, if not months, and is based on a similar “pods” system to the one used by Paul Azinger in 2008, when the U.S. last won the Ryder Cup.
The reason behind the pods is to provide continuity for players and a clear plan long before Love’s dozen arrived at Hazeltine National. The groups will offer a glimpse into how the Americans plan to pair for the team portion of the competition.
Although players gave little insight into potential pairings as they left East Lake bound for Haziltine, based on various sources and historical pairings, one pod will likely include Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed, Zach Johnson and Matt Kuchar.
Spieth and Reed were one of the few bright spots for the U.S. team in 2014 in Scotland, going 2-0-1 including a Day 1 four-ball victory over European stalwart Ian Poulter and Stephen Gallacher. Breaking up that duo would be unlikely.
“Maybe it's because we just want to beat each other. Maybe it's because we both feel like we're good match play players and we can feed off of each other's games,” Spieth said when asked why he and Reed played so well together.
“We both believe in each other on the greens, which is really important in a best-ball scenario and an alternate-shot scenario. If you feel like the pressure's off on getting proximity as close as you may feel for yourself, it relieves a lot of the tee to green pressure.”
The second pod will likely include Phil Mickelson, Brandt Snedeker, Jimmy Walker and Rickie Fowler.
Mickelson historically likes to pair with younger players, feeding off the energy his partner brings to the matches, and he would be a good fit with Fowler; although it seems more likely Love will send Walker and Fowler out early and leave Lefty, who will probably be limited to the four-ball sessions, to team with Snedeker.
Walker and Fowler went 0-1-3 together at Gleneagles and also played well together for two days at last year’s Presidents Cup, dropping a close Day 2 four-ball match on their way to a 1-1 record.
The most interesting and entertaining potential pod will be the game’s ultimate power threesome of Dustin Johnson, J.B. Holmes and Brooks Koepka, a group that ranks first, second and 19th, respectively, on the PGA Tour in driving distance.
Johnson and Koepka work with the same swing coach, Claude Harmon, and play similar games, but then the selection process suggests none of that matters.
Bubba Watson seemed to be the favorite to land Love’s final captain’s pick until Ryan Moore took Rory McIlroy to the wire at East Lake. While most agree Moore was the right pick, he’s probably not an ideal fit with the bombers and will require some late adjustments from Team USA.
Love has made no secret of his use of statistics to prepare for this week’s matches, but the science will probably stop when it comes to his team pairings.
Imagine the scene on Sunday night with Love and vice captains Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk and Tiger Woods huddled around a card table – a surreal image, indeed – mixing and matching index cards with players’ names on them in an attempt to produce the best possible teams and flexibility.
There are no statistics to quantify how one player will interact under Ryder Cup pressure with another.
“It’s all about chemistry of the two players, it doesn’t matter to me if one’s a long hitter and one’s a short hitter,” said Butch Harmon, the swing coach for roughly one-third of the U.S. team.
“It’s about how they get along because at one point in time something is going to go wrong out there and if you got a guy that you bond well with and you’re good with, you can hit it off the world and the other guy will just put his arm around him and say, ‘Who cares, we’re 1 down. Let’s go get them on the next hole.”
Perhaps the most telling forewarning of the mystical bond required to create a successful team came at the 2004 Ryder Cup when captain Hal Sutton sent Woods and Mickelson out in Friday’s first match. They lost, 2 and 1, to Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington. Sutton compounded the miscue in the next session with the same result, a loss to Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood.
“Look at Oakland Hills with Phil and Tiger, they weren’t even talking to each other,” Harmon said. “That was a disaster.”
But then even friends don’t always add up to much-needed points.
Dustin Johnson and Mickelson are regular Tuesday practice round partners and long-time friends, but in 2012 in Wales the duo was rolled over in the two opening team sessions, 3 and 2.
“I think I can partner well with pretty much anyone, except for Phil. Me and him don't partner well together. We play well against each other,” Johnson said. “I love Phil, and we're great friends, but we have a lot more fun when we're playing against each other, not as partners.”
Of course, all of the science and psychology can’t replace the most central element of any competition – good play.
“It’s as simple as a guy who plays good golf,” said Kuchar when asked what makes a good partner. “A good partner is a guy who hits it on the green, hits it on the fairway and makes putts.”
Love and his company of committed vice captains will leave no stone unturned in their pursuit of perfection, but ultimately it’s the play, not the pairings, that will decide the 41st Ryder Cup.