Even Tom Watson concedes that the European Ryder Cup team is the clear favorite heading into Gleneagles.
The question then is by how much.
If you’ve strapped on a helmet and read comment sections or social media in the past few weeks, you’ve probably seen predictions calling for everything from a U.S. loss by nightfall Saturday to an upset for the ages.
Both captains will round out their 12-man rosters in separate nationally televised announcements on Tuesday (both live on Golf Channel!), but let’s be honest – a Hunter Mahan here or a Lee Westwood there won’t swing the outcome of these matches. To paraphrase a line from the great NFL coach Denny Green, these teams are who we think they are.
So let’s break it down on paper (where, you might have been reminded, no matches have ever been won):
U.S.: Jim Furyk
Europe: Rory McIlroy
Furyk has been a human ATM this year and he’s finished outside the top 20 only once since March, but … the aging warrior hasn’t won since 2010, he has a terrible record in this event (9-17-1, including a demoralizing singles loss in 2012) and he’s failed to close out his last eight chances on Tour. Oy. Rory, meanwhile, assumes Tiger’s role as the biggest name at the Ryder Cup. He’s in great form, he’ll be sent out in all five matches, and if he gets on a roll Europe will win in a rout.
U.S.: Tom Watson
Europe: Paul McGinley
Watson is worshipped in Scotland and he has the Hall of Fame credentials, but you don’t hear any American team members shrieking, “Let’s win this one for Tom!”, like you might for other legends like Arnie or Jack. Fact is, McGinley is closer to his players – in both age and action.
BENCH/CAPTAIN’S PICKS (note: three players per side selected Tuesday)
U.S.: Keegan Bradley, Hunter Mahan, Brandt Snedeker, Webb Simpson, Brendon Todd, Ryan Moore, Bill Haas
Europe: Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Luke Donald, Stephen Gallacher, Miguel Angel Jimenez
The best of all these options (American or European) is Mahan, who has three consecutive top-15s, including the Barclays win, though it should be noted that the other Team USA hopefuls have shown glimpses over the past month as well. There are many more unknowns on the European side. Poulter may be a Ryder Cup hero, but he won’t intimidate anyone if he continues to play this poorly; since the U.S. Open, he has three MCs and two other finishes outside the top 50. Westwood and Donald both have struggled mightily as well, opening the door for a player such as Gallacher, a Scotsman with an intriguing history at Gleneagles.
U.S.: Bubba Watson
Europe: Martin Kaymer
Bubba knows he’ll be under the microscope after the way he handled less-than-ideal conditions at Valhalla. With a reputation as a fair-weather player, he can sway a lot of opinions if he successfully bashes his way around Gleneagles – with a smile on his face. As for Kaymer, which guy are we going to see: The one who won the U.S. Open by eight, or the one who doesn’t have a top 10 since?
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK
U.S.: Patrick Reed
Europe: Victor Dubuisson
Slowly growing convinced that P-Reed will be America’s best player at Gleneagles. He’s a match-play dynamo (6-0 at NCAAs), he’s aggressive and he’s fiery, and he won’t be the least bit intimidated playing in a hostile arena. In fact, he relishes that environment. Put him with a similarly combustible partner – say, Rickie or Jordan Spieth – and one of the game’s most polarizing talents has an opportunity to win over a lot of fans. Dubuisson also fits in this category because, well, not even his teammates know what to expect in a few weeks.
BEST POTENTIAL PARTNERSHIP
U.S.: Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler
Europe: Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia
Phil and Rickie are frequent practice-round partners and they put on a show Sunday at the PGA, but Watson likely will send out Mickelson with Bradley – at least early. Even their high-fiving, behind-smacking theatrics wouldn’t be enough to stop a Rory-Sergio tag team. It’d surprise little if that duo went 4-0 in team play.
Anything can happen with professional athletes over three days in unpredictable Scottish weather, of course, but we’re unofficially setting the over/under for the Europeans’ margin of victory at 4.5.
What’s not to like about the FedEx Cup playoffs? It is four weeks of elite fields on great golf courses at a time of year when more people are concerned with their fantasy football drafts than PGA Tour leaderboards. That said, enough head-scratching elements remain that keep the playoffs from cracking the crowded mainstream sports landscape:
1.) Points breakdown. How are the playoffs worth FIVE times the points of a regular-season event? By winning The Barclays, Mahan received the same number of points as if he’d also captured the Farmers Insurance Open, Honda Classic, Houston Open, Colonial and Quicken Loans National. Stuart Appleby didn’t have a top 10 since March, but by leading The Barclays on Sunday he was projected to move to No. 1 – ahead of Rory, Jimmy and Bubba. It’s hilariously lopsided.
2.) No punishment for skipping events. A tough rule to enforce, particularly when there are four events in a row like 2014 (on top of an already hectic late-summer schedule), but there is no deterrent for top players to skip an event. The New England Patriots’ players are probably tired too, but they can’t just skip the divisional round. This is a bad look for golf’s so-called postseason.
3.) A more compelling Tour Championship. The competition, not the money, should be the point of emphasis. A $10 million bonus might be life-changing cash for you and me, but for the Tour’s superstars it’s merely a cool reward for a nice season. Ditch the monotonous 72-hole format in favor of a 36-hole qualifier, then a win-or-go-home match-play bracket on the weekend for the top eight … with the $10 million on the line. That’d be must-see TV.
@RyanLavnerGC Your player of the year?— Welding Hats (@fairlysuhn) August 26, 2014
FedEx Cup titles by Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson, Jimmy Walker or Martin Kaymer would make the conversation a lot more interesting, but right now Rory McIlroy leads the race by a rather substantial margin. He’s No. 1 in the Tour’s strokes gained category, No. 1 in birdie average, No. 1 in scoring and No. 3 in the all-around ranking. Everyone remembers the three wins in a row (including two majors), but he’s also been in the top 25 in all 14 of his starts. Compare that to a player like, say, Kaymer, whose only two top-10s this calendar year have been victories.
@RyanLavnerGC honest odds of the USA's chances at the Ryder Cup?— Danny Serafine (@dannyserafine) August 26, 2014
See the top of this mailbag for a 722-word answer. Abridged version: The Americans have a chance, but they’ll have to play out of their minds – and the Europeans will have to sleepwalk.
@RyanLavnerGC your three captain picks?— Frank Rizzo (@frizzousa) August 26, 2014
Didn’t specify which side, so here are Captain Lavner’s picks for both the Americans and Europeans:
U.S.: Bradley, Snedeker, Mahan. All three have Ryder Cup experience; all three have shown good form in the past month; and it never hurts to have an above-average (Bradley) and excellent (Sneds) putter on the bench. Throw in the revenge factor for Mahan, given what transpired during his last Ryder Cup overseas, and this trio should inject some passion into the proceedings.
Europe: Westwood, Poulter, Donald. The first two are locks, but keep a close eye on both Donald (Boston) and Gallacher (Italy) this week. If one plays well and the other falters, that should seal their fates. Gallacher, who lives 40 kilometers from Gleneagles and lost in a playoff there last year, needs a T-2 finish in the Euro Tour event to bump G-Mac for the last automatic spot. If that happens, you can bet Donald will be the odd man out.
@RyanLavnerGC prediction on how Texas will fare this season? Top 5 or possible National Champ??— Todd Pryor (@todd_pryor) August 26, 2014
The rare college golf question! Love it. I’m filling out my preseason top 5 as I type this, and the Longhorns are safely among that company. Texas’ roster is one that every agent can love – a who’s who of can’t-miss junior prospects who comprise the year’s most compelling team to watch. From Beau Hossler (who led the U.S. Open at 17) to 2013 U.S. Junior champion Scottie Scheffler to 2014 U.S. Publinx runner-up Doug Ghim, this is a team with national-title aspirations, and for good reason. Make sure to check GolfChannel.com on Tuesday, Sept. 8 for the rollout of our college preview, including stories, rankings and watch lists.
@RyanLavnerGC will there be a 2nd season of the hit show 'Burko & Lav'?— Steve Burkowski (@SBurkowskiGC) August 26, 2014
Of course! Just giving the (seven) people what they want.