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Ryder Cup: Will the force be with the U.S.?

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CHASKA, Minn. – If you think this week’s buildup to the Ryder Cup has been insufferable – with player-on-past-captain crime and a European team member’s brother penning a satirical column – then perhaps you’ve forgotten about the past two years.

Oh, we’ve long since reached the Ryder Cup saturation point.

The task forces and committees and pods and foundations and succession plans – sometimes, it’s hard to remember whether the Americans are trying to win 14 ½ points or stimulate the economy. And the thing is, the game plan all sounds so similar to, well, what Europe has done for years, for decades. Only they don’t require all the pomp and circumstance.

Finally, mercifully, they’ll play golf at 7:35 a.m. local time Friday.

Finally, mercifully, the Americans will put their much-ballyhooed system on display against a European team that, although it returns some of the usual suspects, also features plenty of new faces.

How those six rookies perform likely will swing these matches at Hazeltine. It’s the most first-timers Europe has had on away soil since 1999. That one, remember, didn’t end so well for the visitors.

As for the Americans, there has seemingly been as much focus on the guys with walkie-talkies as the team members with clubs. Tiger Woods is a vice captain. So far this week, he has stood stoically with his earpiece, Secret Service-style, and hustled to retrieve turkey sandwiches. Bubba Watson, the seventh-ranked player in the world, is also an assistant – and the resident cheerleader.

But make no mistake, Phil Mickelson is the alpha dog calling the shots – and he’s even firing them, too.

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For all of the talk about a fresh start, Mickelson couldn’t resist dredging up the past this week. When asked about the impact a captain can have on these matches, Mickelson didn’t mention the leadership of Paul Azinger in 2008, who guided the Americans to their only win this century. No, he instead buried former captain Hal Sutton, saying he was put “in a position to fail.” A dozen years ago. 

For those keeping score at home, that’s now two captains in two years that Mickelson – a 46-year-old veteran of 22 consecutive team competitions – has criticized in a news-conference setting. But this move was particularly odd, because the unprovoked takedown runs counter to the inclusive “Ryder Cup family” theme that was supposedly so prevalent in the task-force era. With players careful not to give the other team bulletin-board material, leave it to the Americans – losers of eight of the past 10 matches – to strike the first blow. Against themselves.

Despite the early-week drama, there remains a sense that this still might finally be the week that the U.S. side gets back on track in the biennial slugfest. Sure, some of that renewed optimism is because the players feel more invested in the process. But there’s also another component, a competitive reality: Throw out the Gleneagles loss – where a clearly dysfunctional American group was steamrolled by five points – and the previous two matches were both narrow defeats (14 ½ to 13 ½). Now, they receive the home-crowd bump.

“It’s not as bad as it seems,” Zach Johnson said. “If you want to break down the sessions, we’re not that far off. It’s a lull here, a lag there.”

Rather than wing it on-site, the Americans have had a plan in place for weeks, with pods and set pairings and fewer distractions (well, save for the unexpected Sutton saga, of course).

If that sounds familiar, it should – that’s the model Europe has used for years, and with great success. Lee Westwood said it was “very flattering” that the Americans have tried to replicate their system.

“It means we are successful and we are doing it right,” he said. “It gives us a lot of confidence and puts added pressure on them. You form a task force and it doesn’t go right this week, where do you go from there? You’ve done pretty much all you can. So we’ll see how it goes.”

With Ian Poulter driving a golf cart instead of a dagger into the Americans’ hearts, the new-look Europeans have kept a low profile in the run-up to Friday. That was until rookie Danny Willett’s brother, Pete, eviscerated American golf fans in a blog post, describing their incessant cries of “Mashed Potatoes!” and “Baba Booey!” as the work of a “baying mob of imbeciles,” among other insults. It figures to be a long, loud week for the Masters champion.

Westwood shook his head at the furor that has engulfed his likely Day 1 partner. “He should be left to just play golf,” he said.

If only it were so simple.  

Johnny Miller viewed this bunch as the “worst team they’ve had in many years,” but the Europeans still boast the Masters champion, Open winner, Olympic gold medalist and, most recently, the FedEx Cup champion, after Mcllroy outlasted Ryan Moore, the newly minted U.S. Ryder Cupper, last Sunday.

“We’re always the underdogs, aren’t we?” European captain Darren Clarke said. “We’re always not supposed to win. But they’ve been doing OK.”

And now the next chapter is finally, mercifully here. Not a moment too soon.