By Joe Romaine
Twenty four hours after Ben Crenshaw famously proclaimed “I’m a big believer in fate. I have a good feeling about this”, he seemed like a golf prophet. It appeared as if Crenshaw knew something the rest of the golfing world didn’t. What had he witnessed in the previous two days that every other spectator and television viewer missed? What had he seen in his American squad – down 10 to 6 at the time – that filled him with so much promise? Maybe a better question to ask is if he really believed his own words. Did Crenshaw really have a good feeling about the outcome of the Sunday singles matches or was the comment simply a motivational ploy to rally his American team that had been outplayed for more than a decade of Ryder Cup competitions.
Since 1985, American Ryder Cup squads have struggled to keep pace with the “little brother” European teams that had all-of-a-sudden grown up and grown dominant. It had taken a severely partisan crowd at Kiawah in 1991, Crenshaw’s motivational comments in 1999, and Paul Azinger’s captaincy of the ages in 2008 to bring the cup to the states laely. On the eve of the 39th matches for the right to claim Samuel Ryder’s prize, the crowd, the course, and a new American attitude will play great roles in who’s popping the bubbly come Sunday afternoon.
Seve Ballesteros in 1991 called the American team a group comprised of “eleven nice guys and Paul Azinger.” This declaration was maybe an insult to Azinger, maybe an example of Seve’s gamesmanship, and maybe a wee bit of reluctant respect. There is no question that Azinger was and is a fiery competitor with great pride. Azinger also knew how to channel his competitive spirit and put it to good use. His emotional leadership at Valhalla stirred the crowd into a raucous frenzy. He successfully used his local heroes (Kenny Parry and J.B. Holmes) as part of his strategy. After the ’91 and ’99 Cup matches, the European team caught on to the fact that winning the crowd at a Ryder Cup is nearly as important as winning matches. In 2004 at Oakland Hills, while the Americans were very business-like prior to the event, the Euros went out of their way to sign autographs and pose for pictures during practice rounds and effectively took a would-be boisterous blue-collar crowd out of the equation long before the disastrous pairing of Phil and Tiger famously crumbled.
This week’s American representatives understand the importance of the home crowd. Personalities such as those displayed by Bubba, Keegan, Snedeker, and Dustin Johnson will no doubt give the Chicagoland fans plenty to cheer for. The maturity of the veterans will help keep the young guns in check while still keeping the crowd engaged. This competition has evolved to a point where the crowds and the players are aware of the difference a supportive fan base can be. If the home team strikes early, look for the roars to echo through Medinah all weekend long.
Advantage – USA
The evolution of the European game not only applies to their dismantling of American Ryder Cup teams, but to the dominance on classic American layouts. After many years of European futility in the U.S. Open (one European winner since 1925), Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy displayed the new-found euro swagger by winning back-to-back championships in 2010 and 2011 – Rory’s in a dominant fashion not seen since Tiger’s 2000 win at Pebble Beach. Rory even raised bushy European eyebrows by commenting that his game is better suited to the high-flying, drop-and-stop style required more in the states than the low, bump-and-run style required by links courses across the pond.
This comfort level with American courses has made the captain’s set-up of each hole crucial. Hall Sutton kept the Oakland Hills rough lower than normal and Valhalla was a bombers paradise. Luke Donald tweeted a few weeks back that there was very little rough at Medinah and putting would be the deciding factor. If so, Europe holds a decided advantage here as their putting and birdie-percentage stats outpace those of the Americans.
Tee to green, though, there are very few holes that stand out as offering a distinct advantage to either side. Even the drivable 15th hole provides trouble with water lurking right of the hole. Reportedly almost a third of the American team found the drink on that hole in their practice round Wednesday. Most of the holes alternate between benefiting the American side and European side as the holes alternate between requiring length and accurate shot-shaping. If the Americans are able to extend the matches to later holes, they seem to have an edge on the long par 4 16th, the lengthy par 3 17th with a flatter putting surface, and par 4 18th– obviously a crucial three-hole stretch in match play. Although the stars and stripes squad should keep some matches very interesting with dramatic, late-match wins and halves, this course is feeling more and more like a Brookline or Oakland Hills, and not as much like a Valhalla.
Advantage – Europe
After decades of United States dominance and the addition of the rest of Europe to the GB&I pool of players, the Ryder Cup witnessed a transformation. The European side turned inward and took on an “us against the world” attitude. They thrived on playing the underdog role no matter how talented their squads were. The “little brother” was becoming bigger, stronger, and faster. This European team is comprised of four of the top five players in the world golf rankings. The same old U.S. Ryder Cup routine is no longer sufficient. The awkwardness between Tiger and Phil in their power grouping at Oakland Hills was palpable. However, in recent years the team chemistry for the United States has unquestionably improved. The U.S. side modified their points system. They added two captains’ picks. But something was still amiss. Paul Azinger’s “pod” system in 2008 proved very successful. Certain U.S. team members have adjusted to and accepted the “team” concept of the Ryder Cup. Hunter Mahan’s heartbreaking press conference in 2010 further galvanized many of these same team members. Even the rookies for this U.S. team come to Chicago with a different aura. While Jeff Overton and Rickie Fowler provided plenty of pep in 2010, this year’s rookies come with two majors, a FedEx Cup, and more than a handful of wins in the last two years. These are players that have been through the ringer and have come out successful. Undoubtedly, the European players are aware of this shift in U.S. team personality. After all, most of these Euros tee it up with these same U.S. players week in and week out on the PGA tour and have seen first-hand their unflappable abilities. This new found chemistry and confidence by the Americans should prove to be very beneficial come Sunday when the pressure is at its greatest.
Advantage – USA
There have been very few Ryder Cups in which the European teams have been better on paper than the United States. This discrepancy in perceived talent, however, has not translated into recent victories for the Americans. The European contingents have had that little something extra — the “it” factor. They knew their putts would fall. They knew that no matter what happened to them in their match, they had a teammate ready and willing to pick them up and carry them across the finish line. The United States team members have seen this routine enough to understand its benefits to a team competition. It would seem that this year’s team has adopted that philosophy and is ready to bring the Ryder Cup back to American soil and build a foundation for future U.S. team successes. While the teams appear to be very similar, the European team holds the on-course edge. But a one-sided, Midwestern crowd eager for American success and a new attitude American team should push the red, white, and blue to victory. Whether fate plays a role this year or not, I have a good feeling about this.
US – 15.5, EU – 12.5