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The Ryder Cup Preview: Massive, Unhinged, Scottish

Your preview, in a year when the European juggernaut rolls in with seven victories in the last nine Cups and nobody gives the visiting Americans a shot in hell.

Long after I’ve become a twisted, bitter shell of my younger, better self (I give it two to three years), there will remain one sporting event that inspires in me those old feelings of drama, history, and romance. That event is the Ryder Cup. This isn’t exactly a common position, but the Cup has winnowed its way so deep into my subconscious mind that it now exceeds in significance anything else you want to throw my way — Super Bowl, World Cup, World Series, Olympics, etc. As a sports fan, I’m a bit like a drug addict who’s been overexposed and habituated to the usual pills and powders, and left with only one way to get my high. So if I’m coming at you from an extreme place here in the start, realize that it’s also genuine. The vibe of the Ryder Cup grabs me like nothing else, and when it’s held in Scotland, the birthplace of golf, you might as well just tie me to a lamppost in the center of town and drape a sign around my neck that says, “DANGEROUS RELIGIOUS ZEALOT, DO NOT APPROACH.”

This is my preview, in a year when the European juggernaut rolls in with seven victories in the last nine Cups and nobody gives the visiting Americans a shot in hell.

What the Hell Is the Ryder Cup?

Do we have to do this section? I think we have to do this section. Get ready for a little copy-paste job from the 2012 installment:

The Ryder Cup is a match-play tournament held every two years pitting the 12 best players from the United States against the 12 best players from Europe. This year’s Ryder Cup is at the PGA Centenary Course at Gleneagles in Auchterarder, Scotland, and will involve five sessions in three days. For each session, the team captain submits his pairings in order, and his teams are matched up with the other captain’s list. Sessions 1 and 3 will be held on Friday and Saturday morning in the “four-ball” format, featuring two players per team, in which each player plays his own ball and the team with the best individual score wins the hole. Sessions 2 and 4, on Friday and Saturday morning, are called “foursomes.” All that means is that there are two players per team, and the players alternate shots. And Sunday is “singles,” mano a mano. There are 28 matches in all, with a point at stake in each match. Since the Europeans won at Medinah in 2012, they need only secure a 14-14 draw to retain the Cup. The Americans need 14.5 points to win it back.

Who Are the Captains?

The last time the Americans won on European soil came in 1993, and their captain that year was the legendary eight-time major winner Tom Watson. Two decades have gone by, and Watson, now 65, is back to try to capture whatever magic we’ve been missing. For the Europeans, it’s Paul McGinley at the helm. The Irishman has a pretty pedestrian history, at least by captain standards, with just four European Tour wins in his career, a career 2-2-5 Ryder Cup record, and just two top 10s in major championships. He did, however, clinch the 2002 Cup with a 12-foot putt on 18 to beat Jim Furyk, and he’s popular personally among the Euros, having served as vice-captain in 2010 and 2012.

What About the Course?

The Gleneagles course is not what you think of when imagine 15th-century shepherds whacking leather balls filled with goose feathers around their pastures. For one thing, it’s not on the coast, and is therefore not the kind of linksland golf associated with the British Isles. For another, it was designed by Jack Nicklaus in the long, verdant American style, and has been open just a hair over 20 years. ESPN’s Bob Harig cleared up the mystery of why this place is hosting a Ryder Cup in an excellent piece about how much the European Tour, which hosts and organizes the event when it’s in Europe, depends on the Cup to stay afloat. Essentially, it’s the only time the tour really makes money, so the tour has to get every euro, pound, and dollar it can from the transaction. History and sanctity be damned; in Europe, the Ryder Cup goes to the highest bidder.

How Has McGinley Set It Up?

The home-team captain has the privilege of “tweaking” the course to give his team an advantage, and in 2012, Davis Love III went a little crazy, going so far as to cut down trees to make shots easier for certain players. McGinley isn’t doing anything quite so extreme; he’s let the rough grow out, kept the greens slow, and kept the fairways narrow. (One issue is that the Scottish weather has been warmer and wetter than anticipated, and even McGinley conceded that the rough is too deep now — eight inches in some places.) But any perceived advantage is speculative at best. The old stereotypes — Americans are longer hitters, Europeans are more accurate and better at putting — no longer really apply. In fact, very few players are hitting it longer than Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, and USA players like Zach Johnson, Matt Kuchar, and Jordan Spieth are better known for accuracy than for distance. For fun, I calculated the average driving distance of each team based on season stats for all 24 players (using European Tour stats for the four players who primarily play abroad), and the results were hilarious:

Europe: 293.65 yards per drive
USA: 293.25 yards per drive

So much for a stylistic edge.

Why Is Europe Favored?

There are a few reasons the oddsmakers have Team USA as nearly a 2-to-1 long shot to win.

History: Whether it’s coincidence, talent, or a shadowy metaphysical behavior system Paul McGinley keeps mentioning called “the template,” developed as early as the Tony Jacklin days and honed by the Europeans in each ensuing event (and no, I’m not making that up), Europe has dominated for two decades.

Players: The Europeans have Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer, who together have won three majors, the Players Championship, the BMW PGA Championship (Europe’s “fifth major” equivalent), and one of the four WGC events. They also have Ian Poulter, a Ryder Cup legend who seems to elevate his game each time for this event, veteran studs with great records like Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia, and Justin Rose, and players like Jamie Donaldson and Stephen Gallacher who have either won recently or come very close. Even one of their rookies, Victor Dubuisson, proved his ability in match play by advancing to the finals at the Accenture this year and pulling off two scrambling miracles before falling to Jason Day. The Americans, on the other hand, have a single major winner in Bubba Watson and a WGC event winner in Patrick Reed. Many Team USA players have been struggling in recent events, and though veterans like Furyk have heaps of experience, it’s … the bad kind. The really bad kind. The 9-17-4 lifetime record kind.

Locale: It matters; home teams have gone 11-6 since the current USA vs. Europe format began in 1979. (Before that, the U.S. just won regardless of venue, over and over.)

But Is That Advantage Overrated?

This is actually a tougher call than it should be, but I think so. We’re driven to find meaning in patterns, and the phrase “seven of nine over the past 20 years” seems meaningful. But is it? The problem with the Ryder Cup is that the sample is so small. Each Cup is just 28 matches, and when you look at the actual scores, the sample gets smaller. Let’s look year by year since the streak began:

’95: Europe wins by one
’97: Europe wins by one
’99: USA wins by one
’02: Europe wins by three
’04: Europe wins by nine
’06: Europe wins by nine
’08: USA wins by five
’10: Europe wins by one
’12: Europe wins by one

The overall margin, in total matches, is 135.5–116.5, or plus-19 for Europe. That’s an average of about two points per Ryder Cup, and if you run those numbers for “expected wins,” the odds say Europe should have won five out of nine. One thing you can’t help but notice is that Europe also has four one-point victories in that span, in which one match going the other way would have swung the whole outcome in America’s favor. (Chris Solomon from No Laying Up outlines exactly how this could have happened in 2010 and 2012.) In the last two Cups, the USA has won five of seven sessions (with two more ending in a draw) despite losing both matches. All in all, the quality of players being roughly equal, my conclusion is that Europe has been slightly better overall, but that the U.S. has also been statistically very unlucky.

This year, the average world ranking of the American players is 16, and Europe’s average is 20, casting serious doubt on this “underdog” role. With incrementally better players and massive odds against, due to skewed public perception, I’d advise all betting men and women to take a flier on the Yanks.

Enough Numbers! DRAMA AND GOSSIP: Phil Stirs It Up

Up until Wednesday afternoon, the player press conferences were a little bland (or, in Hunter Mahan’s case, a lot bland). Then Phil Mickelson dropped a bomb on everyone when he was asked whether Team USA’s chemistry was as strong as Europe’s:

“Well, not only are we able to play together, we also don’t litigate against each other. And that’s a real plus, I feel, heading into this week.”

He was referring to the legal dispute between McIlroy and Graeme McDowell that began when the former left Horizon Sports Management in 2014, a company where McDowell is both a client and shareholder. The press room erupted in laughter, and the media erupted in a firestorm I believe I was the first to call “Litigate-Gate.”

MORE GOSSIP: Two Instances of Hilarity in the English Press

They are so incredible, guys. In the U.S., media critics like to wring their hands about ethics, and even though American journalists tend to be a boring, self-congratulatory lot, the instinct to keep reporters honest — for example, by routinely fact-checking stories — isn’t a bad one. And in England — at least in the subset of tabloid-newspaper hybrids — that instinct is entirely absent. The effect, in sports, is hilarious. Two examples:

1. During Zach Johnson’s press conference Tuesday, a reporter from the Sun asked him what he thought of Tom Watson having hired a choir to travel to Scotland to sing American anthems on the course to drown out the home fans. Johnson, who had mostly been on autopilot, gaped at the man. “What?!”

First, let’s note that this idea is absurd and hilarious, and it would be one of the most amazing psych-outs in Ryder Cup history if it were real. Second, let’s recognize that Tom Watson would never, ever do this. So why was the journalist reporting it as true? It began with this exchange from Watson and McGinley’s Monday presser:

Q. One of the features of recent Ryder Cups and other team competitions has been the singing, the organized singing on the first tee, and not support and applause from the spectators but the actual organized singing. Are there any deep-laid plans by the PGA of America to import your own choir and try to match?

TOM WATSON: Yes, there is, when we hear the Ole! Ole! Ole! We have the U.S. soccer cheer.

Now, a 27-hour travel odyssey meant I missed this moment, but from everyone I talked to, it was clear that Watson had not picked up on the full gist of the question (which was meant as a joke in the first place), and his immediate “yes, there is” response, though it looks sarcastic in print, was neither “playing along” nor an affirmation that the journalist had guessed right about his top-secret choir plans.

Fast-forward to Monday night, in the Mirror: “Visiting captain Tom Watson, who has a US choir ready to ramp up the noise on the first tee this week …”

Then, the next morning, it made the back page of the Sun: “USA skipper Tom Watson has flown in a Yankee choir to try to drown out Europe’s noisy support at Gleneagles.”

2. A friend, going on a Victor Dubuisson Internet deep dive, sent me an amazed Gchat yesterday afternoon: “did you see the dubuisson thing i sent? the guy lives in Honduras! i mean, WTF”

Victor Dubuisson is a French golfer who, when he began to make lots of money, did what a lot of rich French people do — he left France and its insanely high tax rate. But “European golfer on European tour makes drastic move to Central America” is borderline hilarious, not to mention totally ridiculous and untrue. So where did my friend get this? This time, we have the Daily Mail to thank: “Dubuisson lives in Honduras to escape France’s punitive tax system.”

I’ve followed Dubuisson carefully this year, and I knew he lived in Andorra, a tiny country in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. So where the hell did the Daily Mail get Honduras? The more I thought about it, the more I realized there could be only one explanation: When French people say “Andorra,” there’s a faint “h” sound at the beginning, and the “an” has the long “on” sound. In other words, it kinda sounds like “Honduras.” And instead of checking to see whether Dubuisson had indeed moved halfway around the world to a country with virtually no golf history, the dude from the Mail just ran with it, footloose and fancy-free. CHECK NONSENSICAL FACTS? NOPE, I’M GREAT.

PUMP-UP QUOTE OF THE WEEK (Poulter Content)

I have a small-to-medium-size obsession with Ian Poulter that dates back to his heroics at Medinah in 2012. In almost every press conference, he’s hit with the question that gets to the heart of the Poulter Mystery: Namely, how can the guy be so exceptional in Ryder Cups, eyes bugging out in a grotesque, frightening, and wonderful display of intensity as he holes putt after putt and wins match after match, and so ordinary in stroke-play events? Nobody has discovered the answer, including Poulter, so on Thursday morning I decided to ask him about match play alone. Specifically, could he tell when his opponent was intimidated?

“I’m not sure whether I’ve ever looked at them to find out whether they are intimidated,” he said. “Providing you’re holing your putts and doing your job, there’s no reason to really look over to try and read into what they are thinking. I know what they’ll think when I hole that putt. That I do know.”

Man, those last two sentences. Forget the other guy; Poulter knows that when he’s on, he’ll be tougher than any opponent they can find. Bring it the eff on.

The Friday Morning Four-Ball Matches

Ryder Cup matches are determined by blind draw before each session, so all we know are the pairings for the four matches on Friday morning, decided at the end of Thursday’s opening ceremony. Here’s your mega-hot instant analysis:

1. Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson, USA, vs. Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson, Europe

First things first: You need to read Jason Sobel’s story about how Webb Simpson actually texted his way onto the team at 4:30 a.m. the night before Tom Watson made his captain’s picks. It’s fascinating, but the really crazy thing is that, according to Sobel’s sources, Watson actually had made a different pick, leaked it, and was all set until Simpson’s text and ensuing phone call changed his mind. Sobel declines to say who the pick was, but it was almost definitely Chris Kirk, and, well … that’s kind of an insane, dramatic, last-minute reversal, right? Just another reason the Ryder Cup is so strange and wonderful.

On to this match … a bit of a surprise that McGinley broke up the Rose/Poulter dynamic duo, but Stenson is no stiff. The big question here is whether Bubba, who will likely hit the Ryder Cup’s first ball, will pull the same act on the first tee he did in 2012, when he encouraged the American crowd to cheer as he drove the ball. It was pretty cool, but he may not get exclusively cheers if he tries it this time around. As a last note, I want to call this American pairing, who went 2-0 in four-ball at Medinah, “The BB Guns.”

2. Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker, USA, vs. Thomas Bjorn and Martin Kaymer, Europe

The first real curveball of the pairings — Kaymer and McIlroy had played together so often in practice rounds that it seemed as though McGinley would pair them up, and this one came from out of left field. And Watson’s duo is the odd couple: One is young and cool and good-looking and into extreme sports, and the other is older, a little nerdy, and spends his free time looking through telescopes. With Kaymer’s form only just now recovering from a late-season lull, the U.S. has to have the advantage here.

3. Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth, USA, vs. Stephen Gallacher and Ian Poulter, Europe

I am so excited about this match, and I think it’s an enormous coup for Tom Watson. For one thing, he’s “blooding” all his rookies in the four-ball event, which is a much better way to have your first experience than the weirdness of alternate-shot. At the same time, he’s broadcasting total confidence in the young guns, which is crucial because he needs them to play well to win. McGinley, conversely, is holding out rookies Dubuisson and Donaldson until foursomes, which seems like a tactical error. With this pairing, too, he seems to be making a defensive choice: Play the hometown boy, Gallacher, but pair him with a legend in Poulter to give him some level of comfort. It’s broadcasting potential failure, and the pressure of carrying Scotland’s hopes can be only more acute now for Gallacher (while Poulter’s form is still off). This has the double effect of breaking up Rose/Poulter, which could end up costing Europe two matches. Watson, on the other hand, is making the positive, aggressive choice: I trust you completely, experienced or not — now go out and win. Anything could happen on the course, but I think Watson completely domed McGinley with these first pairings.

4. Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley, USA, vs. Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia, Europe

Holllyyyy shit, this match. Mickelson and Bradley, who went 3-0 in pairs in 2012, are the perfect American team. Mickelson is afflicted with a sort of lunatic optimism and a wild, sometimes self-sabotaging flair, and Bradley is an OCD adrenaline junkie who may fist-pump his way all the way to the Outer Hebrides if things are going well. They’re facing Sergio, an insanely talented guy who somehow stops being a total mental case during the Ryder Cup, and this other dude Rory, who happens to be the best player in the world. No matter what else happens, this is the statement match of the first session. It’s going to set a tone of some sort, and it’s going to be wild. I am juiced beyond belief.

PREDICTION

USA 15.5, Europe 12.5. Reed and Spieth slay the Poulter dragon Friday morning, and Fowler and Walker end up being the best team of the tournament. Tom Watson’s hired Yankee choir puts the Americans over the top, and Dubuisson flees to Honduras in shame after the final match.