The list of things I love about the Ryder Cup is so long that it could fill a (tedious) novel, and golf fans can probably guess most of them. But if I had to narrow that list down to one abstract thought well, I’d probably say that even though I enjoy competitive pressure and believe that I’d be a total gamer if destiny had made me a pro athlete instead of a human tree trunk, I know — I know — I’d fold like an accordion at the Ryder Cup.
It’s just too intense. The innate pressure of golf, the way it punishes even a slight error, is compounded in the Ryder Cup by the responsibility each player has to his team, and country. I’ve been watching the event since I was young, and I associate those weekends with a feeling of nausea and dread. Disaster waits with every shot. Top players, like Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, find themselves at the mercy of forces beyond their control. The code of politeness between players is shelved for three days, replaced by cruel stare-downs and gamesmanship and cutting remarks. The captains obsess over strategies, broad and minute, then watch helplessly from golf carts as everything spins out of their control. The spectators, usually so staid and proper at golf tournaments, are boisterously singing, vicious, and drunk.
In short, it’s the greatest damn event in sports. And the 2012 edition begins today.
Maybe you’re reading this and you don’t know the first thing about the Ryder Cup. What I want to emphasize to you, the newcomer, is that even if you think you hate golf and think it’s a boring sport for old people, this is the one tournament you need to watch. It’s irresistible. Here’s your one-paragraph primer, to be skipped by Ryder Cup veterans.
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 Medinah Country Club, just outside Chicago, 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 one and three, on Friday and Saturday morning, are called “foursomes.” All that means is that there are two players per team, and these players alternate shots. Sessions two and four will be held on Friday and Saturday afternoon in the “fourball” format, again with two players per team, where each player plays his own ball and the team with the best individual score among the four wins the hole. 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 in Wales in 2010, they only need to secure a 14-14 draw to retain the cup. The Americans need 14.5 points to win it back.
The History, or Why the Europeans are the Favorites
The recent success of the Europeans is the dominant narrative of this year’s Ryder Cup, so it may be surprising to learn that the United States holds a 25-11-2 record since the event began in 1927. The Cup was limited to players from the U.S. and Great Britain over the first 19 installments, and it was a complete mismatch. The U.S. won 15, lost three, and retained the cup with a tie once. In 1973, Great Britain added Ireland to the roster, but that combined team was promptly blown out in the next three Ryder Cups. By ’77, the results were so totally lopsided that the tournament didn’t enjoy much popularity in any country.
The modern era of the Ryder Cup began in 1979, when the format was changed to U.S. vs. Europe. At first, it seemed like more of the same; the Americans cruised to dominant victories in ’79 and ’81. Then, in 1983, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, and Bernhard Langer turned in terrific performances in a 14.5-13.5 defeat in Palm Beach, Florida. It was a loss, yes, but it was a statement loss. Two years later, at the Belfry in England, Ballesteros earned 3.5 points and his partner Manuel Pinero notched four as the Europeans dominated for their first win since 1957. Two years after that, the unthinkable: For the first time in 50 years of Ryder Cup history, the United States lost on home soil. Again, it was Faldo, Ballesteros, and Langer leading the way. Speaking on Tuesday, U.S. captain Davis Love III pinpointed that win, which coincided with increased TV coverage, as the moment when the tournament took off. With the European rise, the Ryder Cup took on a new dimension of importance, and the prestige has grown every year.
Including that 1985 win, Europe has won nine of 13 Ryder Cups, and six of the last eight. The result? The Americans competing in this year’s competition have become something of a lost generation. You can examine the records of the American and European teams in greater detail, but here’s the salient fact — not one American player has a winning record in his Ryder Cup career, and only two Europeans (Peter Hanson and Francesco Molinari) have losing records.
The 2012 Captains
Davis Love III and Jose Maria Olazabal present a study in contrasts, and it begins with their Ryder Cup records as players. Love was a workmanlike 9-12-5, typically below average for an American player in the age of the Euros. Olazabal, though, was a superstar, amassing an 18-8-5 record over eight Ryder Cups, for a .661 winning percentage that is the highest of all inactive players with at least 10 matches played. He was known as steady and fiery at the same time, and virtually unbeatable when he paired with Ballesteros (11-2-2 overall).
And the differences don’t end there. Love is a sincere person, very gentlemanly, and a bit bland. When asked at his press conference Wednesday about the gifts he’d be giving his players, Love said, “[His wife] Robin and I, and the PGA of America gave them a very nice gift last night of some china that they’ll enjoy for a long time.”
Later, when asked about Team USA’s compulsive Ping-Pong habit (Matt Kuchar is the best player), he reminisced about how his Ryder Cup teams spent their free time: “We had Pass the Pigs early on, the little dice game, and we all sat around and played Jenga and Pass the Pigs.” He enjoys fishing, speaks with an unwavering tone, and still gets picked on by Fred Couples. So yes, he’s a square. But he’s a likable square, and he cares about the team. He choked up when speaking about Phil Mickelson on Wednesday, and admitted that he and Bubba Watson had cried together at the team dinner the night before.
As for Olazabal? Well, as my friend Andrew put it, even pronouncing his last name is a sensual experience. He’s suave, good-looking, playful and passionate by turns, intimidating, and possessed of a smile that ranges from charming to wolfish. Unlike Love, whose career peaked with an emotional PGA Championship victory in 1997, Olazabal is probably best known for his 1999 Masters victory. On that Sunday, he responded to a Greg Norman eagle with a long birdie putt on the back nine. He winked and pointed at Norman, and the collapse was on — the Spaniard won his second green jacket. It was an emotional win for Olazabal, but there was no disguising the fact that when the pressure rose, he became the predator.
The Friday Morning Pairings
The opening ceremony was held Thursday afternoon, and the pairings for the morning session were released on a stage outfitted with fake brick, archways, and a giant replica of the Ryder Cup. As the players, thousands of fans, and MC Justin Timberlake looked on, the Friday foursomes took shape. (Note: The draws for the other sessions will take place after the previous session has ended.)
8:20 a.m. — Brandt Snedeker and Jim Furyk, USA, vs. Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, Europe
Snedeker and Furyk were two of Davis Love’s four captain’s picks (the other eight golfers make the team based on their performance over the last two years), and there are a couple ways to look at the selections. On the negative side, Snedeker is a Ryder Cup rookie with no experience, and Furyk has an abysmal 8-15-4 mark in Ryder Cup play, one of the worst records in American history. On the positive side, Snedeker may be the hottest player in the world, having just won the FedEx cup last weekend, and Furyk has been playing extremely well lately.
There’s also Snedeker’s growing reputation as an assassin. When asked why this pairing was going out first, Love said, “The more you know Brandt Snedeker, the more you’ll understand.” The perception is that Snedeker is a fearless bulldog. There was a rumor going around the media center this week that former captain Paul Azinger told Love to try to guess where McIlroy would be placed in the European lineup, and send his hottest players out to beat him. If that’s the case, Love guessed right.
McIlroy, obviously, is the no. 1 player in the world, and a lot of the debate in the lead-up to Friday has revolved around whether or he’s a “marked man.” He and fellow Northern Irishman McDowell, who clinched the winning point in Wales, paired together three times and finished with a 1-1-1 record in 2010.
8:35 a.m. — Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley, USA, vs. Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia, Europe
Based on past records, this is the best team in Europe’s arsenal. Donald is 8-2-1 all time in the Ryder Cup, Sergio is among the best ever at 14-6-4, and the two are 4-0 when paired together. Mickelson and Bradley will have their hands full. But Mickelson, whose career record is a woeful 11-17-6, has taken the rookie Bradley under his wing. What that means, apparently, is that he’s teased, tormented, and tortured him in practice rounds over the past two years in an effort to solidify a partnership for the Ryder Cup. Per Bradley: “If I’m ever playing against Phil I want to beat him so bad that sometimes it doesn’t bring out the best golf in me, and it’s a great way to prepare for a tournament like this. And without a doubt, he’s prepared me for this moment with these matches.”
8:50 a.m. — Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson, USA, vs. Lee Westwood and Francesco Molinari, Europe
An unfortunate wrinkle in this year’s Ryder Cup is that, try as I might to ignore it, Europe has more interesting players. The U.S. team is full of guys like Zach Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Steve Stricker, Webb Simpson, and Bubba Watson, who are quiet, polite, Southern/Midwestern, and devoutly Christian. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but they don’t exactly light up a press room. Then there are guys like Dustin Johnson, who seems to have an empty hole where his personality is supposed to be, or Tiger, who has formed a shell around himself for obvious reasons. As one sportswriter put it, “All those guys do is bitch about Obama and play Ping-Pong.”
The only really compelling personalities belong to Mickelson, who seems dull but plays golf like an inveterate gambler, and Furyk, who is interesting based mostly on his experience. Among the younger guys, only Dufner, Snedeker, and Bradley really raise an eyebrow. In this pairing, the Americans will have their hands full with another Ryder Cup legend, Lee Westwood, who is appearing in his ninth Cup and owns a 16-11-6 mark.
9:05 a.m. — Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods, USA, vs. Ian Poulter and Justin Rose, Europe
Poulter is another classic European personality; confrontational and aggressive, his wide-eyed stare-downs are the stuff of Ryder Cup legend, and he has an 8-3-0 mark to back it up. He’s from the Sergio Garcia school of in-your-face golf, and he’s very easy to hate when he’s on the other team. This week, he already admitted to the press that, though he likes a lot of the Americans, he wants to “kill them” this weekend. Stricker and Woods are 2-1-0 as teammates, but still feel like underdogs against the English.
The Subs: Martin Kaymer, Nicolas Colsaerts, Peter Hanson, and Paul Lawrie for the Europeans. Bubba Watson, Matt Kuchar, Webb Simpson, Dustin Johnson for the Americans. From Love’s comments, it’s likely that all four Americans will see action in Friday’s afternoon rounds, while some of the Europeans are likely to stay on the bench until Saturday.
How Love Is Trying to Rig the Course
As the host captain, Love has the right to work with the Medinah staff to tailor the course to his preferences. Here, Love is taking a page from Azinger, the captain in 2008 at Valhalla Golf Club in Kentucky. That Ryder Cup was notable because it remains the only time since 1981 that the Americans, to put it bluntly, kicked Europe’s ass. Like Azinger, Love has tried to make the following adaptations:
1. Shorten the rough along the fairway from four inches deep to practically nonexistent.
2. Remove trees to make tee shots easier — including one as late as Wednesday. (Seriously, where else but the Ryder Cup do you get a guy actually removing trees?)
3. Slow down the greens. In this, he has only been moderately successful, as the weather has kept the greens fairly quick.
4. Place the pins in easy, accessible locations.
The theory here is two-fold. First, it suits the American style. In broad terms, the Americans are longer and less precise off the tee. With no rough, they won’t be punished for errant shots and can still get close to the pin on their approach. Also, the relatively stronger short game of the Europeans will be neutralized with easy pin placements, no rough near the greens, and slower putting surfaces. Second, the design encourages birdies, which in turn encourages crowd participation, which influences momentum toward the Americans.
And don’t think the Europeans haven’t noticed, and aren’t a little bit annoyed.
Graeme McDowell: “I really think that’s their tactics, to get the crowd behind their guys Davis wants birdies and eagles to get the crowd fizzed up and charged up.”
Sergio Garcia: “Obviously the course is playing different with pretty much no rough. So there’s not a lot of thinking when you get on the tee. You can pretty much hit it nice and hard, and even if you miss, pretty much every time you’ll have a shot.”
Lee Westwood: “I’ve played here [in America] all year, and I haven’t seen a golf course that’s had no rough and no rough around the greens that’s a weird one to me, but you have to do what you feel is right, I think, as a team captain.”
Does the Crowd Really Matter?
Yes. Love and all his players made sure to mention that they need the Chicago crowd to be loud and partisan. U.S. fans need to be inspired before they’ll get loud. It may be due to America’s puritan origins, or the insane soccer culture in Europe, but the fact is that one European fan makes enough noise for 10–20 Americans. When the Ryder Cup is overseas, nobody needs to tell the home fans to sing and roar and heckle the opponent. It’s a big reason why the U.S. hasn’t won away from home since 1993. But in America, great crowds are not always a guarantee. Azinger’s course changes got the Kentucky crowd fired up in 2008, but the Oak Hills fan base in 2004 was lackluster in a European victory. Even in Brookline in 1999, the spectators were tame until the Sunday miracle was well underway. If the Europeans take their typical early advantage and the Chicago partisans are silenced, it creates a momentum burden that’s difficult to overcome. On the other hand, if the Americans start hot, it’s easy to imagine a tide of support that carries them to a Valhalla repeat.
Beware the Non-Major Winners
Let’s call it Monty Syndrome. For some inexplicable reason, European players who have never won a major seem to play at their highest level in the Ryder Cup. Colin Montgomerie was the classic example; he was considered one of the foremost chokers in the world in individual golf — and maybe the best player to never win a major — but somehow amassed a 20-9-7 mark in the Cup. Several European players in 2012 are suffering from acute Monty Syndrome, including Luke Donald (8-2-1), Poulter (8-3-0), Garcia (14-6-4), and Westwood (16-11-6). That’s a 46-22-11 record between four players who are known for their inability to finish the job in the high pressure of the majors. And it works the other way, too. Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, who have won 18 combined majors, are 24-31-8 for their careers. And by the way, Tiger is considered to be one of the best singles match play golfers in history. Can you find any better illustration of why the Ryder Cup is so strange and unpredictable?
The Signature Holes
The PGA Championship was held at Medinah in 1999 and 2006, with Tiger winning both. You might remember Sergio Garcia’s shot from behind a tree on no. 16 in ’99, which none of us knew at the time would persist as the most famous shot of his career. But there are two other holes that are likely to claim the lion’s share of drama this weekend.
No. 15, Par 4 — This is considered Medinah’s signature hole, and it’s recently been shortened to 390 yards. When the tees are forward, it’s only 285 to the front of the green, an enticing distance for the bigger hitters on both teams. It’s unlikely that we’ll see anyone go for the green in the more perilous alternate shot, but in the afternoon fourball and in Sunday singles, it’s a good bet someone — maybe a long hitter like Watson or Europe’s Nicolas Colsaerts — will take the risk.
No. 17, Par 3 — The tee shot over Lake Kadijah lands on a green surrounded on three sides by stands, making it a noisy amphitheater. Even during the practice rounds, the sound coming from the gallery was deafening. Matches will be won and lost on this hole.
The Two Funniest Quotes of the Press Conferences …
… both belong to Luke Donald.
When discussing how he and Westwood won some money off Poulter, a notorious cheapskate, during a practice round: “It’s always pleasing when you’re able to take cash out of Poulter’s wallet; a few moths fell out at the same time.”
And later, when asked what he might have done with his art theory degree from Northwestern: “How to tell? I don’t think yeah, I think I’d probably be living in a different suburb than I am now, let’s put it that way.
Inspiration for Team Europe
Comes from the recent death of Ballesteros. His silhouette adorns the Ryder Cup bags of everyone on the team, and his memory has reduced Olazábal to tears several times this week.
Inspiration for Team USA
Comes from their horrid record against Europe over the last three decades and their desire to reclaim some Ryder Cup pride. And if they want, they can use this video of the greatest TV preamble in history, culminating with Ben Crenshaw’s epic prediction.