Every two years, a strange phenomenon occurs within the world of golf. The usually non-partisan, well-mannered, applaud-your-opponents’-skill game of golf loses its identity for a weekend and becomes an unrecognisable beast. For three days and five rounds of golf, booing becomes, if not acceptable, then at least commonplace. The sights of flags litter the landscape as fierce national pride comes to the fore. During the Ryder Cup, the game of golf divides Americans and Europeans so sharply you’ll need more than the width of the Atlantic to keep them apart. The 41st edition of the Ryder Cup kicks off next Friday at Hazeltine National Golf Club.
The American team is looking to rip the Europeans’ vice-like grip off of the most prestigious team trophy in golf. Since 1995, the Europeans have won the trophy seven times out of a possible nine. This is despite having the weaker team, man-for-man, the majority of the time. Losing has become almost contagious for the Americans. Even from seemingly untouchable positions of strength, they manage to find a way to lose. Depending on which side you are favourable to, the “Miracle at Medinah” will go down as one of the greatest chokes or comebacks in not just the history of golf, but all of sport. In danger of invoking a sense of déjà vu, the Americans are hopeful that this year will be different.
Although Darren Clarke’s European team includes Masters champion Danny Willett, Open Champion Henrik Stenson and world number three Rory McIlroy, there is a belief that the team is there for the taking. Out of 12 participants, there are three Ryder Cup rookies. It is true that by winning the Masters, Willett showed remarkable mental strength, and another rookie, Thomas Pieters, recently won the Made in Denmark merely days before Clarke announced his captain’s picks. Yet nothing can compare to the cauldron that is the Ryder Cup. When Pieters and Willet line up alongside Rafael Cabrero Bello, Chris Wood, Andy Sullivan and Matthew Fitzpatrick, they will be entering into a metaphorical theatre of war the likes of which have never been previously experienced. It will be up to the nous of the more senior players Lee Westwood, Justin Rose, Martin Kaymer, Sergio Garcia and the aforementioned McIlroy and Stenson to guide them through the Minnesota minefield. Clarke will have tough decisions to make: Rose and Stenson are as close to surefire points as you can get, but will he risk playing several teams made up solely of rookies?
Come the Sunday singles, will Clarke put his big players out early or save them for the back end of the day? Either decision comes laced with risk, and how the rookies fair will go a long way to determine the outcome of the match. A strong Friday/Saturday showing from a few of them will at least make the choice easier. How much influence vice-captains Thomas Bjorn, Padraig Harrington, Paul Lawrie, Sam Torrence and Ian Poulter wield will be fascinating. The fact that all bar Torrence play week- in, week-out with the players should give them an ideal insight into their character. Their opponents from across the pond, however, are in far better shape.
Davis Love III’s team, although one captain’s pick short at the moment, has only one rookie in Brooks Koepka. The American hits a long ball and will be a dangerous match player. The world number two Dustin Johnson finally shook off his bottler tag this year by winning the US Open. That sort of experience should stand him in very good stead should he be involved in a neck-and-neck battle. Given previous meltdowns, though, that is something you can’t guarantee. Jordan Spieth is the American’s answer to Rory McIlroy and unbeatable on his day. The same can be said of Phil Mickelson, who has only lost six matches in his 21-year Ryder Cup career. The rest of the team is made up of solid, seasoned pros such as the streaky putter Brandt Snedeker, the exciting Rickie Fowler, J.B Holmes, Patrick Reed and recent major winners Zach Johnson and Jimmy Walker. The team will be very hard to beat. An interesting subplot is that of Tiger Woods. Never a Ryder Cup worshipper, the previous world number one has been selected as a vice-captain alongside Steve Stricker and Tom Lehman, despite a poor record and his status as someone who has never performed in a team environment.
With the advent of the Olympics, the lure of competing for your country is no longer unique to the Ryder Cup. However, what the Olympics lack in historical context, the Ryder Cup makes up for in bucketloads. It is still the event that makes golf exciting for non-golfers. A partisan, electric atmosphere will be coursing through the veins of all spectators and players, and it will be an event not to be missed. Players always raise their game for this weekend, and without a doubt there will be a master class of golf on display. For what it’s worth, this writer is of the opinion that the USA will take home the Samuel Ryder trophy, but one thing that is for certain; whoever wins will deserve it. The Ryder Cup is always earned but never given.