Captain Davis Love’s last pick is (finally) in and his “best ever golf team” is complete to take on a Team Europe lineup labeled “the worst team they’ve had in years”.
Home advantage and vastly superior average world rankings over a Poulter-less European team may suggest a Minnesota mauling for Darren Clarke’s side… I wouldn’t bet on it.
Ryder Cup week is here and it’s time for the Americans to back up the bold claims with a long-overdue big performance. This magnificent biennial sporting showpiece is more hotly-anticipated than ever before but in truth, this 41st edition is in desperate need of a USA win.
Just as continental Europeans were added into the mix from 1979 to help inject much-needed competition to proceedings, Team USA have increased their selection options in a bid to bring an end to Team Europe’s recent domination. Ominously, Rory McIlroy has put an early psychological blue point on the board with his witty “best ever task-force” retort and PGA Tour Championship and FedEx Cup steal at the weekend. And as encouraging as Ryan Moore’s resistance was to the Northern Irishman’s charge, star man Dustin Johnson’s capitulation will be hugely concerning for the Americans.
Team Europe may have won the last three instalments and six of the last seven but thankfully the matches have been anything but one-sided. Passion and quality from both teams every time – a few putts here and there but the US team always (just) second best. Is it as simple as Europe playing as a true team, with the USA playing as a group of individuals, less than the sum of their parts? Maybe, but Europe no longer struggle in the singles matches and no longer rely on the four balls and foursomes. There’s a collective fragility to the US team that reminds me of the English football side: technique not holding up under adversity and the weight of expectancy.
USA ‘reds’ like to point to the extra Ryder Cup experience of their team, but while half of Team Europe’s ‘blues’ are indeed rookies they don’t carry the negative baggage from past defeats such as the nightmares from Medinah, 2012, when the USA snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
In actual fact, Darren Clarke’s class of 2016 have 28 Ryder Cup ‘caps’ compared to Davis Love’s lot, with 26 – as well as 22 winners medals to just three. Once again, it’s hard to see why Team USA are always such big favourites and Team Europe such big underdogs. Most likely both teams prefer it that way.
And let’s look a little closer at the perceived disparity in quality between the two teams. The Ryder Cup is a team matchplay event, so looking at the individual World Golf Rankings, heavily weighted towards the larger spoils on offer on the PGA Tour, is a bit like looking at tennis singles rankings for a doubles match. Sports rankings should always be taken with a big pinch of salt, but if you want to make another comparison – Team Europe has three former world number ones in its ranks (Rory McIlroy, Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood) whilst Team USA has just one, Jordan Spieth.
A more reliable indicator must surely be tournament victories. Team USA have some scars from past Ryder Cups but from an individual perspective they are all enormously successful tour players who know how to get the job done. The reds have amassed 122 tournament wins worldwide with 29 coming since defeat at The Belfry in 2014 – impressive but surprisingly not better than the blues.
Team Europe members have also won 29 times in the last two years and between them boast 158 tour wins. Another nail in the coffin of the inexperience argument, although experts may argue that PGA Tour wins are harder to come by.
So what about the big tournaments then – the majors? Team USA players have captured five of the eight majors since the last Ryder Cup and have five major winners in their ranks. True, 11 majors in total does eclipse Team Europe’s nine. But, after Danny Willet’s Masters win and Henrik Stenson’s Open triumph, the visitors also boast five major winners – as well as an Olympic gold medalist in Justin Rose. They also now have nine Order of Merit titles (PGA or European Tour) between them to Team USA’s three.
Rory McIlroy’s FedEx Cup triumph was the cherry on top of an incredibly successful 2016 for the Europeans, adding to their momentum coming into this week. Form is a critical success factor and not too many members of Team Europe will be too worried about theirs – albeit one or two seem to be lacking consistency or a recent run out.
Team USA have their fair share of form too but a number of high-ranking players have become almost ‘unpickable’ in recent months and many of the players who did make it have played a lot of golf recently.
Whilst Hazeltine National is reportedly much-changed for this event, Team Europe can draw confidence from the last major tournament hosted there – the 2009 PGA Championship. McIlroy, Westwood, Kaymer and Stenson all finished in the top six behind YE Yang and Tiger Woods that year. Woods also finished runner-up in the 2002 PGA there and could add some valuable course and tournament insight as one of Davis Love’s vice-captains – although the competition rarely brought out the best in the American superstar.
The same certainly can’t be said of Ian Poulter – one of Darren Clarke’s vice-captains. Poulter showed that form and star-quality were only part of the winning formula as time after time he inspired his team to turn things around and upset the odds. His absence as a player will be a massive loss for Team Europe, although he, along with former Ryder Cup-winning captain Sam Torrance, will no doubt play their part as principle cheerleaders. Get Andrew ‘Beef’ Johnston on a plane over there too!
European preparations will have been meticulous again and helped by having an extra three weeks with their full lineup. The whole team will have spent time together, practiced together, travelled together and pairings tried and tested before this week. Though Team USA are the home team, three of their team were only known two weeks ago and Ryan Moore only added on Sunday. Chances are Moore’s inclusion was an 11th hour change – possibly a good one but a change nonetheless. The team will be finding their own way to Minnesota, getting in at different times and trying new combinations right up to Thursday’s opening ceremony.
Clearly I’m backing the Blues for an 11th Team Europe win in the last 19 Ryder Cups. No question, Team USA are an impressive group of individuals and there are many compelling arguments for their success – I just feel like I’ve heard them all before. A true team are better than the sum of their parts and not even Brexit can put a dent in this European team’s unity.
An emotional rollercoaster guaranteed – the 41st Ryder Cup. Let quality golf and sportsmanship prevail.
Richard Coleman, Pundit Arena