CHASKA, Minn. — The American and European Ryder Cup teams hadn’t even arrived at Hazeltine National before the posturing began.
England’s Lee Westwood, who is playing in his 10th Ryder Cup, didn’t mince words when asked about the U.S. Team — and particularly Captain Davis Love III — in an ESPN UK article published last week.
In looking back at the 2012 Ryder Cup in which Love’s U.S. team took a commanding 4-point lead in team play before losing in Singles, Westwood said, “His captaincy at Chicago was great — for a couple of days. He added that the Americans’ stumble that Sunday at Medinah “will be in the back of their minds.”
Westwood also didn’t understand why Love skipped over Bubba Watson, the No. 7 player in the world, with all four of his captain’s picks. He also suggested that Tiger Woods’ presence as a vice captain could have an “adverse effect” in the team room.
On Friday’s “Fairways of Life” radio show, though, Love was full of praise for his team, eight of whom were among the 30 players competing at East Lake in the Tour Championship.
“We don’t have to do anything superhuman, we’re a great golf team,” he said. “This is the best golf team, maybe, ever assembled.”
Some, including Brandel Chamblee of the Golf Channel, took issue with that comment – noting that the 1981 U.S. Team had 49 total majors to just 11 for the current squad. And on Tuesday at Hazeltine, Love clarified his comments, saying that’s what he would tell his team; it wasn’t meant as a ranking.
And Rory McIlroy, who won the Tour Championship and FedExCup in a playoff — against two Americans, one of whom was the final captain’s pick, Ryan Moore — may have had the last laugh.
“(The Americans have) definitely assembled the best task force ever, that’s for sure,” the Northern Irishman said, making a not-so-veiled reference to the brain trust working to shore up the U.S. resume that includes losses in six of the last seven Ryder Cups.
“Look, it’s a great team. They have a lot of talented players in there. They’re obviously quite confident. So you know what? It’s up to us to go there and try to upset the odds.”
But are the odds really in favor of the U.S.? Or is Europe poised to continue its dominance? PGA.tour.com’s Helen Ross provides five reasons why the U.S. will win, while fellow staff writer Ben Everill counters with five reasons why Europe will prevail.
Why U.S. will win … REVENGE FACTOR
Of the 12 Americans, only two have ever played on a winning Ryder Cup squad — Phil Mickelson and J.B. Holmes, whose one previous foray in this storied competition in 2008 at Valhalla was particularly well-timed. Since then, the U.S. has lost three straight. Losing had gotten so old, in fact, that Mickelson publically called out 2014 captain Tom Watson at Gleneagles and said the team had “strayed” from Paul Azinger’s player-focused formula in 2008.
Almost immediately, the task force was established and Love, one of the game’s most popular veterans, was selected as captain. Refreshingly, his team features just two rookies and five players who have only played on one losing team. So while they are well aware that the Americans have now lost six of the last seven and eight of 10 — they haven’t been beaten down by the disappointment. — Helen Ross
Why Europe will win … LESS PRESSURE
Why did the Americans create the task force? Because there is pressure on them to stop Europe’s domination in this event. Across the pond, the Europeans could only chuckle at the wringing of hands by their counterparts. Going into this Ryder Cup, the Europeans have positioned themselves as the underdogs, the team with six rookies, playing on foreign soil. Despite winning six of the last seven, they’ve shunned the favorites role.
Of course there is pressure for all players but Team Europe have a much more relaxed build-up. Being led by Darren Clarke also ensures Europe will be smiling in the lead up and should have those six rookies at ease. —Ben Everill
Why U.S. will win … HOME-COURSE ADVANTAGE
Hazeltine National has hosted two majors since the turn of the century — the 2002 and ’09 PGA Championships. Two players on each team — Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia of the Europeans and Americans Phil Mickelson and Matt Kuchar — played in both. The Europeans had more success in 2009 with Rory McIlroy and Westwood tying for third and Martin Kaymer and Henrik Stenson another stroke behind. The highest-placed Americans that year were Zach Johnson and Dustin Johnson, who both tied for 10th.
But it’s not the actual ground that Robert Trent Jones turned into this 7,678-yard beast surrounding Lake Hazeltine that we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the sellout crowd outside the ropes dressed in variations of red, white and blue with the stars and stripes rising
Darren Clarke certainly knows what’s in store: “The home support is going to be loud. It’s going to be vociferous — and rightly so. That’s the way it should be.” The American fans are as tired of losing as the U.S. players are, and while I’ll stop short of saying the Euros will be rattled, the Americans will feed off their vociferous support. — Helen Ross
Why Europe will win … RECENT HISTORY
Let’s be frank — Europe has dominated in recent times. They have won eight of the last 10 Ryder Cups, six of the last seven. Last time out? They won 16.5 to 11.5 at Gleneagles. Now Europe is chasing history. Since greater Europe was added to the Great Britain & Ireland team in 1979, no team has won more than three times in a row. They have a chance and are extremely motivated to do so.
Oh and by the way, the team has the Masters champ, the Open Championship winner, the Olympic gold medalist and the FedExCup champion in their side. It’s a good antidote for the six rookies.
Captain Clarke says the win streak is “irrelevant” this week. “Each Ryder Cup is individual in its own rights,” he adds. Maybe so, but no doubt confidence and momentum are on their side. As he also said, “We’ve been very fortunate that it’s been a formula that seems to be very successful.” — Ben Everill
Why U.S. will win … EXPERIENCE
Given the European dominance since 1995, some might see this as a negative as far as the U.S. is concerned. Too many bruised egos. Too much wounded pride. Not me. Not when the Europeans are bringing six rookies to Hazeltine and the Americans have just two. That’s a significant difference because the Ryder Cup is unlike any other competition. There is no way to prepare for the loud and partisan crowd — or the suffocating pressure you feel when every shot taken is for your team, not just yourself.
This is where Europe misses a player like Ian Poulter, who has been the heart and soul of so many teams. His leadership and spunk was infectious. In his absence, Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia are left to fill the void. Not only do the Americans have five veterans making at least their third appearance, Captain Davis Love III has stacked the team room with four vice captains who have played on at least three Ryder Cups — and Jim Furyk and Tiger Woods have nine and seven appearances, respectively. “Experience is good,” Love said. “We know what to expect. We know how to handle it, how to deal with it.” — Helen Ross
Why Europe will win … ROSE & GARCIA
Yes, Team Europe’s spiritual on-course leader Ian Poulter is relegated to assistant captain this time around thanks to injury. But that doesn’t mean Europe lacks a powerful presence. The men to lead are Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia.
This will be the fourth Ryder Cup for Rose, who has been ultra-impressive on the way to a 9-3-2 career record in his previous three appearances. Rose has yet to lose in singles play (2-0-1) with two wins over Phil Mickelson and a halve against Hunter Mahan. His 2012 singles win against Mickelson was a beauty, winning the final two holes to steal the point and continue a famous comeback in the Miracle at Medinah.
Garcia heads to his eighth Ryder Cup with an impressive 18-9-5 career record. While his singles record is a losing one at 3-4-0, he has been incredible in the team formats. At 9-2-2 in Foursomes he must be feared there and his Four-ball record of 6-3-3 is also notable. His passion was forged from birth and he continues the proud Spanish legacy on from Seve Ballesteros. — Ben Everill
Why U.S. will win … BIG HITTERS & GOOD PUTTERS
With Hazeltine National measuring nearly 7,700 yards, it’s safe to say length will be an advantage. In that case, the Americans have a big edge, with five players averaging more than 300 yards, led by captain’s pick J.B. Holmes at 314.5. Combining the stats from the PGA TOUR and European Tour to get some comparison for the European Team, just three Europeans average more than 300 yards (although Sergio Garcia clocks in at 299.9). Rory McIlroy leads with an average of 306.8 that places him ninth on the PGA TOUR.
That said, the team that makes the most putts always wins the Ryder Cup. Four of the Americans rank in the top 25 in strokes gained: putting. The European Tour doesn’t have the same stat but it does measure putts per round, as does the TOUR. The highest-ranked European is Lee Westwood at No. 50 with an average of 29.1 — one of three players on the team under 30. The Americans have six ranked in the top 20 led by Jordan Spieth at No. 1 with an average of 27.83.
Love, however, isn’t relying solely on those two advantages. “Patrick Reed told me something about eight months ago: ‘You need to look at this a little bit differently. Don’t just look at length and strokes gained: putting.’ So there’s a lot more that’s gone into it.” But if it does boil down to power and putting, the numbers favor the U.S. — Helen Ross
Why Europe will win … FANTASTIC FOURSOMES
Team Europe has the measure of the USA when it comes to the Foursomes format in recent times and it has proven critical in the final wash-up. Europe has a 29-19 points advantage in the format over the last six Ryder Cups and demolished Team USA, 7-1, in 2014 on their way to a relatively easy victory.
Alternate shot is the ultimate “team” format — players don’t control their own fate as in Four-ball and Singles. Attitude is key. Can you remain positive if your mate puts you in a bush or into a buried bunker lie? Can you get past the little issues like potentially using a different ball then you are used to?
It appears the European players can adapt quickly. They have six rookies in their 12-man team but of the six players with experience their Foursomes records are envious. Sergio Garcia (9-2-2), Rory McIlroy (3-2-1), Justin Rose (4-1-1), Henrik Stenson (2-1-1) and Lee Westwood (9-4-4) all have winning records and Martin Kaymer (0-0-2) is yet to lose. On the flip side, there is not a single USA player in the current team with a winning Foursomes record.
Europe could resurrect successful 2014 teams McIlroy-Garcia and Rose-Stenson or they may split up the veterans with some rookies. Strangely enough Team USA do well in the format in Presidents Cups but cannot seem to bring the form against Europe. — Ben Everill
Why U.S. will win … SECRET WEAPON
OK. I know he doesn’t have a winning record overall. But good grief — Phil Mickelson has played in 10 Ryder Cups and of the five possible matches at each, only the Sunday Singles is totally in his control. He’s the most experienced player in international competition the U.S. may everhave — Mickelson has played in every Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup since 1994 (and believe it or not, has only been a Captain’s Pick once, at last year’s Presidents Cup).
And he has shown a penchant for bringing less experienced players along in practice round matches throughout the season. Suffice it to say, Mickelson is the heart and soul of the U.S. Team. Don’t believe me? Just ask Davis Love III. He was an assistant last year at the Presidents Cup and he saw first-hand how hard Mickelson was trying to make the team. Lefty even bought gifts for his teammates months ahead of the final qualifications — bracelets made of stones with different meanings, “energy, togetherness and all that stuff,” Love recalled.
Only trouble was, Mickelson finished 25th in the points standings when the automatic qualifiers were determined and U.S. Captain Jay Haas took a huge leap of faith in picking him. But Love knew Haas made the right choice. “When you pick him and he gets there and you watch him start playing the practice rounds and he starts giving these gifts, you’re like, he’s the team,” Love said. “Jay is the captain but there’s always somebody that pulls everybody together, and Phil is the guy.” — Helen Ross
Why Europe will win … TEAM CAMARADERIE
Despite the fact that players are from several different countries (six this year, to be exact), the Europeans all come together for a common cause — kicking American butt. How is it that a mishmash of players can gel so well together against a team from the same country? How is it that Team USA never seems to be in sync as much as their opponents despite all playing under one common flag?
Maybe it’s because American athletes are used to dominating American sports (football, baseball, basketball) while Europeans battle in global sports (soccer, rugby, cricket). As individuals, American golfers excel. As a team? Maybe not as much.
As Clarke said here Monday after he and members of his team flew over from Europe: “That European bonding thing doesn’t just happen when we get on the plane. That’s been going on for quite some time.”
In golf players are trying to beat each other every week, regardless of the flag attached. But when it is time to come together, Europeans appear to put differences aside without issue. They all want to stick it to the USA. The Americans seem to find it harder to find the same levels of motivation. — Ben Everill