RYDER CUP: Setting the scene

Medinah is ready to host what should be the tightest match in a decade

Europe are the defending champions; the Americans are on home soil. We have won four of the last five matches; they emphatically lead the way overall.

We have the World No 1 on our team; they have the greatest golfer of his generation and arguably all time.

Our young players have won all over the world; theirs arrive as reigning Major champions.

We have a universally respected Ryder Cup veteran as our captain; and so do they.

The 39th Ryder Cup matches are quite simply too close to call. And that means everything is in place for an electric weekend in downtown Chicago.

The action will begin at this storied club just a few miles from O’Hare International Airport at 2pm on the afternoon of Friday September 28.

Davis Love III, the American captain, has chosen to begin with foursomes and that means the eight most grizzled veterans from either side will most likely line up to see who can assume the early lead.

Momentum, as we will hear often, is perceived to be everything and within an hour it will be apparent who has it first.

The bookmakers are finding it hard to name a favourite, a sign in itself of changing times. It is not long ago when the concept of our team arriving in America and expecting anything other than a heavy defeat was an alien one.

Yet at some point in the late 80s it became expected that the matches would be close, and Europe were the favourites for the first time at the K Club six years ago.

Now things have changed again. Those wondering a few years ago where the next generation of American players would come from now have their answer.

They are Bubba Watson, Masters champion, and Webb Simpson, winner of the US Open. They are Dustin Johnson, a serial Major contender and Keegan Bradley, who won the first Major he ever played in. Jason Dufner has barely been out of the top 10 for the last 12 months. 

Add to that the experience of Major champions like Zach Johnson and Jim Furyk, not to mention Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, and you have a formidable team.

And yet Europe will still expect to win. The days of an inferiority complex are gone, with the mantle of World No 1 held exclusively by four Europeans – Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer – since the beginning of last year.

Graeme McDowell, the man who holed the winning putt in Wales, will be there, and so too Paul Lawrie, whose only previous appearance came on American soil 13 years ago, when he took 3 1/2 points out of five and partnered Colin Montgomerie to victory in the opening match at Brookline.

It’s too close to call. Our yin to their yang. An immovable object and an irresistible force. Bring it on. Then you have the Ryder Cup specialists, Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter. Get the whiff of the Ryder Cup in their nostrils and they become different players.

Who will ever forget Poulter’s declaration when interviewed ahead of the singles at Celtic Manor: “I will deliver a point,” he said. And then duly delivered it, thrashing Kuchar, hardly a mug, 5&4. Garcia, meanwhile, is almost unbeatable in the pairs: eight wins and a half in nine foursomes games; five wins and two halves in 10 fourballs contests.

In contrast, Woods’ record is modest, but more impressive than Mickelson’s, who has won 11 and lost 17 of his 34 games since 1995. Which in turn is better than Jim Furyk’s wretched cumulative efforts comprising eight wins and four halves against 15 losses.

Love, then, has much to do, but  there are reasons for optimism.

His players, by and large, have been in better form than ours in 2012. History is on his side – the USA have won 25 matches to Europe’s eight and GB&I’s three (with two draws), while the away team have won only one of the last seven matches. In Woods he has a man who has won not one but two Majors at Medinah, in 1999 and 2006. And his team looks better than any since 1993.

Plus, even if the US have not been beating Europe, they can look back at successes in the last two Presidents Cups, in which they have been captained by Fred Couples. Unsurprisingly, Love has named his friend as a vice captain.

This will be a different kind of American team, the first since Tiger made his debut in 1997 that does not stand and fall by the performances of him and Mickelson, winners of 18 Majors.

It would no longer seem like an admission of defeat – rather of strength – should Love choose to leave them out of the occasional series; and nor do they need to win four points each if the USA are to regain the trophy they last raised aloft at Valhalla four years ago.

That remains their sole victory this millennium, and when you look at the team that did it you realise just how few Americans know what it feels like to win the Ryder Cup. None of Boo Weekley, Justin Leonard, JB Holmes, Stuart Cink, Kenny Perry, Anthony Kim, Ben Curtis, Chad Campbell or even Hunter Mahan are anywhere near making this one. 

Add the generally miserable experiences of Woods, Mickelson and Furyk, who collectively have lost 16 of the 21 Cups they have played in, and you realise how difficult it could be at Medinah, especially if they fall behind early.

Not one American has a winning individual record, in contrast with the likes of Donald, Westwood, and McDowell, who certainly do.

Still, at least in Love they have surely their best captain in recent years, perhaps going back to Ben Crenshaw in 1999. The only problem is, up against him is Jose Maria Olazabal, surely Europe’s canniest leader since Bernhard Langer in 2004.

Watching these two intelligent, classy, respectful yet fiercely determined characters will be intriguing in itself. And in a match destined to come down to a single point, potentially decisive.

So there you have it – it’s too close to call. Our yin to their yang. An immovable object and an irresistible force. Bring it on.

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