The Ryder Cup is in full swing before a single shot has been hit.
Former US captain Tom Watson has labeled the Americans favorites to reverse a losing trend on home soil — and warned that the inexperienced European team could drown in an “ocean of pressure.”
“The Ryder Cup this year will be more in favor of the Yanks rather than the Euros,” Watson told CNN Sport. “We have a stronger team this year than we did two years ago and the Euros have six rookies who haven’t played in the Ryder Cup.
“The thing is, they’re going to be thrown into the ocean without a life-preserver out there with the pressure, I can tell you.
“That ocean of pressure will define some of them, the way they handle it. It will be interesting to see. It’s a great spectacle.”
This week’s biennial bash at Hazeltine, Minnesota, is pure pantomime with three days of golf at the end, climaxing in Sunday’s deciding singles matches.
The phony war begins days, even weeks out. Every utterance, every deed from captains and players is pored over and dissected. It’s tittle-tattle tennis; advantages are sought, weak points probed.
The facts are that Europe has won the last three Ryder Cups, six of the last seven and eight of the last 10.
With reigning Masters champion Danny Willett, British Open winner Henrik Stenson, Rio Olympic gold medalist Justin Rose and world No. 3 Rory McIlroy — the overall FedEx Cup winner on the US PGA Tour — Europe has plenty of firepower alongside the six rookies in its 12-man team.
Then there’s veteran Lee Westwood, 43, playing in his 10th Ryder Cup, who needs three points to pass fellow Englishman Nick Faldo as the leading points scorer on either side.
The Americans can boast US Open champion Dustin Johnson, US PGA winner Jimmy Walker and a total of 11 major titles among the roster — five of which belong to veteran Phil Mickelson, playing in a US record 11th Ryder Cup. All that, in front of a home crowd baying for Euro blood.
US skipper Davis Love III told PGA Tour Radio last week he had the “best golf team maybe ever assembled.” Pundits rushed to check the archive (the consensus was 1981 was a better vintage), and pontificated on whether the 52-year-old’s comment was such a wise idea.
Westwood tweeted: “No pressure there then, lads.” European teammate Sergio Garcia told reporters on Tuesday: “You don’t win Ryder Cups with your mouth.”
The last Ryder Cup ended in ignominious and acrimonious fashion for the US, as Mickelson criticized the captaincy of Watson — sitting a few seats to his left — in the final news conference.
The thrust was that Watson — at 65 the contest’s oldest captain — was too distant and autocratic, and the Americans had moved away from the model championed by Paul Azinger in their last victory in Kentucky in 2008.
Watson’s perceived failings were magnified by counterpart Paul McGinley’s shiny modern management techniques and reported attention to detail.
But Ryder Cup captaincy is a house of cards. Victory is the only validation.
How much the captains can stack the pack with slick speeches, smart uniforms, team bonding, ego-stroking, luxury gifts, motivational videos and inspired pairings is the subject of endless debate.
“We got thoroughly beaten by a team that was better than we were, they played better golf,” Watson told CNN. “You look at the scores they shot, they made a lot more birdies than we did. That’s why we lost and they won.
“You always look back and say maybe I should have done this or done that, but it doesn’t matter in the whole scheme of things.”
In the wake of the 16½-11½ defeat in Scotland, the PGA of America set up an 11-member task force, including Mickelson and Tiger Woods alongside past captains Love (2012), Tom Lehman (2006) and Raymond Floyd (1989), to address their Ryder Cup shortcomings.
“Definitely assembled the best task force ever,” McIlroy told the Golf Channel with tongue firmly in cheek when asked to respond to Love’s “best team” comments.
The upshot was Love was reappointed despite being in charge of a team that contrived to lose from 10-6 up on the Saturday night at Medinah. The proof, as ever, will be in the putting.
‘Players must perform’
“Davis Love has done it before so he has an understanding of all the things that have to go on behind the scenes,” Watson said. “That helps him streamline his time-management.
“I think that’s important as a captain, your time management gets confined with all the activities that go on beside the playing of the matches. That’s probably the biggest challenge.”
For some captains, the hardest part actually is negotiating the required speech at the opening ceremony. Sounding accomplished and statesmanlike is deemed another small tick on the captaincy ledger. McGinley’s successor Darren Clarke, 48, has reportedly been using the BBC television studios in Northern Ireland to practice.
But ultimately, the captain’s main job is to have final say on who plays — and who is left out — of the two alternate-shot foursomes and fourball sessions on the first two days before Sunday’s singles where each of the 12 players takes on a member of the opposition.
“The captain’s role is most important in putting together the right players who win matches,” Watson said.
“Sometimes that’s difficult. You make the wrong decisions or players don’t play up to expectations or some of the players play beyond expectations.
“Basically as a captain you believe all your players can play with anybody in the team and do well. Then it gets into more specifics about how some players mesh with some players better than others. There are all kinds of different things you think about as a captain but the bottom line is your players have to perform.”
Both captains have surrounded themselves with five vice-captains, experienced Ryder Cup men with a wealth of knowledge to act as the “eyes and ears” on the course.
Woods’ presence as one of those US assistants has already sparked plenty of debate. The 14-time major champion — out injured for more than a year — has a losing Ryder Cup record and often failed to gel in a team context. How he takes to a cheerleader role, and whether he proves a distraction, will be fascinating. So too, the choice of Bubba Watson, who was passed over for team selection, reportedly on temperament grounds, and then added to the entourage for his “fun” and “heart.”
This 41st edition of the Ryder Cup will take place against the sad backdrop of the death of American golf icon Arnold Palmer at the age of 87 on Sunday. A video tribute and a moment’s silence will feature in Thursday’s opening ceremony, while players are expected to wear lapel pins in remembrance.
Once the action starts, the reverence will become raucous. Visiting fans with a medley of songs and chanting “Europe, Europe” — ironic given the UK’s Brexit vote — against feverish home support will give the Ryder Cup an electricity unique in golf.
Europe needs 14 points to retain the Cup, while the USA needs 14½ points to win it back and reignite the rivalry.
In Watson’s mind, all the buildup and baloney is irrelevant. The only way to win the Ryder Cup, he says, is to “play better golf.”