- 2012 Ryder Cup: Preview
Ryder Cup Preview: Part IAlex Dimond September 26, 2012
The Ryder Cup gets underway at Medinah Country Club on September 28. ESPN will have extensive coverage of the event - including interactive text commentary, reports and reaction - for all three days.
Golf's great theatre
For three days every two years, one sport undergoes a metamorphosis from a battle of man against man, to a war between nations.
Golf is a predominantly solitary pursuit - lonely, even - but the Ryder Cup is a brief chance for the game's greatest talents to test themselves as teams, chasing a glory greater than themselves.
It's this rare dynamic in an individual sport - to a far greater extent than similar events in other disciplines (for example, tennis' Davis Cup) - that draws in the wider sporting public, much more so than even the four major championships (despite them being the undoubted pinnacle of the game). With partisan crowds and egregious displays of passion from the competitors, it is an event easy for the average sports fan to relate to, adding an extra frisson to that quality play and unrelenting tension that you will also see at Augusta National or St Andrews.
"It's so much heat on you, which is very different," was how Tiger Woods described it this week. "It's different than playing by yourself. Playing for teammates, it means so much more because it is our country, and it is our teammates. It comes down to one moment."
That complex alchemy creates a stage where players - even major champions - can cement or insult their legacy with a well-timed chip shot of a misplaced putt. Graeme McDowell's obituary may well one day lead with his US Open victory at Pebble Beach but, for many, it will be his nerveless defeat of Hunter Mahan on Sunday at Celtic Manor that will be their immediate memory of the Ulsterman.
The same is true for so many other players. Bernhard Langer, Justin Leonard, Tony Jacklin, Paul Azinger - the Ryder Cup has consistently produced drama and great theatre, and defined the careers of so many.
For no-one is that more true than the late, great Seve Ballesteros - who perhaps did more than anyone to make the competition what it is today, as both a player and a captain.
The Spaniard's memory and influence will pervade this week's proceedings, as well they should.
The 39th iteration of the competition takes place at Medinah Country Club, a storied establishment on the outskirts of Chicago, one of the United States' great sporting cities. Europe are looking to win on foreign soil after defeat at Oakland Hills last time out, while the US are keen to halt a run that has seen them win just one of the last five events.
But the event tends to exist outside its history, or its future - it really is caught in a three-day capsule, where drives, pitches and putts matter more than anyone previously thought possible. Like all great theatre, it is best experienced in the moment.
Course No. 3 at Medinah has hosted two majors in the last 13 years (the 1999 and 2006 US PGA Championships), but players cannot expect to be familiar with the layout when the action begins on Friday. As has become customary with recent Ryder Cup venues, the course has been redesigned extensively to provide a different matchplay test.
"There are some really winnable holes in there," said Medinah director of golf, Mike Scully, recently. "But there is plenty that'll catch them out, don't worry about that."
Tiger Woods noted on Tuesday that it was "a new golf course for us", and that is hardly an exaggeration. Some holes have been lengthened by as much as 60 yards, to create an overall layout that measures some 7,657.
That is not necessarily 'long' by modern standards, especially as US captain Davis Love III has instructed greens staff to prepare the course to play into the hands of his big hitters (for example; Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson) which means you may see players taking plenty of risks off the tee and getting more control than usual out of the rough.
The start of the back nine could prove decisive in many matches - with the 12th, 13th and 14th a stretch of holes of many tactical eventualities. Starting with a par-four that demands accuracy and nerve from both tee shot and approach (with water looming short and right of the sloping green), the players are then faced with a 250-yard par-three over water. A 609-yard par-five then offers what passes for respite at this course.
Then follows perhaps the most intriguing hole at Medinah, the par-four 15th. Listed at 390 yards but capable of being shortened to as little as 280, it is likely to be set up as a risk-reward driveable par-four for most days. Water down the right (that eats into the green's personal space) will add to the drama, perhaps giving it a similar feel to the famous 10th at The Belfry.
The 17th is another quality hole - a beautiful par-three over water, hardly good for the nerves in a tight battle - but the 18th perhaps lacks the iconic qualities of Ryder Cup venues past.
The other factor that might have major impact is the weather. Chicago is not known as the 'Windy City' for nothing, and gusts could change the face of the golf course on a daily basis.
The current forecast is for generally bright, sunny weather, however - with a less than 10 per cent chance of rain most days and wind not getting above 10mph. While undoubtedly preferable to the monsoon conditions Celtic Manor had to persevere through two years ago, a little mischevious intervention from the gods might stir a bit more drama into matters this week.
* Denotes wildcard selections
By the stats
- Europe have selected the top 12 players available to them in the world rankings, with Nicolas Colsaerts the worst-ranked player in the event at 35th in the world. The United States have 11 of their best 12 players (according to the world rankings) - with the unfortunate Nick Watney missing out for world No. 23 Jim Furyk.
- Seven US players have won majors, while just four Europeans are among that exclusive club. In 2012 alone, the US also leads in tour victories - 16 to 14.
- Europe's 12 players have 60 wins, 32 defeats and 18 draws to their credit in the Ryder Cup; the United States has 41, 59 and 16.
- Eight players on the European team have winning records (from a possible 11) - exactly zero (of eight) have positive records on Davis Love's team.
The influence of captains on the destination of the Ryder Cup is perhaps overrated, but some of the decisions they make over the course of the week can certainly prove crucial. Which players will pair well together - in foursomes and/or fourballs? Should top players be given a rest, or should they play every match they can? How should I order my singles lineup? The answers the two captains find to these questions will not necessarily define the competition, but they could prove to have a healthy impact on how it goes.
As for their respective leadership styles, neither player is likely to be too overpowering - although Love is more likely than Olazabal to defer a lot of responsibility and influence to his senior players. Olazabal feels deeply the passion of this event, however, and, with Ballesteros' memory looming, will perhaps rely on rousing speeches more than his rival to inspire his team to victory.
By the stats
- Jose Maria Olazabal had a marginally more illustrious career than Love - winning two major titles (The Masters in 1994 and 1999) compared to Love's solitary win (the 1997 US PGA Championship).
- The Spaniard also played in more Ryder Cups - seven to Love's six.
- Olazabal's Ryder Cup record reads 18-5-8, while Love's is a less impressive 9-5-12.
- Olazabal is perhaps most known for his Ryder Cup partnership with Seve Ballesteros. The last American pair the duo faced as players was Love and Tom Kite - Ballesteros captained against Kite at Valderrama in 1997, while Olazabal and Love face off now.
What they said
"The friendship and the camaraderie that we have on our tour is big and I think that that's why we are so passionate about this event. It gets us together once every two years. We let our defences down for this week. We try to get as close as possible to each other, and that's why the Ryder Cup is so beautiful."
"This is not a war. It's a golf match. It's a friendly golf match that's grown a little bit since they started it, and it continues to be a friendly golf match."