Americans hope big hitters provide big advantage at Celtic Manor

Dustin Johnson
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Dustin Johnson is one of the longest hitters on the PGA Tour, but ranks 161st in accuracy.

Bubba Watson averaged 310 yards per drive on the PGA Tour this year, second longest on Tour, and Dustin Johnson wasn't far behind at 308.5.

Phil Mickelson (12th at 299 yards per drive) and 2010 Ryder rookie Jeff Overton (16th, 297) are considered exceptionally long, while Tiger Woods (296), Rickie Fowler (292.4), Stewart Cink (292.3) and Hunter Mahan (291.8) also are among the Tour's bigger hitters.

The American Ryder Cup team that will take on Europe at Celtic Manor starting Friday is being called the longest side in history. The question is whether all that firepower will help or hurt the Yanks as they attempt to win a Ryder Cup on European soil for the first time since 1993.

"I like the golf course," Johnson said Tuesday. "It fits my eye pretty good. There are a few holes where length is an advantage. A couple of the par 5s, if I hit a good drive, I can get home, where the rest of the guys are not going to be able to get there."

Still, when asked whether there was anything about the course or the set-up that would give a long hitter like him an advantage, he replied, "Not particularly."

European captains have negated Team USA's would-be power advantage by setting up their home courses with doglegs and narrow fairways. This week is no different. Although Euro skipper Colin Montgomerie has not gone out of his way to modify the course, the equalizer figures to be the rough, which has thrived and thickened in rainy Wales.

"The rough is patchy here in June," said Graeme McDowell, who won the Wales Open at Celtic. "It's not patchy anymore. It's just thick. You miss fairways, you're going to be punished."

"It's imperative that we get our numbers and lines straight because with the rough being up like that, you need to hit the ball on the fairways," Woods said.

The good news for Team USA is those fairways are not particularly narrow. The Twenty Ten Course at Celtic Manor features three par-5s, including the 610-yard second hole, the 580-yard ninth and the 575-yard 18th. The finishing hole features a pond in front of the green, forcing players to decide whether to try to carry the water with their second, or lay up and leave themselves a delicate third shot from a downhill lie to an elevated green.

J.B. Holmes, another American bomber who played on the 2008 Ryder Cup team and narrowly avoided making this year's side as a wild-card pick, is perhaps the most recent player to demonstrate the value of a length advantage in match play.

Holmes had Woods on the ropes at the '08 WGC-Accenture Match Play, forcing Woods to make three birdies and an eagle, and 88 feet worth of putts, to avoid a first-round upset.

The long-hitting Kentuckian made six birdies and scored a 2 and 1 victory over Soren Hansen in Ryder Cup singles at Valhalla later that year.

"He hit it quite long," Hansen said. "But quite long is probably an understatement. He hit it really long."

If this year's American Ryder team is to upset Europe, Watson, Johnson and company will have to figure out how to leverage their length advantage the way Holmes did. Given that Watson is 166th on Tour in driving accuracy (55.67 percent), Johnson is 161st (56.35 percent), Mickelson is 180th (52.66 percent), and Overton is 170th (55.44 percent), that may require some doing.

"I think these guys are pretty smart players and they will figure it out," said U.S. captain Corey Pavin, who added that Celtic's reasonable fairways but penal rough reminds him somewhat of the way officials set up Whistling Straits, home of the PGA Championship in August.

Johnson, who nearly won that PGA, said after comparing notes with his teammates that the play at Celtic may be to get aggressive with second shots, not tee shots.

In the end, European rookie Rory McIlroy may be best-suited to capitalize on his strong driving record. He averaged 300 yards per drive on Tour in 2010, and hit 62.64 percent of the fairways, making him far more accurate than any of the aforementioned Americans.

McIlroy drove it "like a man possessed" in practice Tuesday, McDowell said.

Long and straight — the combination never fails.

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