GLENEAGLES, Scotland -- Let the drama begin.
Ryder Cup captains Tom Watson and Paul McGinley announced their pairings for Friday morning’s four-ball matches here at the Gleneagles Hotel. They included a mix of surprise and the expected.
Surprise One. Watson will send out all three of his rookies in the morning session while benching the highest-ranked American, Jim Furyk, along with Matt Kuchar and Zach Johnson. Remember that wild-card selection telecast in which Watson told Hunter Mahan to get ready to play all five matches? Not so fast, Huntmeister. Mahan is not playing in the morning.
“You can bet all four of those guys will play in the afternoon,” Watson said Thursday night.
Surprise Two. Phil Mickelson likes to get out early, usually first, but he’s in the final match with Keegan Bradley, his dynamic partner from 2012.
Surprise Three. McGinley may have sensed that move and pitted Sergio Garcia and Rory McIlroy against Bradley and Mickelson in Match 4. Why? Wednesday, Mickelson made a wisecrack about how well the U.S. team plays together and, in reference to some pending legal issues involving the management teams of McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, said, “At least we don’t litigate against each other.”
U.S. Open champ Martin Kaymer of Germany said Thursday, “You just read that and laugh.” Maybe, but don’t you think Rory might want a piece of Phil after that comment, even if it’s just for fun? McGinley, making a winning chess move, got it for him. McGinley said Mickelson’s comment had no bearing on his pairings or order of play but even Watson admitted, “That match will be the main event in the first round. You all know that. We’ll all be looking forward to that match.”
Surprise Four. McGinley followed through on what he hinted at, breaking up the frequent pairing of Northern Ireland natives McIlroy and McDowell. Let’s see if it sticks.
Surprise Five. Rookies Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed go out together in Match 3 against Poulter and Gallacher. The logic is, foursomes play (alternate shot) is a more difficult format for rookies and Watson wanted to get his rookies’ feet wet. “I told them, I’m throwing you in the ocean without a life preserver, let’s see what you’ve got.” Watson said he believes both rookies can handle the pressure. “They are tough kids,” Watson said. “Patrick Reed gets on a roll, he thinks he can beat the world and I like that attitude.”
Surprise Six. There was talk that local hero Stephen Gallacher, a Scot who grew up less than 30 miles away and has logged many rounds on the Gleneagles courses, might get the honor of hitting the first tee shot for the Europeans, but instead he’ll be in Match 3. He’s paired with the veteran Poulter.
“Poulter is a very experienced player and there’s going to be a big atmosphere in that group,” McGinley said. “Stephen is Scottish, we need a guy with a big attitude for that group and Ian fills that bill. It’s always a thrill to have your name read out at the opening ceremony to go first out in the morning. His form around this course is very strong. The windy forecast is right up Stevie’s street. He doesn’t have to prove anything, just go out and be Stevie.”
Surprise Seven. McDowell will sit out the morning round. He figured to be one of the handful of players to go all five matches, although as a remarkably straight driver, he was always going to be a foursomes fixture. “He is a big player who’s playing well,” McGinley said. “He loves the big atmosphere but there’s going to be a lot of big atmospheres between now and Sunday night.”
Surprise Eight. Some thought McIlroy and Kaymer would play together, but instead McIlroy is with Sergio Garcia. They became closer friends over the summer and McGinley put them together at their request. Kaymer, meanwhile, joined Thomas Bjorn instead of McIlroy. The quiet Dane is a Ryder Cup vet who keeps a low profile and is also a very cerebral player who is likely to be a Ryder Cup captain someday, but he maybe wasn’t expected out in the first session, so call Bjorn Surprise Eight-A.
The Expected. The pairings of Watson and Simpson and Mickelson and Bradley are obvious encores… Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker were practically joined at the hip in practice rounds… Both captains said they plan to play all 12 players on Friday, which means the four players who sit in the morning will play alternate shot in the afternoon. “But you never say never,” McGinley admitted… The antsy Bubba Watson is in the first group. He likes waiting around even less than Mickelson so he got the lead match, which tees off at 7:35 Friday morning, Scotland time (2:35 a.m. Eastern time in the U.S.).
Captain Watson has been low-key and fairly calm during the week’s pre-match cycle but he was absolutely ebullient in his press conference to talk about the pairings. Told that Reed’s first memory of Watson is of his 2009 near-miss in the British Open, Watson put a hand to his brow and shook his head with a chuckle.
“I’m a grandfather now with three grandkids,” he said. “Someday, they’ll ask me, ‘What did you do back then?’ I’ll tell them some stories and they’ll say, ‘Really?’ Kind of like Patrick. And Jordan Spieth.”
Watson’s passion for the Ryder Cup was never more evident than near the end of his media session.
“That loss at Medinah affected me,” Watson admitted. “I told these guys it affected me. That was a hard, hard loss. I’ve had one or two pretty hard losses in my career that stayed with me longer than normal. That loss in 2012, for three or four days, I was in a funk, I really was. I haven’t physically gone to a Ryder Cup but I did watched almost every shot since I was captain in 1993.
“I was waiting for Ted Bishop’s call here for almost 20 years to be asked to be captain again. This has been a great ride. It’s been a great joy to be able to meet these players and be part of the process of trying to win. I’m 65, I don’t have a lot of years left. This is a very special moment in my life to be able to be a Ryder Cup captain. I hope it comes out the right way but if it doesn’t, it’s been one hell of a ride.”
Here are Friday’s pairings and how I see them:
Match 1: Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson, U.S., vs. Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson, Europe. The Americans were a formidable team in 2012 but neither player has been in top form of late. Rose and Stenson have looked sharp in practice. The pick: Europe.
Match 2: Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker, U.S., vs. Thomas Bjorn and Martin Kaymer, Europe. Despite not winning, Fowler has had a remarkably consistent season second only to McIlroy and maybe Kaymer and Walker remains an underrated player who packages length and great putting. The pick: U.S.
Match 3: Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed, U.S., vs. Stephen Gallacher and Ian Poulter, Europe. The American rookies are both smart beyond their years and absolute gamers, in the mold of Poulter. Gallacher has the course-knowledge edge, which may prove out if the wind is as strong as predicted, but Poulter really hasn’t found his game all season. This is an upset waiting to happen. The pick: U.S.
Match 4: Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson, U.S., vs. Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia. This is Europe’s No. 1 team, no doubt about it, and you know everyone on Europe’s side was hoping for a Rory versus Phil match at some point after Mickelson’s little jab Wednesday. Well, here it is, Phil, you asked for it. Just a reminder that Sergio has quietly risen to No. 3 in the world rankings and is a Ryder Cup assassin from way back. The pick: Europe.