Ryder Cup, golf's most nerve-racking event, will have plenty of players on edge
NEWPORT, Wales - Stewart Cink will be a veteran for the United States team at the 2010 Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor, which begins Friday. But he still remembers when he was a wide-eyed rookie, as five of his teammates will be this week. His Ryder baptism came at The Belfry in Sutton Coldfield, England, in 2002.
Cink had qualified for the 2001 Ryder Cup team, which ended up being the '02 team because of Sept. 11, which meant he had a year to think about playing golf on the game's biggest stage. If that weren't enough, Cink began to fight the yips during the 2002 season. When the Ryder Cup finally arrived, Cink was paired with Jim Furyk for a Friday alternate-shot match against Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley. Furyk teed off on the first hole, meaning Cink would commence his Ryder Cup career with a short-iron approach into the green.
That seemed easy enough, in theory.
"My first shot was an 8-iron from perfect 8-iron yardage out of the first cut," Cink said. "Had a nice little cushion under the ball. It was as easy a shot as you could imagine, and I got behind the ball and took my line and everything, and had to ask myself: What's my pre-shot routine again? I forgot what to do. I forgot."
So it goes in this biennial, 12-on-12 team competition between Europe and the United States that is widely considered the most nerve-racking event in golf — especially for those who have never played in it.
At the 7,352-yard, par-71 Twenty Ten Course at Celtic Manor, there will be 11 such players — six rookies for Europe, five for Team USA. How they will react under the most extreme pressure in the game is perhaps the biggest uncertainty in an event that has traditionally been almost impossible to predict.
Going into the 2008 Ryder Cup at Valhalla in Louisville, Ky., the Americans had gone 1-5 from 1995 through '06, but the U.S. won decisively, 16 Â½ to 11 Â½.
At the 1997 matches at Valderrama, in Sotogrande, Spain, transcendent Ryder rookie Tiger Woods lost his singles match, 4 and 2, to the jovial Costantino Rocca.
The 38th Ryder Cup is also sure to bring surprises big and small.
Europe is the betting favorite to win back the Cup because it has a vastly deeper roster of quality players. Captain Colin Montgomerie had such a wealth of options in making his team that he left off world No. 8 Paul Casey and fellow Brit Justin Rose, a two-time winner on the PGA Tour this year.
American captain Corey Pavin would gladly take either of them. Pavin had too few hot players to choose from, and with his fourth captain's pick took a flier on 21-year-old Rickie Fowler. Like American Jeff Overton, who qualified for the U.S. team on points, Fowler has yet to win his first tournament on Tour. They are the first two winless players to make a U.S. Ryder Cup team.
Still, not everyone agrees that the visiting Americans are undermanned.
"Unfortunately, Ryder Cup is not played on paper," Montgomerie said. "These matches are very, very close; remembering that even in our record (18 Â½-9 1/2) win in the States in Detroit in 2004, 11 matches went up to the last hole, seven of which Europe one; two halved. Now, if these matches were the other way around, the result would have been different, very, very different. We would have lost."
Pavin's team, which will be trying to win the Cup on European soil for the first time since 1993, boasts four of the top five players in the world. U.S. Ryder Cup players won three of the four FedEx Cup playoff events, most significantly Jim Furyk's triumph at the Tour Championship, which was good enough to win the FedEx Cup playoffs and the accompanying $10 million bonus.
Furyk does not have a stellar Ryder record at 8-13-3, but if he plays rainy Celtic Manor as well as he did rainy East Lake, he'll be one of the stars for the U.S.
Phil Mickelson is among those who believe the PGA Tour's newly designed end-game, a playoff series that keeps the top players active leading up to the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, has helped the top Americans stay sharp in the run-up to the yearly team events. It's hard to fault the results. Since the FedEx Cup began in 2007, U.S. teams have won the '07 and '09 Presidents Cups and the '08 Ryder Cup.
"I think that [FedEx Cup] did help them in Valhalla, definitely," Montgomerie said. "To play golf and to play golf so well as they did — we'll have to see if it's the same when they have to travel abroad the way they have done."
In other words, has the tide really turned, or was 2008 an aberration?
Both sides go into this week with other big questions. Two of Europe's best Ryder Cup players in Wales won't be hitting any shots. Montgomerie has won 20 matches, tied for third-best all time in Europe, while Sergio Garcia, who will be one of Monty's assistants while taking a sabbatical amid a frustrating slump, has won 14.
That leaves Lee Westwood (14-10-5 in six Cups) as the most accomplished European player. Two-time Ryder Cuppers Ian Poulter (5-2-0) and Luke Donald (5-1-1) are perhaps Europe's most promising players.
Euro rookies Rory McIlroy (Quail Hollow Championship) and Martin Kaymer (PGA Championship) look to be loaded with potential at ages 21 and 25, respectively, but who knows? Europe's other rookies include Ross Fisher, 29, Swede Peter Hanson, 32, and the Molinari brothers, Edoardo (29) and Francesco (27), a natural partnership that won the 2009 World Cup for Italy.
Some men, like Garcia, take to the Cup like a warm bath. Others don't. Still others, like Mickelson (10-14-6) and Woods (10-13-2), are somewhere in the middle.
The American team is full of long but not always straight drivers, starting with Ryder rookies Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson and going deep down the lineup.
Celtic Manor features six so-called signature holes, each with a water hazard that comes into play, creating risk-reward shots that are sure to tempt the Yanks. But even wayward shots that remain dry could be in deep trouble because of Celtic Manor's lush rough that's sure to be fortified by plenty of rain.
"It's hard to get out of," Pavin said, "but the fairways are the same widths as they were for the Wales Open when I played a year and a half ago. It's set up very fairly. It's going to reward good play, and shots that are off the fairway in this rough, you're going to be penalized."
Mickelson said: "This is going to be a great venue for match play where players can be aggressive without fearing the big number, because there are a lot of double and triple bogeys if we were to have a stroke-play event with conditions as such."
Among the most pressing questions for Pavin and the Americans is what to make of its top two players, Mickelson and Woods.
As even extraterrestrials must know by now, Woods has just endured the worst year of his career if not his life. He got divorced in the wake of numerous marital infidelities, went winless for the first time, and has begun working with a new swing coach, Sean Foley, after being left by his old one, Hank Haney.
Woods began to show consistency toward the end of the season, with top-15 finishes in the Barclays, Deutsche Bank and BMW Championship, but it wasn't enough to get him into last week's Tour Championship, which only took the top 30 in the FedEx Cup standings. Instead of playing competitively for just the 12th time this year, he practiced at home in Orlando.
"Saw Sean early in the week, and then obviously he went up to The Tour Championship with the guys," Woods said, alluding to Foley's other clients, like Hunter Mahan. "He came back on the weekend and we worked a little bit over the weekend and did some good work, and [I] feel good coming in."
The decorum of the home crowd is always at least a sidebar, but with Woods offering as big a target as ever, it will come under added scrutiny. Already Woods has faced some barely disguised hostility in the press:
Q: "You don't win majors anymore, you don't win regular tournaments anymore and you are about to be deposed by Europeans as the world No. 1, or Phil Mickelson; where is the Ryder Cup now on your agenda now that you're an ordinary golfer?"
TIGER WOODS: "I remember you're the same one at the British Open who asked me that, too. I hope you're having a good week."
Woods will once again partner with Steve Stricker Friday morning. The duo went 4-0 together at the Presidents Cup at San Francisco's Harding Park last fall, but no great partnership lasts forever. Woods once seemed at ease playing with Furyk in the Ryder Cup, too, until they started losing. Their career record together is 2-2.
Mickelson has done little of note after winning the Masters in April, and revealed over the summer that he is taking medication for a potentially chronic form of arthritis. His wife, Amy, continues to rebound from breast cancer that was diagnosed in the spring of 2009. She did not travel with the team earlier this week, but she did arrive for the opening ceremonies.
"I think the first couple of days we've been here, I think fun is the word I would use," Mickelson said. "We've had fun in the team room and played Ping-Pong and laughed and joked around. We have really had a good couple of days as far as getting adjusted to the time and hanging out."
Both captains have come up with the usual assortment of motivational gambits. Montgomerie played a video of Ryder Cup highlights and arranged for Seve Ballesteros to call the European team. Pavin had Maj. Dan Rooney, a fighter pilot and PGA professional, address his players.
Both captains have made daring moves that could backfire.
Montgomerie chose Padraig Harrington (0-7-2 in his last two Ryder Cups) as a wild card, but not Casey or Rose. Pavin's Fowler pick looked like a total flier, and the captain admitted he was acting on a hunch. Like Overton and Dustin Johnson, Fowler has played for the U.S. as an amateur, going 7-1 for two winning Walker Cup teams.
The biggest unknowns are always the rookies.
Matt Kuchar had arguably the most consistent year of anyone on Tour with 11 top-10 finishes in 25 starts, and is one of the best drivers on the U.S. team when he's on, but he played poorly at the Tour Championship. Has he already peaked?
Many men have gone into the Ryder green; some have thrived anyway.
"It took me a second to collect my thoughts and remember what to do," Cink said, recalling his first Ryder Cup shot, the 8-iron into the first hole, in '02. "And I hit it good, hit a good shot just over the flag, went about 10 yards too far into the middle of the green. I thought, well, I can calm down a little bit now because I put it on the green, and Jim is putting, and, oh, boy."