MEDINAH, Ill. -- Is America back?
Of all the questions hovering over the 39th Ryder Cup, which starts Friday at the brawny, 7,658-yard Medinah Country Club, the biggest is whether Team USA can return to a position of strength in the biennial team matches, or whether such a thing is even possible in the age of globalism.
The stars and stripes dominated the event's first 56 years, but Europe, under the leadership of the late Seve Ballesteros, flipped the script in a big way starting with a resounding, 16 ½-11 ½ victory at the Belfry in 1985. The U.S. has won the Cup just four times since, with narrow victories in '91 and '93, an epic comeback under mystical U.S. captain Ben Crenshaw at Brookline in '99, and a stunning, 16 ½-11 ½ win under master strategist Paul Azinger at Valhalla in 2008.
"Sunday of Brookline, what did we do? We made every single putt," said U.S. captain Davis Love III, whose players have largely patrolled themselves so far this week, spending many of their off-hours letting off steam at the Ping-Pong table. "In the captain's videos and other videos we watch, all you see is guys just making putts from all over the place."
Love says he learned the importance of the short game while playing on six teams that went 2-4, including a two-point win at the Belfry in '93, a heartbreaker at Oak Hill in '95, another tough loss at Valderrama in '97, the miracle comeback in '99, another defeat at the Belfry in '02, and an 18 ½-9 ½ wipeout loss in '04.
"It's whoever gets hot and confident with the putter," he said. "Valderrama, you could not have seen a worse putting team than the U.S. had. Tiger, Justin [Leonard], myself, we putted so poorly. And you just get going and you start making them, and you feed off of it. So I think it's going to come down to putting, chip ins, hole outs, things like that. Because they're both evenly matched [teams]."
Team Europe boasts four of the top five players in the World Ranking, and that doesn't include arguably its best Ryder Cup players, Ian Poulter (8-3-0) and Sergio Garcia (14-6-4). Team USA counters with five of the top 10 in the world, including second-ranked Woods, who won the '99 and 2006 PGA Championships at Medinah, where he is taking more of a leadership role this week.
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"He knows this golf course very, very well," said Brandt Snedeker, who is coming off an $11.44 million payday at the Tour Championship, and who played a practice round with Woods on Tuesday. "He's hitting the ball extremely solid. And he's got a little edge to him. I think he's going to be a guy that you do not want to face at any point this week if you're on the European team."
"I've talked to him a bunch the last month or so leading up to this," said Steve Stricker, Woods's frequent best-ball and alternate-shot teammate. "And he's very -- he feels good about where he's going and what he's doing."
Asked about America's 1-5 record in his six Ryder Cups, Woods (13-14-2) didn't look for cover: "I needed to go get my points for my team," he said, "and I didn't do that. Hopefully I can do that this week, and hopefully the other guys can do the same and we can get this thing rolling."
Snedeker is one of four Ryder rookies for the U.S. side, a quartet that also includes the excitable Keegan Bradley, who is expected to play most if not all of his team matches with Phil Mickelson; the low-key Jason Dufner; and U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson, who went 3-2-0 at last year's Presidents Cup.
Europe has one rookie: Belgian bomber Nicolas Colsaerts, who leads the European tour with an average drive of 317.7 yards. The U.S. counters with PGA Tour driving-distance leader Bubba Watson (315.5) and Dustin Johnson (fourth on Tour at 310.2), who is just ahead of Europe's Rory McIlroy (310.1). Length will be an enviable asset at 7,658-yard Medinah, the longest course in Ryder Cup history, but as Love points out, the Cup won't be won with booming drives.
Among the reasons for optimism in America is Snedeker, who is not only the hottest player on either team after winning the double-bonus that is the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup last Sunday; he also leads the PGA Tour in putts per round. His teammate Zach Johnson is 10th in that statistic. Again, though, Europe looks almost as strong: Poulter is 11th in putting, and always rolls it best at the Ryder Cup, and teammate Peter Hanson is fourth in putting on the European tour.
As with any sporting event, the Ryder Cup comes down to timing, finding the magic when you need it, and in that respect Europe has been the better team. Why that is remains something of a mystery, but it has become such an enduring truth that no one here is placing much stock in Team USA's edge in worldwide victories (234-168), major victories (23-5), and Ryder Cup appearances (28-26).
The Ryder Cup is a category unto itself, so that even though he never won a major, Colin Montgomerie (20-9-7) is revered in Europe, and even though his game has all but disappeared, Anthony Kim's 5-and-4 pasting of Garcia in 2008 has already been mentioned at least once to Garcia this week. (He said he wasn't well.)
Mickelson's four majors, Woods's 14 -- nobody cares about those here.
"We have not played our best when we have focused on trying to win the Ryder Cup," said Mickelson (11-17-6), who is playing in his U.S.-record ninth Ryder Cup. "We've played our best when we've had fun, enjoyed each other's company, and enjoyed the competition, and embraced the gallery and felt the momentum, kind of like in 2008 with 'Zinger."
Did the Americans win at Valhalla because they had fun, or vice-versa? Either way, Mickelson has been having a blast, teaming with Woods to make up a winning tandem on the Ping Pong table. If there is a lesson from Brookline and Valhalla, it is to harness the home-team advantage, and already there are signs that Chicago is up to the task. "I can't believe how many people are out here supporting the practice rounds," said Mickelson, who finished T4, T2 and T15 in the last three FedEx Cup playoff events. "It's just cool. I think this is going to be a very electric atmosphere, and we as players are very excited."
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Among the 12 Americans, only Jim Furyk has no wins in 2012, and while he's gone 8-15-4 at the Ryder Cup, he went 5-0-0 at last year's Presidents Cup.
Europeans Martin Kaymer, Graeme McDowell and Poulter are also winless this season.
Another plus for the Americans: the FedEx Cup itself, which in its six years has kept the top players game-sharp well past the PGA Championship. The Tour's new end-game may be partly responsible for the Yanks' 4-1 Presidents Cup/Ryder Cup record since 2007. Has the tide turned for a side that has gone home without the trophy nine times in the last 13 Ryder Cups?
"I really don't think history counts for much this week," McDowell said. "I think Europe has to be the slight underdog perhaps on paper, you know, with the home advantage here and the home crowd."
How will Love's four rookies, one-third of his team, react to the pressure? Who will reach the driveable 15th hole? What will it mean, if anything, that Woods has won PGAs here when Luke Donald (a part-time Chicago-area resident) and Garcia also contended for the Wanamaker Trophy?
The time for spin is almost over, and the answers are about to come flooding in. Legends will be made.