LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — The University of Kentucky band blasted out a tune. Two military planes roared overhead. Nick Faldo borrowed liberally from one of the city’s favorite sons.
“We may look like we floated in on a butterfly,” Faldo said, mimicking Muhammad Ali, “but we are here to sting like a bee.”
Good one, Nick.
Now, it’s time to get serious.
The Ryder Cup is scheduled to begin Friday morning at Valhalla Golf Club with the American team of Phil Mickelson and Anthony Kim taking on Padraig Harrington, winner of the last two major championships, and Robert Karlsson.
The U.S. will be trying to avoid a fourth straight loss in an every-two-year event it once dominated. The last two meetings weren’t even close, the Euros winning both times by staggering nine-point margins.
Mickelson was eager to tee off with Kim, the rising star of American golf.
“Anthony and I have been talking about this for some time,” Lefty said. “I love that we are able to get off in the first group and get out and hit the first shots.”
The other alternate-shot matches: Justin Leonard and Hunter Mahan of the U.S. vs. Henrik Stenson and Paul Casey; Stewart Cink and Chad Campbell vs. Europe’s Justin Rose and Ian Poulter; and Americans Kenny Perry and Jim Furyk vs. Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia.
Europe finds itself in the unprecedented role of favorite on U.S. soil, which isn’t too surprising in light of recent Ryder Cup history and the records of each 12-man team.
The Americans have six Ryder rookies. Not one of their experienced players has a winning record in golf’s most storied team event, the six of them coming in with a cumulative mark of 19 wins, 37 loss and 17 ties.
Compare that with the Europeans, whose eight returnees have a combined record of 42-29-14.
“But it doesn’t mean we can’t come out and play well, and with the help of the crowd and with a golf course that’s well suited for many of our players, have a great week and possibly come out on top,” Mickelson said. “It will be a great challenge we have to face. There’s no question the favorite in the European team, given that they have won quite handily the last few times.”
The final event of the silly season – that seemingly endless buildup to three days of matches – was Thursday’s opening ceremony.
Both teams marched onto the stage, the Europeans in blue suits, the Americans in black. Faldo, apparently getting ready to moonlight as a standup comedian, peppered his comments with little quips about each of his players. The three-time divorcee even took a dig at his own lack of marital perseverance when talking about his parents, who’ve been hitched for 61 years.
U.S. captain Paul Azinger was more succinct in his introductions, though he did try to whip up the home crowd.
“I think you, the fans, will be a critical component,” he said. “You will be our 13th man.”
Azinger has done all he can to stop Europe’s recent dominance in the Ryder Cup. He overhauled the qualifying process to field the best team he could. He set the course up just like he wanted, with moderate rough that should yield lots of birdies. He tried to convince his players that the past – Europe has won five of the last six – means nothing.
“It’s like drawing back a bow string,” he said, motioning like an archer. “You pull it back for two years, and now you’ve got to let it fly. All you can do is hope you’ve got it pointed in the right direction.”
Turns out Azinger was toying with the media about pairing Perry and J.B. Holmes to fire up the crowd in their native Kentucky.
He put Perry in the final morning match with the reliable Furyk, but they face Europe’s most formidable pair. Garcia is 8-0 in foursomes, while Westwood is unbeaten in his last 10 team matches.
“Sergio and I have played well together in the past and taken in a few points for the European cause, so we will be looking to do the same,” Westwood said.
Furyk skipped out of practice early Thursday to be with his wife, who was take to a hospital with intense pain from a long-standing back problem. But he should be ready to go Friday.
The final practice day included an inspirational visit by Ali, who posed with both teams on opposite sides of the golf course. Faldo was so moved that his voice quivered and eyes glistened when talking about meeting the heavyweight champ.
“An incredible moment,” he said.
Now all that’s left is to see how this heavyweight fight takes shape.
The Americans have not led after any session on any day at the Ryder Cup since winning at Brookline. And they have not led after the opening session of four matches since 1991 at Kiawah Island.
“We have six rookies on the team, which I think is a good thing,” said Steve Stricker, who’s one of them at age 41. “We haven’t experienced some of those defeats in the previous years. And I think it’s important that we do get off to a good start to gain some momentum and just roll from there.”
Friday and Saturday feature four matches of foursomes (alternate shot) and four matches of fourballs (better ball). The Ryder Cup concludes Sunday with 12 singles matches.
Of the 28 points available, Europe only needs 14 to retain the cup. The Americans must win outright to reclaim it, and they’ll have to do it without Tiger Woods. The No. 1 player in the world is recovering from knee surgery, but it should be noted that his country wasn’t winning even when he did play.
“It’s one of the few events we’ve been to where Tiger really has not been mentioned at all,” Faldo said. “The Ryder Cup is bigger than any one player. We play for points. Tiger has not crossed my mind this week.”