SI convened a panel of experts — senior writers Michael Bamberger, Alan Shipnuck and Gary Van Sickle as well as special contributor John Garrity and a PGA Tour player who participated on the condition of anonymity — to tackle all things Ryder Cup.
THE BUZZ — OR BUZZKILL?
VAN SICKLE: What makes this Ryder Cup so important and crucial? Or is it?
SHIPNUCK: This is a chance for Rory McIlroy to continue taking possession of an entire sport. If McIlroy plays great and leads Europe to victory on U.S. soil, it's one more exclamation point to his year. If Rory takes down Tiger Woods in singles—the one match everybody wants to see—it would be epic. This could be Rory's show.
GARRITY: Other than anticipating Rory's play, I don't see this as one of the more significant Ryder Cups. There's no trend to get alarmed about. Home teams have won the last three. The European domination, when they were winning big, is over. The teams are balanced. Neither side is the tormented underdog. There's simply not as much at stake.
BAMBERGER: This almost seems like a pre-1991 Ryder Cup. The level of animosity isn't there anymore, in part because Europe's top players, guys like Rory and Graeme McDowell, are so well-liked. Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, too.
VAN SICKLE: I hate to say I miss the Ryder Cup hype, but what happened to it? The buildup used to begin at the start of the year. We're only just starting to think about it now.
ANONYMOUS PRO: The Tour hypes the FedEx Cup all year, so the Ryder Cup gets lost. And it has been diluted by the Presidents Cup, another PGA Tour show. With a team event every year, the Ryder Cup feels less special. Maybe one of the reasons the European team bonds better is that they have two years to look forward to it. Our guys play something every fall. I don't know if they still get as excited.
VAN SICKLE: The Euros are united in their desire to knock off the big, bad U.S.A., while we're united only in our fear of losing big—again.
SHIPNUCK: You can lay some of this on Tiger and Phil Mickelson. They don't live and breathe the Ryder Cup like Payne Stewart and Paul Azinger and Tom Lehman did. Their attitude has filtered down. Even Rory called the Ryder Cup an exhibition before he played in it. Now he has changed his tune. Tiger and Phil have been on every team for almost 15 years and, sorry, they're just not that into you. Get over it.
BAMBERGER: When Tiger missed the 2008 event at Valhalla, no one cared.
SHIPNUCK: Not having Tiger might have helped that team win. The Ryder Cup is like a party, and Tiger is the hottest girl in the room, staring at his fingernails and twirling his hair. He's not dancing on the bar. He sets the tone for the whole thing, and he's kind of a buzzkill. It's no fault of Tiger's. The Ryder Cup was never a priority for him. It doesn't suit his lone-wolf mentality. It's not in his DNA.
BAMBERGER: I think team play means more to Tiger now. Everything said about Tiger was true prior to the Hydrant. Now that he's trying a little harder to be a citizen of the golfing world, we have to look at him in a new way.
TIGER VERSUS RORY
VAN SICKLE: Ever since Rory made that joke at the PGA Championship about kicking Tiger's ass in the Ryder Cup, we've been imagining a Tiger-versus-Rory match. If they meet in singles, who wins?
GARRITY: Rory is the ascendant player now. He has outplayed Tiger most of the year. Medinah is the kind of long, soft track that Rory thrives on. I say that while recognizing that Tiger has won two PGA Championships there, but Tiger isn't devouring the par-5s as he used to.
BAMBERGER: It's Rory because he's a better golfer right now. It's close. If they play 100 times, Rory wins 56.
SHIPNUCK: After all the talk about Tiger's budding friendship and mutual respect for Rory, I can see Tiger going to the 1st tee and totally freezing him out and using every bit of gamesmanship he has learned over the years to take Rory out of his comfort zone. I wonder if all this backslapping and yukking it up with Rory isn't some kind of rope-a-dope.
VAN SICKLE: That's brilliant. That would be so cool if the Buddy Boy Tiger was part of Davis Love III's master plan to position Tiger versus Rory in every match.
ANONYMOUS PRO: Maybe Tiger is actually recruiting Rory for Nike because Tiger has Phil Knight in his ear telling him to make nice. I wouldn't be surprised. Nike always wants the No. 1 guy in a sport. That's Rory now.
GARRITY: I remember the U.S. Open at Oakmont in '07 when Tiger stared down Aaron Baddeley on the 1st tee and Baddeley opened with a triple bogey. I don't think that will work on Rory. Based on how Tiger has been treating weekends at the majors lately, Tiger probably wouldn't play his best because he wants it so badly.
ANONYMOUS PRO: I'd look forward to their demeanor if they play in singles. I'll bet Rory will look as if he's having a much better time. Tiger may concentrate so hard that his head explodes.
SHIPNUCK: I'll still take Tiger. Rory's superiority is evident over 72 holes, but this will be like that old MTV show Celebrity Death Match, in which the animations tear each other's limbs off. This is such a different environment—wives, teammates, captains and 50,000 screaming fans. Tiger's year has been a bust, but if he won this match, it would help him get back to who he was.
GARRITY: Rory has proved himself on the big stages already with big margins of victory.
SHIPNUCK: I agree. My head says Rory, but my heart says Tiger.
VAN SICKLE: If you're either captain, do you want to match up Rory and Tiger?
SHIPNUCK: Davis Love would kill to get that in singles. It would bring out the best in Tiger, who has a long history of dusting guys when it gets personal.
BAMBERGER: The hardest point to win is playing Tiger in singles. Why wouldn't you want your best player, Rory, to play him? I think José María Olazábal would want it. The PGA of America would want it, which means Davis would want it.
ANONYMOUS PRO: Yeah, Davis drinks the Kool-Aid, he'd go along with them. I don't know if Ollie would. If I'm Europe, I want Rory's point to count, so I send him out early. It's probably up to Rory if he wants to play Tiger.
GARRITY: What do the rules say about collusion between the captains? Is it winked at? Could they put it together if they wanted?
VAN SICKLE: It can be arranged. Brian Barnes famously upset Jack Nicklaus back when they played two rounds of singles the same day [in 1975]. Nicklaus wanted a rematch, the captains made it happen, and Barnes became a legend by beating Jack a second time. Of course, the U.S. was en route to winning by 10 points, so nothing was at stake.
BAMBERGER: I think the chances are strong that we'll all get what we want.
SHIPNUCK: That's why there are assistant captains. They can be go-betweens. The Ryder Cup is a global spectacle, and the world wants to see one thing: Rory versus Tiger.
VAN SICKLE: Where on the venerable Medinah course would you go to enjoy prime spectating?
SHIPNUCK: My new favorite hole at Medinah is one I haven't seen yet—the new 15th, which Rees Jones has redone. It was a nondescript par-4. Now it's a do-or-die drivable par-4 with water guarding the right side of the green. Rees said his model was the 10th at the Belfry.
ANONYMOUS PRO: That sounds pretty interesting.
SHIPNUCK: The Belfry's 10th became a quintessential Ryder Cup hole. Seve was the first who tried to drive the green every time, and you had to match him. It wasn't only about golf, it was about your manhood.
ANONYMOUS PRO: If I'm going to a Ryder Cup, I want to see birdies and eagles. Medinah has some long par-4s—they're tedious. I'd park at a reachable par-5 and wait for some fireworks.
GARRITY: Medinah has three par-3 holes over water—the 2nd, 13th and 17th. You can get a great view around one of those greens or even around the elevated tees. You can watch the putting from there with binoculars.
VAN SICKLE: Good point, John. I'd go with number 2, where the green is so close to the water, it looks like a boat ramp. The guys who nervously lose the 1st hole come to this tee, and all they can see is water. The last thing they want to do is splash one and suddenly fall two down after two holes. There should be some beautifully errant bailout shots at number 2.
BAMBERGER: If I could watch only one hole, I'd watch the 1st tee. Everything people say about 1st-tee Ryder Cup jitters is true. Guys make more practice swings, go to their towels, drink more water and look lost. It is different from the 1st tee of any other tournament, even the majors. It's psychological drama at its best.
SHIPNUCK: The 1st tee on Ryder Cup Sunday is my favorite hole in all of golf. The chants, the teammates coming out to watch, the captains, the occasional celebrity guest. It turns into a bit of a party. It's the only place to be.
THAT TODDLING TOWN
VAN SICKLE: Chicago is America's golf capital. Where would you sneak off to play golf during Ryder Cup week, not that any of us would ever do anything that underhanded. Right, Alan?
SHIPNUCK: Well, Chicago Golf Club has a little mystery to it. It's one of those great courses that really wants to remain private. They don't court course-raters or media. I've heard it's fantastic.
VAN SICKLE: It's the holy grail of Chicago golf, for sure.
GARRITY: I'm a big believer in public golf, so I'd make the pilgrimage to Cog Hill in Lemont. I've covered a few Western Opens over the years. I haven't been out there since it's been remodeled, to mostly bad reviews, but that's not the point. I'd be happy to play the other three Cog Hill courses, all of which are lovely and nicely maintained. It's important to go there to pay tribute to the Jemsek family, which has done so many fabulous things for Chicago golf.
VAN SICKLE: The Beverly Club is so exclusive that nobody even talks about it. I heard Lance Ten Broeck, a former Tour player turned caddie, had some legendary adventures there. The one time I was invited there was a rainout, and I've never been back. There's also Skokie Country Club, a frequent Top 100 member and a Donald Ross course. Need I say more?
BAMBERGER: There are scads of great and unique courses in Chicago. Among them is Bob O'Link, a men's club with no rules—well, except for that one—and where the golf is pure, so I've heard. The name itself is awesome. What happens at Bob O'Link stays at Bob O'Link.
VAN SICKLE: Mike Ditka used to practically live at that course.
ANONYMOUS PRO: I'm one of the few players who liked Olympia Fields when the U.S. Open was there [in 2003]. They ruined the 18th, but it had a lot of cool holes. I'd definitely go back.
SHIPNUCK: If I had a free day in Chicago during the Ryder Cup, I'd go to the SI at the Majors tent downtown at Navy Pier. That'll be the week's biggest attraction.
GARRITY: Well played, Alan. And very subtle.
VAN SICKLE: Who will be difference-makers in the matches?
GARRITY: Bubba Watson's scrambling and shot-shaping skills are suited to match play. He can be a real pin-hunter. Plus, he's a personality the fans will get behind when he hits those spectacular, creative shots he's capable of.
VAN SICKLE: I think Keegan Bradley is the U.S. team's new Paul Azinger. He'll take these matches personally, and he'll inspire his teammates. Also, Brandt Snedeker is going to be a surprise. As I've said for years, the Ryder Cup is a putting contest. Great putters like Snedeker or Ian Poulter or Steve Stricker or Graeme McDowell are tough to beat in match play.
SHIPNUCK: I was going to say Snedeker too. Remember how Chip Beck was a rallying figure for those early '90s Ryder Cup teams? Sneds is the same way.
VAN SICKLE: He's like the team mascot.
SHIPNUCK: Exactly. He's a big Labrador retriever. If he takes down a top European duo early on, the whole team rallies around him. You don't maybe expect him to be a cold-blooded killer, but when his putter is on, he makes birdies in bunches.
GARRITY: Another key guy is Jason Dufner. Deep down, maybe he's an emotional wreck, but my gosh, he looks completely unflappable. He could be that Ray Floyd–type whose seeming indifference or coolness intimidates the other side.
BAMBERGER: Phil Mickelson can play a huge role. He can help some young players, the way he has done in past Cups with Anthony Kim and Hunter Mahan. And Phil can show himself as a leader of men. This could be a tryout for his own inevitable Ryder Cup captaincy, possibly as soon as two years from now.
SHIPNUCK: Nicolas Colsaerts is interesting. He's a cool customer and a big hitter. He looks a little like Dolph Lundgren. With sunglasses, he has a badass look.
VAN SICKLE: Congratulations on the first mention of Dolph Lundgren in PGA Tour Confidential history. I'll see your Lundgren and raise you a Jean-Claude Van Damme.
GARRITY: In Tiger, Bubba and Phil you have three of the greatest shot shapers in the game right now. That may not seem consequential, but it could be big in alternate shot.
ANONYMOUS PRO: Everyone is so gung-ho about the Americans' having an edge in power off the tee. I've played Medinah a few times, including the PGA, and it's a funny course. The par-5s are long and awkward with tiny greens that are hard to hit. It's pretty tough to get to them in two, depending on how Davis Love has it set up. Lengthening a course doesn't necessarily make it a long hitter's course. On some of the par-4s all you can do is play to the corner of the dogleg anyway.
VAN SICKLE: Go back to the 1990 U.S. Open at Medinah, and who was in the mix? Not long hitters—Mike Donald, Nick Faldo and Hale Irwin. Luke Donald made a run at Tiger in the last PGA there.
ANONYMOUS PRO: Those guys are powder puffs.
GARRITY: Speaking of Luke Donald, why haven't we mentioned him more? He was recently No. 1 in the world, he's consistent week in and week out, and we don't seem to consider him an important factor. How come?
SHIPNUCK: You're right, John. Donald has had some fabulous Ryder Cups. He's been a calming influence on Sergio García. He has Chicago roots—he attended Northwestern, he lives in Chicago most of the year, and he'll probably play all five matches. It would be a mistake to overlook him. He could be Europe's best player.
GARRITY: There's a category of players I call great golfers who haven't won majors whose legacy is great Ryder Cup play. That's Luke, Colin Montgomerie and Lee Westwood.
SHIPNUCK: And Sergio.
BAMBERGER: Sergio's role is critical. He is showing a maturity this year that I've never seen. I think he'll be huge for Europe.
THE NEXT CAPTAIN AMERICA
VAN SICKLE: Who would you like to see captain the U.S. team in 2014? If the PGA of America isn't going to consider giving Paul Azinger an encore, I vote for Fred Couples, who has taken over the Presidents Cup.
SHIPNUCK: Does Fred even want the job? The Presidents Cup looks like fun. The Ryder Cup looks like a hassle. Fred probably would've had the chance if he had put his hand up sooner.
ANONYMOUS PRO: Is it too late for Larry Nelson? Seriously, I'd try to get Fred off that Presidents Cup bus. He has that laid-back demeanor, but he has a lot of pride and fire beneath it. It would be right up his alley, and, honestly, it's time to graduate from the Presidents Cup to something bigger. The Presidents Cup is a reality show, made-for-TV golf. The Ryder Cup has history and prestige and nationalism. Fred has earned a promotion.
SHIPNUCK: I'd go to Mickelson and Jim Furyk and say, Be honest, guys. Which of you isn't going to make this team in two years—you're the next captain.
VAN SICKLE: Wouldn't Phil love the challenge and attention of being a playing captain?
SHIPNUCK: Absolutely. He'd be all over that.
ANONYMOUS PRO: Why not Tom Watson again? He's not too old. Or Azinger? I don't know why the PGA of America has a problem with guys' being captain a second time. How many times did Tony Jacklin do it? That worked out pretty well. I was irritated when Azinger didn't get asked back for 2010.
BAMBERGER: Watson and Couples are inspired choices, but I'd ask Tiger. Being captain would force him to see the game through a new prism and see his peers in a whole new way. It would be good for him, and I think he'd be spectacular.
GARRITY: I'd pick the next captain by lottery. For assistant captain, I nominate the Magic 8-Ball. I don't buy into the whole captaining thing—the winner is hailed as the greatest mind since Christopher Hitchens, and the loser is led away in handcuffs. It's all nonsense.
THE WINNER IS …
SHIPNUCK: I like the depth of the U.S. team. It's important because I could see Furyk and Mickelson playing only three matches each. They used to play five. More guys will get more at bats.
VAN SICKLE: Tiger may not play five times, either.
SHIPNUCK: The depth and the home crowd will make this a fantastic Ryder Cup that comes down to the last putt. It'll be supertight, then Tiger nips Rory in the last match and the U.S. wins 14½-13½.
GARRITY: I agree with Alan that the teams are evenly matched. So I'm picking a tie. I asked my Magic 8-Ball if it would be a tie, and the answer was, You can rely on it. So that makes it a certainty.
SHIPNUCK: A tie isn't really a tie. The Europeans keep the cup, so it's a victory for them.
GARRITY: You asked for a score. I'm saying 14-14.
VAN SICKLE: This thing is always a putting contest, and I think the Americans have a rare edge in that department. The Euros have Colsaerts, a big hitter; Paul Lawrie, who looks like Ernie Els on the greens; Sergio, whose putting woes have been documented although his claw stroke is improved; Francesco Molinari, a blocky putter; and Westwood. If you have a five-footer to save your life, they aren't your best options.
BAMBERGER: Two very ordinary putters, Sergio and Monty, putted like Bobby Locke in the Ryder Cup year after year. You can't predict.
VAN SICKLE: True. I'll still take the U.S., 15-13, even if my pick is based only on Keegan Bradley's enthusiasm.
ANONYMOUS PRO: Well, the Americans have two belly putters and one claw grip in the lineup. Matt Kuchar isn't putting so great. Neither is Furyk, and if Dustin Johnson had a three-footer to win the Ryder Cup, would you bet on him to make it? I think the Americans will struggle, but they'll pull out a 14½-13½ win.
BAMBERGER: The true stars on both teams will play like stars and cancel each other out. The celebrated journeymen—your Luke Donalds, your Jim Furyks—will play like celebrated journeymen and cancel each other out. The rookies are the key. If Bradley, Dufner, Snedeker and Webb Simpson play nervous golf, the U.S. cannot win. I think Davis Love shows his exceptional people skills with those four, and they will win more than they lose. That will be enough. The U.S. survives by a point.