SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – The practice rounds are over. The ceremonies are complete. And at last, the pairings are set. Friday morning fourballs, also known as better ball, will kick off at 8:10 local time, and you can expect a raucous scene – cue the Ole! Ole! Ole! – on that opening hole. Here’s a preview of each match, along with one man’s prediction of how the first four points will fall as the 42nd Ryder Cup gets underway at Le Golf National.
MATCH ONE: Brooks Koepka and Tony Finau vs. Justin Rose and Jon Rahm
Captain Furyk starts things with a slight curveball – instead of pairing workout buddies Koepka and Dustin Johnson, he’s split them up. Finau gets the call, and it’s hard to imagine a nervier spot than the first group in the first match, but I expect him to play well. Meanwhile, Rose, who’s 4-3 in fourballs in his career, has risen to No. 1 in the World Ranking this summer for the first time in his career. After playing the last two Cups alongside Henrik Stenson, he’s also getting a new partner. Rahm has the look of a new-generation Sergio, and his fire and ballstriking look like a great complement to Rose. (Rahm also ranks third on the PGA Tour with 4.44 birdies per round.) If Europe is going to hang in this week, this is the kind of match they need to win. I happen to think this Cup is going to come down to the wire on Sunday, so Europe starts fast.
PREDICTION: Europe wins 2 and 1.
MATCH TWO: Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler vs. Rory McIlroy and Thorbjorn Olesen
DJ is a horse in Ryder Cup singles (3-0) but surprisingly pedestrian in the team matches (3-5). In three Ryder Cups, Fowler also hasn’t distinguished himself in the team events (1-2-4), but he’s never teamed with a partner with DJ’s firepower. I like the combination, but Europe counters with McIlroy, who will likely play all five matches, and the untested 28-year-old rookie from Denmark. Olesen’s length and accuracy don’t jump off the page, but this year he ranks eighth on the European Tour in birdies per round (4.48), and that’s the name of the game in this format. This match will probably come down to McIlroy’s force of will, and I can’t see Rors starting 0-1 in a home game.
PREDICTION: Europe wins, 1 up.
MATCH THREE: Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas vs. Paul Casey and Tyrrell Hatton
In another bold move, Furyk has also split up Spieth and Patrick Reed, who together went 4-1-2 as a team in the last two Ryder Cups. But Spieth has had a rough season, which he capped by becoming the only U.S. Ryder Cupper to fail to qualify for the Tour Championship at East Lake. I like pairing him with Thomas, his childhood friend, to create a fresh spark. Casey and Hatton are fellow Englishmen who have had some success together – they teamed up to win a match against Kiradech Aphibarnrat and Ben An at the EurAsia Cup earlier this year. But this ain’t the EurAsia Cup, and Thomas, the strongest player in the group, should be the difference-maker even if his pal continues to struggle.
PREDICTION: U.S. wins 3 and 2.
MATCH FOUR: Patrick Reed and Tiger Woods vs. Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood
Wow, Furyk did it. He really did it. Reed, who will reprise his role as Ryder Cup villain while drawing boos every time he’s so much as introduced, gets to live his dream and play alongside, Woods, his childhood hero. This week Tiger is getting the warmest ovations of any player not on the European side (and frankly, he’s been cheered louder than many Euros). Woods is 5-8 lifetime in the fourball format, but he’s never had a partner like Reed. Meanwhile, Molinari is fresh off the best season of his life, and Fleetwood looks like a world-beater who will be a big factor this week — but not in this match. The crowds will cheer Woods and taunt Reed, adding to a scene that is electric and confusing … and over early.
PREDICTION: U.S. wins 6 and 5.
TOTAL: USA 2, Europe 2