NEWPORT, Wales — I was sitting in the Ryder Cup media centre (as they spell it here), minding my own business when some folks from an Irish TV station asked if I’d do an interview to give them an American viewpoint.
The first question was about how fired up the U.S. team is for this Ryder Cup. Well, after I waxed poetic about European captain Colin Montgomerie’s obvious passion, and a similar feeling I got from Lee Westwood and Padraig Harrington, I stated the obvious: The Europeans always seem more wound up for the Ryder Cup than the Americans, with the possible exception of 2008 at Valhalla.
I likened it to a little brother finally beating his big brother in a game of one-on-one. It’s a huge deal to the little brother, not so much to the big brother. The Europeans, dating to their inferiority complex days of the ’70s and early ’80s, always feel they have more to prove than their richer, more comfortable U.S. counterparts.
That said, maybe I can boil down the outlook for this week’s Ryder Cup to two sentences: Listening to Monty and Westwood and Harrington got me excited for the matches to start. Listening to any member of the U.S. team, including captain Corey Pavin, didn’t.
You don’t win the Ryder Cup in the media room on Wednesday … or do you?
I thought the Americans had an edge off the tee and a better group of putters, led by Steve Stricker, Matt Kuchar, Jeff Overton, Jim Furyk and, of course, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
But now that I’ve been here a few days and seen the course and gotten a taste of how hungry the Europeans are to win back this Cup, I think the Americans face a very tall order.
Here’s my list of major concerns for Team USA:
The mud-slinging factor: This is going to be one messy Ryder Cup. It rained quite a bit on Wednesday morning, and the forecast calls for the heavy stuff to move in on Friday. The ground is already squishy, the hills are like Slip ‘N Slides for spectators, and anyone trying to hit out of the rough will feel like he’s playing a shot from a Sloppy Joe sandwich. The Americans famously didn’t want to practice in the rain at the K Club in Ireland four years ago. They’re not known as good mudders, and the Europeans are. A definite edge to Europe.
The uptight factor: This may also be too obvious, but past history indicates that the team that is the loosest, or maybe has the least to lose, is the team that usually wins. The Americans have been more uptight in just about every Ryder Cup since 1995. Only a miraculously bad European singles lineup saved the U.S. in ’99. And two years ago, captain Paul Azinger made sure his team was loose, and the Kentucky fans were his so-called 13th man. It worked. After losing three straight Ryder Cups, the Americans had nothing to lose, and they played like it. This week, the Europeans want to atone for what was something of an embarrassing loss in ’08. They’re loose and riding the wave of Monty’s force of personality and passion. Big edge to Europe.
The rookie factor: Some Americans were optimistic because the European team has six rookies. Well, they’re not just rookies. Martin Kaymer won a major, the PGA Championship. Rory McIlroy is 21, ranked in the top 10 in the world and has already has won on both sides of the Atlantic. Peter Hanson and Edoardo Molinari won tournaments near the end of the Ryder Cup qualifying process. Francesco Molinari qualified easily, and Ross Fisher is a former World Match Play champion. “They’re fairly handy, have traveled the world and played majors and proved they can cope with the ultimate pressure,” said Lee Westwood, who is expected to gain the world No. 1 ranking by the end of October, according to world ranking observers. “Which is this week.”
The full Monty factor: Montgomerie, who was always a strong Ryder Cup player, seems like a strong leader too. He has pushed all the right buttons so far, including a locker-room conference call with ailing Spanish legend Seve Ballesteros, to show his team — especially those rookies — what Ryder Cup passion is all about. It’s early and it’s superficial, but so far in the passion and inspiration department, Monty is 2 up on Pavin.
The spinach factor: The Americans are heralded as possibly the longest hitting Ryder Cup team in history. Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson are crazy long. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have always relied on their power. Overton, Hunter Mahan and Stewart Cink pound it pretty good too. Not surprisingly, Monty countered that power edge with deep, thick rough at Celtic Manor. Also, it’s sopping wet. Hitting fairways will be at a premium. The Americans may have an edge in distance, but Europe has the edge in driving accuracy.
The Tiger factor: Which Tiger Woods will show up at the Ryder Cup? The No. 1 player in the world, the guy who was scatter-shot all summer and is working with a new coach, or someone else? It may be a good sign that Tiger seemed a little surly this week, seemingly annoyed by McIlroy’s comments that nobody on the European team would mind playing Woods in singles. Woods has his game face on already, but after a little more than a month with a new coach, how much game does he actually have? I think he’ll play well, but realistically he’s a big question mark.
The Phil phactor: Speaking of question marks … Mickelson had a wildly inconsistent season. He came out of the gates slow, then won the Masters and basically vanished. His play in the four-event FedEx Cup series didn’t suggest he’s found his top form. He’s got a type of arthritis that may be affecting his play. He turned 40 in June, and despite that Masters win (the only major triumph by an American this year), some observers are wondering if Phil’s stellar run is over. Another big question mark.
The homer dome factor: The Americans haven’t won on European soil since 1993. The people in Wales are over-the-top excited to host this big event, and you can count on them being as vocal as any Ryder Cup crowd. Another edge for Europe.
The W factor: Who’s hot and who’s not? Since the last week in May, nine European Ryder Cuppers have won tournaments (14 total victories). Only seven Americans have wins (one each). Woods, Mickelson, Overton, Cink and Rickie Fowler didn’t win. Fowler hasn’t had a top-10 finish since June. Edge to Europe.
The start factor: Five of the last seven Ryder Cup champions have held the lead after the opening day. From 1995 until ’06, the U.S. was outscored by Europe in the first two sessions, 29 1/2-18 1/2. The U.S. led after the first day in ’95 but lost. The Americans have been behind after the first day in five of the last seven Cups, and I think they will be again this year.
It’s all just talk until the first four-ball matches begin on Friday morning, but on paper Team USA faces an uphill battle.