The Ryder Cup, like poet Carl Sandburg’s “Fog,” comes on little cat feet. And on silent haunches, its countdown quietly moves on. We recently passed the 100-days-until milestone, almost without notice.
Before the matches are taken up again at Medinah Country Club outside Chicago, we’ve got to get through two more majors, a World Golf Championship and a FedEx Cup series. It’s too early to know for sure what the team lineups are going to be, but one thing is already evident about the 2012 Ryder Cup showdown: The United States team won’t be the underdog you thought it might be.
Before the start of the last Ryder Cup in 2010, golf was all about the rise of the Europeans, and how their continent, or their tour, really, was dominant.
Sure, four of the top five players in the world rankings were Americans, but No. 1 Tiger Woods was searching for his game and No. 3 Phil Mickelson hadn’t done much since winning the Masters almost five months earlier. Steve Stricker, No. 4, was best known for winning John Deere Classics and being a comfortable partner for Woods, while No. 5 Jim Furyk hadn't done much to make you think he'd go on to win the FedEx Cup.
The Europeans had more depth, with Lee Westwood at No. 2 in the world. Martin Kaymer, the 2010 PGA champion, was ranked sixth and Luke Donald, No. 8, hadn’t earned the kind of respect he would in the next two years. Rory McIlroy, at No. 9, was still a player of great potential. Other European team members ranked in the top 15 were Graeme McDowell, Edoardo Molinari and Ian Poulter.
In fact, the European squad was so loaded that captain Colin Montgomerie passed over Paul Casey, ranked ninth in the world when Monty made his captain's picks, and Justin Rose, who'd won twice in 2010 on the PGA Tour, in favor of Padraig Harrington and Molinari.
"We had an embarrassment of riches on this occasion," Montgomerie said.
One weekly golf publication wrote, “Europe is Goliath in the Ryder Cup.” Another writer said the U.S. team headed to Wales was “the most obvious underdog ever to tee it up for Old Glory.”
Those underdog Americans lost a close, rain-delayed event that went down to the last match when Graeme McDowell edged Hunter Mahan.
But two short years later, the pendulum has swung back. American captain Davis Love III is going to have a tough time selling his team, whatever its final makeup, as an underdog in September.
The Americans will take the top eight players from a points list that is based on money won this year, with majors counting double, and money won in last year’s majors. Love also gets four wildcard picks. The current top three are Jason Dufner, who has won twice in 2012; Tiger Woods, who has now won three times in 2012; and Masters champion Bubba Watson. Rounding out the top eight are U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson, Mickelson, Matt Kuchar, Mahan, and Zach Johnson.
I think Dufner is a lock to make the team, and Watson and Simpson have won majors this year, so I have to believe they'll be on the team, too. It’s hard to imagine Love would leave Phil or Tiger off if they don’t finish among the top eight. Likewise, Mahan has won twice in 2012 and Kuchar won the Players. Johnson is a terrific putter, which is key in match play. He’s a veteran guy you want on your team.
It's also important to remember that Love was one of the guys who pushed for Rickie Fowler’s inclusion on the 2010 team and pointed to Fowler’s four-birdies-in-a-row finish in his singles match as vindication for Rickie's selection, saying, “That’s why we picked him for the team.” So Fowler would seem to be a likely team member, along with putting whiz Steve Stricker. That's 10 guys without even discussing FedEx St. Jude Classic winner Dustin Johnson, Jim Furyk, 2011 PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley, and 2011 FedEx Cup and 2012 Northern Trust Open champ Bill Haas.
Factor in the home-country advantage, which clearly played a role when captain Paul Azinger led the Americans to victory at Valhalla in 2008, and it suddenly looks as if the Americans might be far more than just competitive.
And, yes, while the trio I’ll call Luke McWestwood occupy the top three spots in the world rankings and have passed around the No. 1 ranking like a wine bottle, Americans hold the next five positions and 10 of the next 14. Fourteen of the top 25 in the world rankings are Americans. The Europeans have only seven of the top 25. It’s almost as if the roles have been reversed from the 2006 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills, when the Europeans rolled to victory against an American team featuring the top three players in the world — Woods, Mickelson and Furyk. Those three headliners faced a Euro team that had eight players ranked among the top 20.
Ultimately, the American team is going to look a lot better on paper than any of its recent predecessors. Come September, the Americans may even be favored to win this Cup. That may seem mildly surprising, but it won’t matter. The matches, as always, will be decided on the course.