We have not yet reached the point where the American public is getting tired of the Ryder Cup and its unsatisfactory results. Europe has won in four of the last five stages of this event, which marks a blow to the confidence of a sporting nation in wait.
At lunchtime Thursday in this rural corner of Wisconsin, Bryson DeChambeau did 1st tee laps, Jim Furyk danced inappropriately for a 51-year-old, and Dustin Johnson blew T-shirts in. the grandstands of the kind of pitcher typically seen in Star Wars. The screams and howls and screams were from a crowd ready for an epic battle. Five years have passed since a Ryder Cup was held on this side of the Atlantic; the absence clearly made hearts fonder. With the wind whipping and Lake Michigan rumbling, it’s already quite a spectacle. Now let’s get down to business as Europe seeks to keep the gold trophy on the rugged terrain of the Whistling Strait.
At what price a quick start? Of all the statistics – hundreds – associated with this competition, one is obvious. Europe haven’t won the opening session of a Ryder Cup since 2006. At Hazeltine in 2016, the United States won all four Friday morning games and never got a chance to look in. The rear view mirror. Given the scale of host support this time around, a scenario of course tied to travel restrictions, Europe surely cannot afford to concede an early impetus. Pádraig Harrington, who has been right so far in his duties as European captain, will know. The quartet session on Friday is extremely important.
It is not surprising that significant favoritism has been accorded to the United States. Notah Begay, during a televised analysis, went so far as to say that the European team is “considerably overwhelmed”. The state of relaxation visible within the European contingent throughout the week therefore takes on its full meaning: Harrington and his players have absolutely nothing to lose. Seven of Harrington’s team members played in Paris three years ago as the United States was dismantled. In Jon Rahm, Europe has the highest ranked player in the world.
“It’s a team effort,” said Rahm. “It’s not like I can do it on my own. This [victory] would be a great end to the year. It would be a great end to what has been a wonderful year. This victory in France, you create an unforgettable bond and it would be a very good feeling to be able to do it during my first test on American soil as well.
Rahm has moved away from the feeling that he is already considered a talisman within the European team. “We have a lot of players in the squad who are vocal enough, who have done it enough that naturally others are looking to them for advice,” said the Spaniard. “I’m not actively going to be like, ‘Hey, I’m a leader now,’ because I don’t have such a huge ego.
“I hope that, as I have done so far this year, I will let the clubs and the ball do the talking. I’ll leave the speeches and the leadership to the guys who’ve been doing this for a long time.
Harrington has exuded confidence since his squad lineup was confirmed. He has always called his dozen players the best in terms of hitting the ball that Europe has fielded.
“If this was computer-driven, the United States would win,” Harrington said. “But all the statistics around this course suggest you want to be a good ball forward. When you miss the greens you get either an easy chip or an incredibly difficult chip; lie, position. A good grinder is of no value here. Players who play well tend to hit a lot of fairways and greens. There are more long irons than on any course we will be playing. My team is full of attackers and it is balanced. We’re not hiding anyone, you think no one can play four or four balls.
Indeed, the adaptability of the vast majority of the European team is noticeable. There are no potential pairings that would attract skeptical glances. Tyrrell Hatton, who regularly looks like he’s throwing punches at his own shadow, needs a little care and attention, but others can be trusted with a variety of partners.
The American scene is more complex. Brooks Koepka and DeChambeau can insist that their very public mutual indifference isn’t a problem for this week alone, but Steve Stricker’s failure to bring his problem kids together for even a workout was telling. A bristling Koepka insisted on Thursday that comments suggesting he had little time for the Ryder Cup had been ‘dropped’. Stricker has six debutants on his squad and although Open champion Collin Morikawa is one of them, the 24-year-old is out of shape and has been injured since lifting the Claret Jug. Europe would have reason to fear Billy Horschel and Patrick Reed but none was retained.
In his country of origin, at the head of a team ranked in the top 21 of the world rankings, Stricker is the captain who is free to be embarrassed. “We have a task ahead of us: we have a chance to do something really special for our team, our country and especially for Stricks,” said Tony Finau. “We want to win this not just for everything that’s involved, but especially for our captain. “
Youth is on the hosts’ side – an average age of five years younger than Europeans could be significant in a physically demanding place. The lack of a criminal rough around Whistling Straits is typical of a Ryder Cup in the United States, but means comparisons to the 2015 US PGA Championship, for example, which was also played here, are not necessarily valid. Jordan Spieth finished second in this event, Koepka tied for fifth, Johnson seventh and Finau tied for 10th.
The only numbers that matter this time are 14, the number of points Europe needs to keep, and 14 and a half, required by the United States to recover. In the American dairy country, the only guarantee is that the people involved will milk the atmosphere.