- 2012 Ryder Cup
Ryder Cup Preview: Part IIAlex Dimond September 26, 2012
The Ryder Cup gets underway at Medinah Country Club on September 28. ESPN will have extensive coverage of the event - including interactive text commentary, reports and reaction - for all three days.
Weather permitting, the format for the three-day event is fairly straightforward. Eight points are available on each of the first two days, across four fourball matches and four foursomes affairs.
The two formats are subtly different - foursomes, or alternate shot, requires greater consistency as each two-man team must play with one ball, hitting alternate shots until they hole out (each player will either tee off on all the odd or all the even holes, to retain some semblance of structure). As such it can be hard for professionals used to playing every shot to retain a rhythm, while even those who do can struggle with the different ball they may be required to use (their partner may pull rank).
Fourballs is a far less tactical affair - about the only decision likely to be made is who goes aggressive, and who plays safe. All four players play their own ball, with the lowest score for each team counting towards the hole. Scoring in this format can be extremely low if players 'dovetail' their good and ball holes successfully - on Tuesday, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood shot a better ball round of 59 to demolish Ian Poulter and Justin Rose in their 'friendly' match.
After those antics on Friday and Saturday, Sunday's singles sees the most points on offer - 12. Every player in the team goes out as an individual against a member of the opposition in an 18-hole bout of one-on-one matchplay. The running order is decided by both captains in advance, so an element of tactics comes into where certain players are put out.
Traditionally strong players top and tail the order - with the idea being both to gain a momentum-building start, and ensure a top player is still on the course if things go down to the wire (as they invariably do). These year, hopes are high that Rory McIlroy will square off against Tiger Woods - although neither captain is likely to 'fix' matters to ensure this dream scenario is realised.
With a total of 28 points on offer the aim for both teams is to reach 14½ points, although the holders (on this occasion, Europe) will retain the Cup if they tie things up at 14-14.
- Europe, renowned for its camaraderie since continental players became eligible for the event in 1979, traditionally succeed in the fourballs and foursomes events. From 1979 they have won 143½ points over the opening two days, with the US gaining a comparatively meagre 124½.
- The United States tend to have the upper hand in singles affairs, however. Since 1979, they have amassed 96½ points to Europe's 83½.
One of the key decisions for both captains is who to pair together across the opening two days at Medinah. Sometimes they have proven inspired - Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal, for example, or more recently Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia - but there is a complex undercurrent of ego and playing style that means even seemingly "can't miss" pairings can fall apart. In 2004, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were put together on Friday by captain Hall Sutton - and the game's two dominant players proceeded to be handily beaten ... twice.
Pairings may just be based on educated guesswork, but they remain important guesses regardless.
Given the experience of some members of both squads, a few pairings immediately jump out at you - but will Love and Olazabal throw a few surprises out there?
Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia: Great friends on the course and off it, the two men have very different styles of play that seem to work well together in matchplay format - especially in foursomes. Six years ago, they beat teams including Mickelson and Woods in a 24-hour span.
"It's great to have Sergio back on the team," Donald said this week. "He brings a lot of enthusiasm and passion to the team. He's just upbeat and energetic and lively. He's not going to let you get down on yourself. At times in his career, he's needed that himself. But he really has that in abundance at the Ryder Cup."
In fourballs, however, Olazabal may go in a different direction. Expect to see Donald paired with Lee Westwood at least once, while Garcia and Rory McIlroy (another of his close friends) might be given at least one chance to shine.
Justin Rose and Ian Poulter: A strong pairing in 2008, the very good friends lost a tight first game but then won twice together - before, perhaps buoyed by their partnership, both won their singles matches. An obvious option for Olazabal.
"I think we complement each other well," Rose said on Tuesday. "Who knows what's going to happen this week, but I can just be myself - which is a little bit more on a level - and he can be the excitable one, and it works quite well."
Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell: "I'd play with him all four times if I could," McDowell has said this week. "But there are ten other players on the team who would probably say the same thing."
The two Northern Irishman are perhaps the closest two individuals on the team, and will bring the best out of each other if put together, as they almost certainly will be on at least one occasion. The pairing was only fleetingly successful two years ago, however (one win, one defeat, one half), so Olazabal may spring a surprise here and keep them apart.
Expect to see Nicolas Colsaerts, a powerful hitter off the tee, used more in fourballs than foursomes - while the opposite could prove true of Francesco Molinari. Peter Hanson and Martin Kaymer may find their playing time limited on Friday and Saturday, depending on how ruthless Jose Maria Olazabal feels - although a Hanson/Paul Lawrie pairing could prove surprisingly formidable.
Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods: The 14-time major champion and the umpteen-time John Deere Classic winner basically play together in every Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup. That is unlikely to change much at Medinah.
"We really gel together," Woods has said. "Tiger and Stricker have had great success," Love has added. "I wouldn't want to play against them, for sure."
Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson: Who quite knows why, but Lefty has taken last year's US PGA champion under his wing over the past 18 months or so, making him comfortable on tour as he has shot to prominence. One of his team's many rookies, a pairing with a guy he knows well on the first day would make tactical sense for Love. If they win, further run-outs are probable.
"It would be a dream of mine to partner up with Phil," Bradley said on Tuesday. "Like I've told Davis, I'm happy to partner with anybody on this team, but me and Phil have a great relationship, and the great part about Phil is he's there for advice but will also listen to me and take me seriously. I think that's what could make us a good partnership."
Bubba Watson and Brandt Snedeker: Jeff Overton stole much of the limelight as a rookie two years ago, but he was helped immeasurably by Watson as the duo became a surprisingly difficult pairing to knock off. Watson and Snedeker don't immediately seem like an emotional match, but the combination of booming drives (from Watson) and brilliant putting (Snedeker) may just be a winning combination Love cannot resist testing out at least once.
Expect to see Jason Dufner used in both foursomes encounters, perhaps alongside the similarly level-headed Matt Kuchar or Zach Johnson. Dustin Johnson seems to have few obvious partners in this team (although Webb Simpson may be one), but if power really is Love's key attribute then 'DJ' could find he is used as much as any other player.
Ones to watch
While the top pointscorer of the week is generally not recorded with much fanfare in the history books (Donald, Poulter, Woods and Stricker shared the honour last time), a few players need to claim at least three points if their team is to end up actually winning the trophy. Tiger Woods acknowledged as much when reflecting on his record of being on losing teams earlier this week:
"Well, certainly I am responsible for that [recent run of defeats], because I didn't earn the points that I was put out there for," Woods said. "I believe I was out there, what, in five sessions each time, and I didn't go 5‑0 on our side.
"So I certainly am a part of that, and that's part of being a team. I needed to go get my points for my team, and I didn't do that."
Who might be the major bread-winners for their respective teams this week, then?
One man to watch out for could be Lee Westwood, who is closing in on Sir Nick Faldo's overall Ryder Cup points record and is eager to surpass his compatriot (the pair reportedly fell out when Faldo captained the 2008 side). The Englishman has not been playing very well in recent months by his high standards, but he loves this competition - and his array of skills mean he is an equally likely selection in foursomes and fourballs.
What is more, he has the length to cope with Medinah (something that might play against another likely top points scorer, Luke Donald), even if his putting is somewhat suspect. The same goes for Sergio Garcia, who would surprise few if he returned to the event he loves with some big performances.
Tiger Woods has a much maligned record in this competition (13 wins, 14 defeats and a solitary half) but he tends to win his singles match - which is something. Now with a familiar partner in Stricker - and unlikely to be rested from any session, the world No. 2 has an obvious chance to get four points for his side.
Beyond that, however, almost anyone from the American team could emerge around the vast Medinah course. Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson both underwhelmed at Celtic Manor in 2010, but they hit the ball so far they may just be able to overpower opponents this time around. In a different way rookie Webb Simpson may putt the lights out and steal three or four points, something recent FedEx Cup winner Brandt Snedeker is similarly capable of producing.
Another player to watch out for might be Jason Dufner - the Auburn graduate never seems to have a bad week, and has an array of skills that could earn himself a pick for all five sessions. He is unlikely to be put in any 'marquee' groups (going out in slots two or three each day, he may miss the McIlroys and Donalds of the European team), so could just fly under the radar and return with a winnning record.
After all this, it would be remiss not to make a few utterly meaningless predictions about where the Ryder Cup will end up heading. Take these with a pinch of salt:
Day One - Friday
Day Two - Saturday
Day Three - Sunday
United States 14½-13½ Europe