The 42nd Ryder Cup promises to be one of the most memorable events in recent history. Most people are backing the American ‘Dream Team’ to successfully defend the Cup. But the European side is a sleeping giant that will be relishing its underdog status.
The last time the United States won the Ryder Cup on European soil was at The Belfry in 1993; the same year Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Bryson DeChambeau were all born. Now, 25 years later, one of the strongest American teams ever assembled has arrived in Paris hoping to successfully defend one of the most coveted trophies in world golf.
The aforementioned have been joined by Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Patrick Reed, Webb Simpson, Bubba Watson, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Tony Finau – who, when combined, boast an intimidating 31 major championships and 198 victories on the PGA Tour.
But the Europeans haven’t lost consecutive Ryder Cups since ’93 – and their side bats deeply, too.
Recent World No.1 Justin Rose leads the charge and is accompanied by four-time major winner Rory McIlroy, who will be eager to reignite his battle with Reed.
Tommy Fleetwood, the reigning Race to Dubai winner, won the French Open at Le Golf National last year – while Champion Golfer of the Year, Francesco Molinari, has finished second on three occasions at the same event.
Sergio Garcia has been dubbed ‘Thomas Bjorn’s Seve’ and could form the latest edition of the ‘Spanish Armada’ alongside Jon Rahm. Then there are stalwarts like Ian Poulter and former Open Champion Henrik Stenson.
Veteran Swede – and French Open champion – Alex Noren will finally make his Cup debut at 36 years old, while Paul Casey returns to action for the first time since 2008. Bjorn’s old guard has also welcomed Tyrrell Hatton and Thorbjorn Olesen, who will both make their first appearances and will be eager to make their presence felt.
Clearly most people believe the Americans are slightly stronger on paper – which is why the bookies currently have the United States priced at $1.70 and Europe at $2.20 – but the home-course advantage afforded to the Europeans and their potential pairings appear to have been somewhat undervalued ...
The Albatros Course at Le Golf National opened in 1990 and was designed by Hubert Chesneau and Robert von Hagge on an old cornfield near the town of Versailles. It is listed at 7,234 yards for the Ryder Cup and will play to a par of 71.
The bumps, hollows and bunkers are similar to those found in links golf. But the water carries – particularly during the last four holes (the ‘Loop of Doom’) – are akin to what players tend to face week in, week out on the PGA Tour.
One of the key advantages the Europeans will have at Le Golf National is the need to find the relatively narrow fairways from the tee and avoid the thick fescue rough – something we’ve seen regularly during French Opens and something that could ultimately curtail the ‘bombers’ on the American side.
“It’s not a big driver’s golf course,” Bjorn said. “It’s not like you’re going to hit 14 drivers. There are going to be a lot of irons. That’s the way the golf course has always been.”
This challenge could be further escalated depending on how the course is presented during the Cup and will be very different to what was found in 2016 at Hazeltine, which lacked rough and was labelled as “weak” and “soft” by Rose.
The home support and educated crowds will also assist the Europeans – and so too will their vast knowledge of the course from past events.
THE POTENTIAL PAIRINGS
Since Bjorn and Jim Furyk announced their captain’s picks three weeks ago, the anticipation has, naturally, moved to the potential pairings for each team.
The Americans boast the dominant pairing of Spieth and Reed, who have gone 4-1-2 (W-L-H) together after two Cups. But Rose and Stenson should be equally feared (if they reunite) with their record of 4-2-0.
Good friends Koepka and Johnson were unbeaten when playing together in the Presidents Cup last year and could prove to be one of the most powerful partnerships in Paris. But Molinari and Fleetwood, who both possess such wonderful ball control, would match anyone stride for stride on a course they know so well.
Woods will be flying after winning the Tour Championship last week. Who does Furyk pair him with? The 14-time major champion has played practice rounds with Mickelson throughout 2018. But Furyk isn’t likely to repeat the mistakes of Hall Sutton in 2004.
“I wouldn’t guess that would be a good idea as a captain, I’m just saying,” Furyk told the Golf Channel earlier this year.
Woods is much more likely to find himself alongside DeChambeau, who shares the same golf ball manufacturer and has earned Tiger’s admiration.
“He and I playing together would be fantastic,” Woods said. “He’s competitive, he’s fiery and he’s got all the things you want when you play a team match. I know that we play the game completely differently – I’m very much feel-orientated and he’s very much a numbers guy – but for some reason we get along great.”
Furyk also has the challenge of finding someone for Mickelson to play with because his usual partners – Kevin Kisner and Keegan Bradley – are both missing in France.
Tony Finau could be an option. The pair played together for the first three rounds of the Northern Trust, which prompted Mickelson to say: “Not only is he a great player, he’s a solid guy, he’s one of my favourite guys to be around.”
Lefty’s fellow Californian and regular practice-round buddy, Rickie Fowler, is another likely option.
The Europeans, meanwhile, could unveil the pairing of Ian Poulter and Tyrrell Hatton, who are set to play together at the World Cup in November. “Mr Ryder Cup” would be the perfect mentor for his debuting compatriot – just as Garcia would be for Rahm.
Reed has proven he is the most reliable player for the United States, earning himself the near-impeccable record of 6-1-2 from two appearances. His backend to the season was somewhat disappointing – and he has copped plenty from the public since capturing the green jacket in April. But he has been dubbed “Captain America” for a reason and should be good enough to earn his team at least three points.
Molinari, despite his poor Cup record (0-2-1), should prove to be a dominant force at Le Golf National – where he has played 13 French Opens and claimed four top-10s, including three runner-ups.
The Open Champion is one of the best ball strikers in the world and will have no problem whatsoever positioning himself around the tight Albatros course. His levelheadedness and flexibility to play alongside anyone adds to his value for the Europeans.
“There’s going to be a lot of European guys vying for his partnership in the foursomes at the Ryder Cup, that’s for sure,” McIlroy said after The Open Championship.
“He’s a fantastic golfer and he’s a great guy.”