By Neil Leverett
- The 43rd Ryder Cup begins on Friday at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin
- Team Europe defending trophy after 17½–10½ victory at Le Golf National in Paris three years ago
- Competition taking place 12 months later than scheduled due to COVID-19 pandemic
KOHLER, WISCONSIN – As the US and Europe meet once more for the Ryder Cup, can Padraig Harrington mastermind another European win at Whistling Straits?
Few occasions on the sporting calendar grab the attention quite like the Ryder Cup and for the 43rd time beginning on Friday, Whistling Straits in Wisconsin is the setting for the biggest prize in tournament golf.
Host of three separate PGA Championships, the Straits Course on the shores of Lake Michigan this week hosts the event for the first time after being held back from last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
After regaining the famous Samuel Ryder Cup at Le Golf National three years ago, Europe arrive on American soil looking for their eighth win from 10 in the competition since the turn of the millennium.
Despite having beaten the US in their own back yard in both 2004 and most famously at Medinah in 2012, home field advantage has favoured the host team on six of the last seven Ryder Cups – bucked only by Jose Maria Olazabal‘s men and their miraculous comeback in Chicago some nine years back.
So, as the richly partisan galleries return once more – pertinently for the first time since the troubles of the past 18 months – that familiar roar that only the Ryder Cup can bring will fill the air once more come Friday morning.
Get ready for the 43rd Ryder Cup.
Captain: Steve Stricker
Vice-captains: Jim Furyk, Zach Johnson, Davis Love III, Phil Mickelson, Fred Couples
Players: Collin Morikawa, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, Patrick Cantlay, Tony Finau, Xander Schauffele, Jordan Spieth, Harris English, Daniel Berger, Scottie Scheffler.
Captain: Padraig Harrington
Vice-captains: Robert Karlsson, Luke Donald, Martin Kaymer, Graeme McDowell, Henrik Stenson
Players: Jon Rahm, Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton, Bernd Wiesberger, Rory McIlroy, Viktor Hovland, Paul Casey, Matt Fitzpatrick, Lee Westwood, Shane Lowry, Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter.
Stricker steers home charge
Having been forced to relinquish the Ryder Cup once more in France last time out, the latest US captain in Steve Stricker is tasked with regaining the trophy on home soil, just like Davis Love III did five years ago.
A three-time participant as a player, the 54-year-old in his native Badger State this time skippers his side, having been part of one of the United States’ two wins from nine since 2000, when the hosts won by five points at Valhalla in 2008.
Stricker’s line-up in 2021 is impressive to say the very least. Heavyweight.
All 12 players in Team USA’s ranks are in the top 25 in the world, with no less than eight in the top 10. Already boasting major winners in Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka and rejuvenated Jordan Spieth, their six rookies are by name only.
In Collin Morikawa, the US have the last man to win a major, claiming the Claret Jug at Royal St. George’s back in July, whilst Patrick Cantlay become the newly-crowned FedEx Cup winner only weeks ago. Harris English, Daniel Berger and Tony Finau have also all claimed PGA Tour wins this season. Though Xander Schauffele is winless on the Tour in over two years, neither he nor Scottie Scheffler are out of place for Team USA.
The American challenge looks to be one of the strongest in recent memory, perhaps stretching as far back as 1981, where Dave Marr’s team comprising of Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Crenshaw, Lee Trevino and Raymond Floyd took apart a Seve Ballesteros-less Europe on home soil at Walton Heath, winning by a a margin of 18½ to 9½. It remains the heaviest blue defeat in history.
Make no mistake, this particular US team would be hard enough to triumph against on European soil, but on US terra firma at Whistling Straits, Stricker and his charges may be an unbeatable force and indeed, an immovable object.
Enigmatic Harrington eyes latest US scalp
Such has been Europe’s relative Ryder Cup dominance in recent years, the task of captaining the men in blue toward victory has become a rather less daunting prospect in the last 20 years, with Europe holding a 7-2 record over the US.
Nevertheless, in 2021, it is the turn of Padraig Harrington in attempting to retain the trophy and on foreign soil no less, which only Jose Maria Olazabal and Bernard Langer have achieved to date. Perhaps the difference this time round however, is the fact Harrington’s task looks a far taller one.
Compared to his opposite number though, the Irishman has played in double the Ryder Cups as a player, winning four times and was part of Langer’s winning team at Oakland Hills in 2004. Harrington’s experience is now a narrative of his own team.
A true student of the game, few carry as much respect for his almost eccentric but always meticulous approach to golf, who now handed the prestige of European captain will ensure every detail of preparation is made.
As we have mentioned, the US dominate the top 10 rankings, but Europe’s sole inclusion in that list stands at the top of the mountain in world number one and current US Open champion, Jon Rahm. Beyond that though, only rookie Viktor Hovland, Tyrrell Hatton and Rory McIlroy find themselves occupying berths in the top 20.
But this is matchplay golf. Rankings can and have meant very little in the past.
Compared to his counterpart Stricker’s six captain’s picks, Harrington meanwhile, has just three – just like his ratio of rookies. But those picks could become the key ingredients in another away win.
In Sergio Garcia, Harrington retains the player with the biggest Ryder Cup tally in history (25.5 points). whilst the returning ‘Postman’ and Mr. Ryder Cup himself, Ian Poulter is in tow for his seventh appearance, the continuing and beating heart of the European team and after a strong season no less. Poulter is joined by five of his fellow Englishmen in the team, with English players making up half the group of 12.
Paul Casey and Lee Westwood will need no motivation after their own solid returns to form on the PGA Tour, however, Tyrrell Hatton‘s rather indifferent campaign has gone in polar opposite direction to that of the term before and will be a concern. In the case of Matt Fitzpatrick and Tommy Fleetwood meanwhile, both men will draw upon their experiences in Paris during 2018, with the latter having won four points for Thomas Bjorn.
Austrian Bernd Wiesberger and makes up the rookie line-up along with dethroned Open champion Shane Lowry, and both players have the grit to be big team players at Whistling Straits.
Defending Europe eye fifth win on US soil
Their status as defending champions is not an alien position that Team Europe find themselves in before play begins on Friday.
Indeed, since 2010, Europe have began a Ryder Cup looking to retain the trophy on two occasions and do so for a third time at Whistling Straits.
Holding a six-year monopoly over the US between 2010 and 2016 – including their most famous win at Medinah nine years’ ago – Europe’s last visit to American shores at Hazeltine however, brought with it a resounding six-point defeat.
Despite that, Europe have won on foreign turf a total of four times and could make it a fifth here.
For all the US strength in depth this year, nothing is more important in a Ryder Cup than experience as noted, years of which the Europeans boast far in excess of their opponents this week in Wisconsin.
What has been the lifeblood of European success of late has been not only that same experience, but most importantly winning encounters. Team Europe’s personnel here have that in abundance.
American might is on show for sure, but Europe have claimed the famous trophy during four of the last five editions, driven by spirit, a sense of occasion, unbreakable camaraderie, but above all a total belief in their ultimate goal, that has inspired a blue wave since Celtic Manor in 2010.
It is that same belief that Harrington will look to recreate in 2021.
Could tensions again derail US hopes?
On paper, the Americans are strong favourites to take back the famous trophy this weekend then.
They have the more decorated players, the bigger hitters, and a course that should suit all 12 of their team down to the ground with its shorter rough and eminently drivable fairways, even if the prevailing wind could favour the Europeans.
But their remains a rift within the group that could again thwart their chances of regaining the trophy.
Once more in a Ryder Cup, the US captain has opted to pair off his 12 into three separate groups or ‘pods’, meaning any one player can only be paired with three of their designated group during Friday and Saturday’s fourballs and foursomes, however, after Wednesday’s practice, it appears that Stricker is keen to be more flexible, with movement across all three groups.
Regardless, Koepka and DeChambeau will be isolated in separate pods, with neither man shy of the dislike for one another, a feeling that has developed (after more light-hearted moments, pictured above).
But with ill-feeling the somewhat sizeable elephant in the room, could it spill over into US hopes again?
In 2004, with the two best players in the game in Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were paired together at Oakland Hills, but their spectacular failure was put down to a lack of harmony and an often heated rivalry between the two men – as their all-too evident body language portrayed.
Conversely, the same spirit we have spoken of as a driving force for European wins remains evident, but the one player who had bled US blood in recent editions, ‘Captain America’ Patrick Reed, is neither a player or VC this week. Despite his lack of form, could that be a mistake on the part of Stricker?
This weekend in Wisconsin, Team USA will be desperate to the prize the Ryder Cup out of European hands and have the quality in numbers to do so.
However, as we have seen before, European players live for the competition and many American pundits suggest it is the men in blue for whom it matters more – after Wednesday’s cheese heads and Green Bay Packers turnouts in their latest PR spin for the home fans, it would be hard to argue otherwise.
Surely America’s strongest team in some time, for Europe to return home with the trophy still in tow will take some doing. But the unequaled levels of passion this particular tournament instills in this year’s visitors could yet prove pivotal.
If the power of the US juggernaut buckles on the greens and fairways of Whistling Straits, it could yet be the experienced heads of an-again familiar European line-up that once more wins out.
Whatever happens in the 43rd Ryder Cup though, it is sure to thrill once more.
The 43rd Ryder Cup between the USA and Europe begins on Friday on the Straits Course at Whistling Straits, Kohler, Wisconsin.
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