Leading into any elite golf event, the pre-tourney conversation is always about the field. All sports are about the players. When those special events are golf majors, the course itself becomes an additional topic of discussion. Golf is really a contest, not against individuals, but rather against the inanimate object, the golf course. When the elite event is a team event, such as the Ryder Cup and President’s Cup, a third consideration comes into play – the coaches or more precisely, the Captains.
Some would argue the role of Ryder Cup Captains is much over-rated. Beyond those few additions to their rosters, the Captain’s picks, the critics would say Captains pick out the uniforms and wives outfits and very little else. It is fair to say Ryder Cup Captains like this year’s tandem of Davis Love III and Jose Maria Olazabal are not the sort of sideline competition orchestrators of a Tony La Russa or Jeff Fisher, but there are times when a they earn justifiable accolades in a win or a fusillade of criticism in a loss.
Paul Azinger still is credited with the master strategy that halted a string of US losses with an American win at Valhalla in 2008. As mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Hal Sutton was blistered with second guesses after an American debacle at Oakland Hills in 2004.
This year, the captains share a uniquely common trait of understated personalities. Both Olazabal and Love are unlikely to light up the podium with their rhetoric before, during or after the week in Chicago. Both have been devoid of controversy in their playing careers. Neither has been a spotlight-seeking competitor, even in their greatest moments. Love’s 1997 PGA Championship win at Winged Foot is remembered most for a rainbow and tears of triumph. Ollie’s wins in majors have been so muted that it probably eludes most memories that he has” twice” won the Masters.
As a Ryder Cup participant, Olazabal clearly has the more impressive resume, with eighteen wins against eight losses and five halves. The junior partner in the Ballesteros/Olazabal pairing cast Olazabal as the lieutenant in the Spanish Armada, with the electric Ballesteros as the Admiral. Through their Ryder run the twosome had a magnificent 11-2-2 record. Olazabal has always been the partner in these events and seldom the leading man. Look for much of the same as the three days unfold.
Love, like his entire squad in 2012, has a losing record for his six-team appearances – 9-12-3. Unlike his counterpart on the European side, Love’s playing record featured no dominant partner combination. He has had twelve different partners in eighteen different team matches. His own history suggests Davis will not be wedded to keeping pairs together, although there is strong expectation that Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker will spend the early part of the competition together, primarily based on their success in the President’s Cup.
Where Love may be the most influential will be in the decision making process on the course setup at Medinah along with the PGA’s maestro, Kerry Haigh. The early word out of Chicago is the course has survived a summer similar but not quite as dry and hot as St. Louis. Look for Love to borrow a page from Azinger’s playbook and keep the rough at moderate length. The Americans are longer as a group and gentler conditions for off line bombs will play to Love’s team’s strength.
Medinah’s greens have been thoroughly reworked by Rees Jones, so even experienced Medinah players like two time PGA winner there, Tiger Woods, Spain’s Sergio Garcia, and Chicago resident Luke Donald will be back in school learning the new contours. But whatever Jones has authored in contouring the new greens, Love will likely hope for dry conditions that will allow him to set up the greens as firm and fast. Americans see greens of that nature week in and week out on the American Tour as contrasted with slower softer putting surfaces on the European Tour.
Wonder child Rory McIlroy has yet to demonstrate his ability to dominate on that course set up, but his highball ability and newfound stroke from Dave Stockton suggests that Medinah may be no obstacle to his anchor role for the European squad.
Medinah has plenty of length at over 7600 yards if they care to go that route, but even with that sort of muscle from the tips it has been a more gracious host for it’s two recent PGA Championships and Hale Irwin’s 1990 US Open win, than the beast that brutalized the field at the US Open in 1976. The Number 3 course at Medinah will offer up birdies as a treat for the match play competition and should make for electric moments over the three days.
I still hold to my belief of an American, home cooking win, 15-13 against a European team that has individual records and recent team history on their side. I also have a wish that the Captains will engage in a little dishonesty for the good of the game. Unlike the President’s Cup, the Sunday pairings are a blind draw, with each Captain arranging their order with no knowledge of what the other has planned. I can only hope that the two will give a wink and a nod to the rules and find a way for Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy to square off late in the singles. The golf world craves this confrontation, including the recent deluded remarks from Greg Norman about Rory’s intimidation of Tiger. The Sunday single matches go head-to-head with the third week of the NFL, but a Woods/McIlroy showdown would trigger remotes around the country to find NBC and leave the NFL on record.
Dan Reardon is Golf Editor at KMOX in St. Louis. He can be heard throughout the week on America’s Sports Voice.