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Surely the momentum is all ours?

Rory McIlroy's eight-shot demolition job on the USPGA Championship and the exceptionally prominent European showing with five of the first six past the post have not persuaded the bookmakers to change their minds about which side is favourite for the big showdown at Medinah on September 28-30. Home advantage and the fact that the USA provided two of the four major winners in Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson had already put Davis Love’s men in the box seat and they are a best-priced 5-6 to do what Paul Azinger’s squad achieved so convincingly at Valhalla four years ago, and that is to kick European butt.

Considering the two previous 18.5 to 9.5 lashings that the USA endured in 2004 and 2006, one of them on their home patch Oakland Hills, in the two previous confrontations, that five-point defeat in Louisville has to go down as an aberration. It certainly came as a big shock to many and, as usual when a team gets beaten, especially a fancied one, it is the manager (as in football) or captain (as in cricket and golf) who has to carry the can.

Sir Nick Faldo was not everyone’s idea of a good captain and, for whatever reason, he failed to get the best out of several key players with Lee Westwood, Padraig Harrington (who had just won two majors) and Sergio Garcia not winning a match between them.

Full respect to Azinger’s fine leadership of the victorious side but that one-sided scoreline simply should not have happened. The Americans did not look particularly strong with JB Holmes, Bo Weekley and Ben Curtis in it, but then there were a couple of Europeans, Oliver Wilson and Soren Hansen, who were barely of Ryder Cup standard either. Two years later when Europe retrieved the trophy by the narrowest of margins at Celtic Manor, Colin Montgomerie got away with murder where Faldo couldn’t.

He picked a woefully-out-of-form Harrington over the apparently more deserving Paul Casey and the very ordinary but in-form Edoardo Molinari over the classier Justin Rose and came away covered in roses even though Pod, as anticipated, played like a drain and Molinari got just two half-points out of three encounters. So Monty goes down in the record books as a good guy while Faldo is forever a villain. But it is never as simple as that and luck plays a giant part.

This year’s European captain, Jose Maria Olazabal, may not have won as many majors as Faldo but he certainly uses the first-person-singular much less and enjoys the undeniable respect of every golfer who will be in the team. More than that, the dual Masters champion possesses an ability to inspire with the power of words as he has done in many a Ryder team room in the past.

Unless he can find a wild-card place for Sergio Garcia, that great workhorse Miguel-Angel Jimenez or the monster-hitting (but currently ineffectual) Alvaro Quiros, it could be a very strange team he announces in the Gleaneagles ballroom on Monday August 27 – potentially the first without a Spaniard in it since GB&I became Europe in 1979. Early communication from the captain suggests he very much wants Garcia in his side in this first Ryder Cup since the death of the most famous Spaniard of all, the iconic Seve Ballesteros, but some of us would prefer to see the ever-reliable Jimenez even if, at 48, he is past his best. And yet, for all the good will that is aimed in his direction, Sergio Garcia appears to be out of love with the game, missed the cut badly at the USPGA when he had the chance to lay his cards on the table, and has a propensity for missing short putts that will make potential playing partners nervous.

This time Harrington, although well down the points table, would be a deserving pick. He has turned his game around after some disheartening years and performed really well in three majors, fourth at the Masters, eighth at the US Open and 18th at the USPGA, a position which at one stage of the last day looked like being a whole lot better. Very much on the short list, too, has to be the Belgian bomber, Nicolas Colsaerts, whose extreme length would make him an ideal fourball companion on a course measuring over 7500 yards.

A week after Ollie announces his wild cards, Love does the same in the States but he has more scope as once again they have gone for eight automatics and four picks (Olazabal has 10 automatic places – five from the European Points table, a further five from the World Points list and two picks). The struggling Phil Mickelson played just about well enough at Kiawah to clinch the eighth and final spot, leaving the likes of Hunter Mahan, Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker and Dustin Johnson at the tender mercies of DL3.

It would come as a minor surprise if anybody outside this quartet – unless it is Rickie Fowler – was named on September 4. With three rookies (Jason Dufner, Simpson and Keegan Bradley) in his side, Love will be looking for experience to coax the best out of the new boys. Fowler, of course, has Ryder experience and proved his matchplay credentials in Wales. He opened his PGA Tour account this year, beating McIlroy in a Quail Hollow head-to-head, and if he keeps his place, the American side would be just as strong. It will be a question of who is in the best form at the time, which is Love’s reason for delaying selection until two of the FedEx Cup series of events have been competed for. At the time of writing, neither Mahan nor Fowler is at the top of his game.

So having got the two teams to the first tee at Medinah, who is going to win? The heart says Europe, the bookmakers think it’s the USA because two of our three trump cards, Donald and Westwood, are underperforming and another former world No. 1, Martin Kaymer, can barely hit his backside with a banjo. The German has not posted a top-ten since Malaysia in mid-April.

But there are upsides. Graeme McDowell has played three great majors on the bounce, McIlroy is buzzing again after finding a winning balance between his love-life and career, Rose and Poulter shared fourth at the USPGA, Peter Hanson’s seventh there was his second fine major performance of 2012 (he was third at Augusta) and Donald was third to Woods in the 2006 USPGA on the Ryder Cup layout.

Besides, not everything in Love’s garden is blooming. Mickelson is finding life tough (he hasn’t registerd a top-10 finish in the States since May), the edgy Woods is more than beatable these days (and has rarely shown a voracious appetite for the Ryder Cup), Furyk’s nerve cracked at Olympic and Firestone, Mahan’s good form is several months old, and Simpson played some alarmingly awful golf for the two rounds he played at Kiawah and has had his late summer disturbed by the birth of a second child. In Tiger’s favour is that he has won twice at Medinah, the 1999 and 2006 USPGAs (the first one with Sergio a close second, the second when Garcia ran joint-third with Donald, probably why Olazabal is so keen to have him). Yet it is a course which had previously favoured accuracy over flair. Hale Irwin, Lou Graham and Dr Cary Middlecoff won three Opens there before Tiger, so accuracy rates above power despite the course’s length. Most of the Europeans will know it and home advantage means far less these days when many of our team live across the pond and play much of their golf there.

Both captains are superb gentlemen, so no advantage there although Olazabal is probably the more driven and the match is in the best of hands. If short prices like 5-6 and 6-4 hold no appeal, you can always bet on top points-scorer for each side and the winning margin. Paddy Power go 10-1 that it’s a 14-14 tie and the same price a 14.5-13.5 result for either side. It’s 500-1 Europe running away with by 22-6 but that’s not going to happen. Me? I’m just happy to watch one more great edition of this ever-intriguing, heart-stopping duel.

We did give you a hint...

The biggest bet on the Open did not last long. One Ladbrokes customer put £30,000 on the counter in their Stockport shop and asked for 15 grand each-way on Justin Rose at 33-1. Victory would have meant a return of £630,000 but this was a very thorny Rose ...he missed the cut.

The winner, Ernie Els, started at 45-1 having been recommended to Gi readers at 50- 1 in the Open preview issue (Gi 111). And runner-up Adam Scott traded at 1-50 on betting exchange Betfair when he led by four with four to play. Over £25,000 was matched at those amazingly short odds and more than £1m at 1-20. Ouch!

Rory McIlroy, the 20-1 winner of the USPGA, was, as ever, heavily supported – “but the damage was nowhere near as bad as it might have been because of the Olympics,” said Ladbrokes’ Jessica Bridge. “Thankfully everybody was busy watching that, otherwise we would have been completely in the bunker.”

McIlroy, back as No. 1 in the world after that victory, is even-money with William Hill to be still there at the end of 2012 and 9-4 to add to his major tally in 2013.

September 2012

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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