The Ryder Cup is often tense, sometimes controversial and always captivating. The great rivalry between America and Europe has produced some of the most iconic moments in sport - from Nicklaus’s concession in 1969, to Faldo’s fight back at Oak Hill in 1995, the ‘Miracle in Medinah’ in 2012 and Ian Poulter’s 5 birdie putting streak.
This year’s Ryder Cup takes place in the USA at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Minnesota. It is a hilly course, noted for its narrow fairways, small greens and the par four sixteenth where players must carry the ball over 200 feet, across Lake Hazeltine. It’s the course where Tony Jacklin won the US Open by 7 strokes in 1970. Undoubtedly, it is also the course where legends will be made between September 27th and October 2nd this year.
Who has the momentum to succeed?
So who will win this year’s Ryder Cup?
First, some history:
The Ryder Cup has been held in even numbered years with the Americans absolutely dominant for many years, winning every Ryder Cup for 57 years. Since Great Britain and Ireland joined forces with the rest of Europe in 1979, however, the momentum has swung away from the United States, with Europe taking ten wins and the US seven.
Europe took their third consecutive win in 2014 at Gleneagles, beating the US comprehensively by 16 ½ to 11 ½, with honours even in the fourballs, but Europe proving unstoppable in the foursomes. With Europe just edging the singles, they retained the Cup with ease. Will it be the same story in Hazeltine?
The US will be eager to stop the rot and in Davis Love III they have a captain with enormous experience and pedigree - Love has won 21 PGA ranking events, including his only major, the PGA Championship in 1997. As a player, he has been on the winning side in the Ryder Cup in 1993 and again in 1999.
This is Love’s second tilt at captaining a winning Ryder Cup team, after an unsuccessful bid in 2012. He’ll be backed up with assistant captains like Steve Stricker, who hasn’t missed the cut in a Major since the 2009 PGA Championships, and Jim Furyk, who recently shot a PGA record of 58 in Connecticut. With many of the team’s key players - Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar, Bubba Watson and Patrick Reed - heading to the Olympic Games in Rio, preparation for the Ryder Cup might be expected to suffer. Love thinks differently, and has told PGA.com that those competing at the Olympics will prove invaluable to the Ryder Cup team, whether they make the top 8 or are included as a Captain’s Pick, since they will have had the experience of playing for their country and competing at Olympic level, and will inspire the rest of the team.
Darren Clark becomes the first Northern Irishman to captain the European team, having competed five times in the Ryder Cup as a player, and acting as vice-captain in Europe’s 2010 and 2012 wins. He’s hoping to captain Europe to a record fourth win and has said that he is delighted and extremely proud to be selected as the European captain for 2016’s Ryder Cup, adding that it is a huge honour for him as the Ryder Cup has played an enormous part in his life and his career.
Clark has Ryder Cup history with Love - partnered with Colin Montgomerie, the Irishman scored a memorable victory over Davis Love III and Fred Couples in the fourballs at Valderrama, Spain in 1997. It is perhaps his 2006 appearance for which he is most remembered, when, in front of the passionately enthusiastic Irish crowds at the K Club, he inspired Europe to a record margin of victory, just weeks after his wife Heather had died. Clarke had accepted a wildcard in accordance with his dying wife’s wishes and promptly birdied the first green in one of the most emotional moments in Ryder Cup history.
Clark has already named Ian Poulter as one of his vice captains. Poulter is something of a talisman for Team Europe with his excellent playing record in the Cup, not least that Miracle in Medinah.
On the tee
Clark may be bidding for history, but does he have the players to pull off that fourth victory?
Danny Willett will line up at Hazeltine, having pulled on the famous Green Jacket of The Masters back in April. Clark said after that result that when there are 7 European players in the top 10 at a major, it has to mean good things for the European team, especially in a Ryder Cup year.
With the leading four players on the Ryder Cup European Points List gaining automatic selection, Willetts will be joined by Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson and Chris Wood. McIlroy’s poor putting saw him miss the cut at the US PGA and he’s chosen to sit out the Olympics, but he leads the European rankings. Stenson is the first Swede to have won a major, bagging the Open at Troon this year, and his previous Ryder Cup experience will make him a valuable team member. Wood won the PGA Championship back in May and will fulfil a long held ambition if he takes an automatic selection spot to play his first Ryder Cup.
Other players who made it onto the team via automatic selection were Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia. Garcia is a Ryder Cup veteran with an 18-9-5 record in his 7 appearances. Rose has overcome his back problems from the start of the season and ranks fifth on the World Points list. Andy Sullivan, who once stacked shelves at Asda and shot a hole in one at the Masters, will make a Ryder Cup debut, as will 21 year old Matthew Fitzpatrick, who would be the baby of the team.
Clark can also count on three ‘Captain’s Picks’, to round out a team that looks strong enough on paper to take that record win. Those picks are Martin Kaymer, Thomas Pieters and Lee Westwood, a player who has been there and done that and knows how to handle the big occasions.
But the US hasn’t dominated the history of the Ryder Cup for nothing and they’ll come out fighting on home soil. US Open champion, Dustin Johnson, had enough points in the bag to book his place in the team, as did 23 year old Jordan Spieth, whose star blazed incredibly brightly until the loss to Willett at the Masters. Experience comes in the form of Phil Mickelson, who, at 46, is looking to compete in his 11th Ryder Cup and is playing as well as ever, as he proved at the Open.
Jimmy Walker surged to an automatic qualifying spot with his US PGA Championship victory over Jason Day. Zach Johnson will be looking forward to his fifth Ryder Cup appearance, after declaring “no offence to the Olympics but I’d rather be on the Ryder Cup team”. J B Holmes has fought back from 2 major brain operations to be in contention for another Ryder Cup appearance, but competition is tight for the eighth automatic place between Brandt Snedeker and the evergreen Bubba Watson.
Should Watson miss qualification by right, he’s almost certain to figure in Love’s Captain’s Picks, along with his Olympic teammates. Jim Furyk’s age and experience of playing in 10 Ryder Cups may make him a steady hand. Tiger Woods will also be in Hazeltine, but as a vice-captain, since his recurring back problem will almost certainly rule him out of an active playing role.
So who will win the Ryder Cup?
Despite recent European dominance, the Americans will probably start as favourites in Hazeltine. The US has made real efforts to address its Ryder Cup woes, setting up a task force to look at every aspect of how the team can bring the cup back to US shores. In Davis Love III, they have a steady, methodical pair of hands for the captaincy, backed up by a strong back room staff and a youthful team. Eager to put the disappointments of the past behind them, and with the advantage of playing at home, from whom nothing else but a win will be expected, they perhaps deservedly start as favourites.
Europe are proven winners with a psychological advantage, who seem to have hit on a formula for success that leaves a captain little to do except keep the team motivated and competitive. Clark is a proven performer at the Ryder Cup, but the team he oversees may lack other winning stalwarts like Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter.
One thing we can be sure of is an exciting and action packed tournament when it begins on 27th September.