I was fortunate to play a number of French Open tournaments around Le Golf National. It is an outstanding test of golf with a set-up more akin to what you would experience in a major championship than that at a regular tour venue.
Given the level of experience in both Ryder Cup teams, it should be quite easy for them to figure out the required course strategy around the Albatross course south-west of Paris.
But you also have to factor in the passion and the occasion that is the Ryder Cup, those partisan fans and the momentum shifts. Collectively, those factors change the landscape and they can take even the greatest players out of their comfort zone – as it did to Tiger Woods with his opening tee shot at the K Club in 2006, when he hit it into the water some 50 yards left of his target.
The Ryder Cup does that to players. The atmosphere can border anywhere from toxic to mesmeric, depending on your level of performance but as a sporting spectacle, it has few peers. It is the one week every couple of years when the usual “on Tour” camaraderie takes a back seat for a greater cause, your country of birth. It’s the sum of the parts in Europe versus one great nation, the USA.
Despite the undoubted pedigree of the US Team, I rate Team Europe as favourites for a number of reasons...
1. The golf course
Europe has the advantage of being able to set the course up, so instead of the wide-open fairways, soft and middle of the green pins we witnessed in Hazeltine two years ago, expect Le Golf National to play with more shot variables (ball flight, shot shaping). It will have narrow fairways and deep rough which will put a premium on accuracy off the tee and for the approach shots. The greens will also run slightly slower. In doing so Europe are making sure power alone won’t be the overriding factor in determining the outcome of the Ryder Cup.
2. Course Experience
The Europeans hold a significant advantage around Le Golf National because they play it on an annual basis. Ian Poulter alone has played in 13 French Opens around Le Golf National. Alex Noren and Tommy Fleetwood are past winners and Francesco Molinari and Thorbjorn Olesen have had several runners-up finishes. Graeme McDowell, a European vice-captain is also a two-time winner of the French Open so there is plenty of experience, especially for the treacherous last four holes which will go a long way in determining the final outcome.
Historically Europe has won its Ryder Cups on the back of its best players contributing around 60% of the final points total. If they are to win this year, that stat will change, thanks largely to the pedigree of its rookies. Players like Jon Rahm, Alex Noren, Tommy Fleetwood, and Tyrrell Hatton are already ‘proven’ on the world stage. Thorbjorn Olesen is a rising star. Their age profile is good for five games and they will be expected to contribute handsomely.
4. Bjorn’s captaincy and vice-captains
Bjorn as a Ryder Cup player made a winning debut in 1997 at Valderrama. He was also in the winning teams in 2002 and most recently in 2014 at Gleneagles. In all, he has served under six different winning European team captains. Paul McGinley believes that Bjorn’s biggest strength will be his ability to communicate to his players as well as his hugely-experienced team of vice-captains — Robert Karlsson, Luke Donald, Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell, and Lee Westwood
5. Home advantage
No one should underestimate the power of home advantage or indeed the impact the partisan, boisterous home crowds have had in determining the outcome. The home captain has many advantages including determining the order of play (foursomes or four-ball), something the Europeans have used to their advantage given they have not lost on home soil since 1993.
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