This week the game of golf lost one of its truly global icons with the passing of the great Arnold Palmer. Although not the greatest golfer ever, the charismatic Palmer can take great credit for expanding the popularity of the game beyond its then traditional boundaries by continuously supporting the likes of the Open Championship at a time when Europe only had a fledgling tour.
As a founding investor in the Golf Channel, Palmer took great satisfaction from the fact golf is now a truly global game, so it is perhaps only fitting that the country of his birth, this week also gets to host golf’s greatest showpiece, the Ryder Cup.
Its popularity and success lies in its global appeal - the classic storyline of “David” (the European Tour) pitting itself against “Goliath” (the all-powerful PGA Tour) and while is nearly always a close contest with momentum shifting by the day the fact Europe has won eight of the past 10 Ryder Cups, means Team USA heads into tomorrow’s opening jousts under unprecedented pressure to win.
So what are the five key issues both captains Davis Love (US) and Darren Clarke (Europe) will have to address if they are to win the Ryder Cup?
1. Course Set-Up
Davis Love holds all the experience, having captained the US team as recently as 2012, during which he got so much right over the first two days at Medinah - in terms of course set-up, team preparations and team pairings - so it is crucial he gets it right once again.
The course strategy he selects will go a long way towards determining his potential partnerships strategy. At 7,628 yards Hazeltine is a big golf course, which will be set up with light rough so he has put a premium on length and a good short game than accuracy.
It also has four par 3’s, two on the even numbered holes on the front nine (4 & 8) and two on the odd numbered holes on the back nine (13 & 17) so he probably has already given to consideration to who will have the responsibility of playing them and to who will be tasked with holing the crucial putts down the closing stretch.
This is where the individual player statistics will help the respective captains to make informed decisions.
2. Backroom team
A crucial aspect that could potentially determine the outcome is the performance (on and off course) of the captains and their vice-captains. Right now Team Europe has the luxury of working off a winning template.
It also has a far more experienced backroom team and that could be crucial down the stretch.
For their part America is trying to play catch up with its dedicated “task force” of future Ryder Cup captains.
They have also reverted back to a player oriented selection process for their picks and will practice in pre- determined “pods” but no one truly knows just yet how effectively their back-room team will gel together.
For example, it seems as if statistically Tiger Woods is putting the potential pairings together.
But, apart from Davis Love, how much input have the other backroom staff had in his selections?
What role will Bubba Watson play? Will Tiger’s presence be a positive influence on or a distraction to the players?
Time will tell.
For either team to win this weekend it is vital they get their best players to perform by getting the most out of their pairing selections.
Europe’s success in the Ryder Cup has consistently come from their top four players delivering 40-48% of final points tally, with the other two- thirds of the team delivering the rest.
That suggests the European selection of the correct partnerships, the order they play in and the man management and communication within the team has been significantly stronger, something which the US team no doubt is keen to address this week.
That said, the key for both sides is that they have to have a plan but that plan must also be able to be flexible to accommodate fluctuations in form while also keeping everyone sufficiently happy and motivated.
4 Getting the crowd involved early
In the heat of battle there a few sporting spectacles to match the support you most often see at the Ryder Cup.
It is unbridled passion and it should come as no surprise to hear that this week Darren Clark expects Hazeltine to be “loud and rocking”.
To take advantage of this opportunity, the Americans know they must get off to a flying start by winning both of the sessions on the first day but all of the pressure is on them.
After all, they have taken the decision to create a new working template that allows for a dedicated line of succession in their task force and for far greater player power in team selections - but now they must deliver.
For their part the European team know the Americans are under pressure and are therefore vulnerable.
They also know most of them have only ever lost Ryder Cups, so they will be looking to silence the US support quickly by winning the crucial points and putting as much “blue” as possible on the board.
5. Getting singles order right
Momentum is such a huge factor in determining the outcome of the Ryder Cup and no one knows this better than Davis Love, when in 2012, Ian Poulter birdied the last five holes of the afternoon fourballs with Rory McIlroy to fundamentally shift the momentum of the match despite the US holding a four point lead going into the final series of singles.
The US should still have won the match from that position and no one knows that better than Love himself. Tactically he got his Sunday selections wrong by allowing Europe to maintain its crucial momentum early on by loading his team down the order. Momentum, momentum, momentum!
This weekend Love has all the advantages if the match is tight coming into Sunday afternoon.
He is playing in favourable American conditions and will have the partisan crowds for support - but most importantly he also have a far more experienced group of players, all keen to deliver, so he must get his selections right.
That means he needs to be brave enough to match up many of his key players against the European stars in the hope that he comes out with some sort of parity allowing his more experienced players to pick off the six European rookies.
Clarke, on the other hand, will fully expect Europe to do what it does best, rise to the challenge and out-perform its more celebrated rivals.
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