The results of previous encounters in this 89-year-old biennial battle for transatlantic bragging rights tells a tale of near monopoly for Stars and Stripes up until around the mid-1980s that make Europe’s bid this week for a fourth successive win look modest.
Having not won since 2008 at Valhalla and only achieving two wins in the last 10 meetings, the United States clearly needed to get their act together, and whether it has been down to the taskforce set up in the wake of the 2014 defeat at Gleneagles or because this is a really talented and tight group of American golfers, the way the United States went about their business from the first hole of the opening foursomes session was a telling indication that they have at last found a way to put together a genuine team rather than assemble a collection of distinctly singular golfers.
Sweeping the first session 4-0 immediately gave Darren Clarke’s Europeans a mountain to climb here at Hazeltine National because only twice in the history over this contest has the away team come back from losing the opening four matches.
It is difficult enough for a home team to find momentum after a session like yesterday morning’s: just ask the Americans on their team at Oakland Hills in 2004.
They lost the opening fourballs 3.5 to 1.5 and struggled thereafter, winning only one session and that by 2.5 to 1.5 in the Saturday fourballs on the way to an 18.5 to 9.5 trouncing in the Detroit suburbs.
Recovering on foreign soil is made even more difficult given the passion displayed by the American players and their noise generated by their supporters. The magazine article penned by Peter Willett that landed his brother Danny, the Masters champion and European rookie, in the middle of controversy for most of the week with its provocative poke at US golf fans was tongue in cheek but all too easy to offend. Friday’s massive galleries also proved it was well wide of the mark.
Willett received a mixed reception on the first tee when he made his bow in the afternoon fourballs, generous applause muffling but not disguising the boos that rumbled beneath after his name was announced, and made all the more annoying for the golfer who has become the unwitting victim in this unfortunate distraction.
So too captain Clarke. His efforts to dampen down any feistiness in this American crowd before the first tee shot in anger had been painstaking, he and his team happily signing autographs, posing for photos during practice rounds, building up a rapport they hoped would help take the edge off that feeling of going into the lion’s den.
Brother Willett’s contribution to journalism hardly helped and also derailed the Masters champion’s hopes for an enjoyable Ryder Cup debut. Which led to Clarke keeping his major champion on the bench during that fateful morning whitewash.
Willett, it had looked likely, would have been introduced to the Ryder Cup in the company of his friend, management stable-mate and European veteran Lee Westwood, one of Clarke’s three captain’s picks. That plan appears to have been ripped up as the furore over the Willett article continued. The way Willett began his fourball match alongside Martin Kaymer, sinking a birdie to halve the first hole with with fellow rookie Brooks Koepka and his partner Brandt Snedeker, suggested the Yorkshireman was perfectly at ease with the demands of an away debut, even if he was subjected to heckling from a small minority.
t also brought scrutiny to Clarke’s decision to pair Westwood with Thomas Pieters in the morning foursomes, a decision which backfired spectacularly against an imperious Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar.
Pieters, the Belgian rookie who had finished fourth at the Olympics, came second at the Czech Open and then won the Made In Denmark tournament during a wonderful August for the big hitter, was a controversial third and final captain’s pick given he had won Clarke’s vote at the expense of experienced and successful PGA Tour player Russell Knox from Scotland.
Yet despite an understandably shaky start to his Ryder Cup career in the foursomes, it was Westwood who proved the weak link in their partnership. Westwood, too, was a Clarke pick and the captain’s arguments for his close friend’s inclusion were strong, given his unrivalled experience in this contest among current European players. Yet his 10th Ryder Cup appearance has come against a backdrop of poor form and if Pieters was a hot property, Westwood has not won a tournament since 2014.
Clarke’s trust in Pieters was such that he survived the cut for the afternoon fourballs and the reward was a much more composed Belgian rookie playing in the company of European leader Rory McIlroy, holding his own in the better-ball format by sinking a birdie putt at the par-three fourth to push his team a hole up against Dustin Johnson and Kuchar in his renewal with the American stars.
Alas, Westwood’s performance in the earlier debacle against the US pair was more an indicator of current form than past glories. The 43-year-old sat out the fourball session and if Westwood, just two points shy of matching Nick Faldo’s all-time Ryder Cup points record of 25, is to justify his captain’s faith, he is going to need to put in an exceptional weekend.
The US have at last put together a genuine team rather than a collection of singular golfers