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'Medicinal' Remedy - USA 2012 Ryder Cup Chances Strong at Medinah
Editor's Note: Cybergolf's Jay Flemma is already trembling with anticipation about the upcoming 2012 Ryder Cup. The biennial competition that pits the Americans against their European counterparts starts September 28 at Medinah Country Club near Chicago. Here's Jay's take on those three days of intense festivities, his views of the host course, and how he thinks the Ryder Cup will play out.]
They will represent Europe, but they will feel like they are on an island.
When the Ryder Cup comes to Chicago with all its pomp, circumstance and ethnocentrism, you can expect a rough ride for the European team. This year, all the momentum is on the American side. It's Chicagoland, a fists-up, bare-knuckled, roughneck of a town perfectly reflected in long, charmless and brutish Medinah No. 3, a blunt instrument of a golf course.
It's the Ryder Cup, perhaps the most exciting event in golf, but perhaps also the most divisive and acrimonious and, without question, the most pressure-filled. And it's an American team firing on all cylinders buoyed by the rabid craziness of its lathered-up fans.
Is it golf's greatest spectacle? Perhaps. Does it underline several of the gravest problems with modern-day sports events? Sometimes.
As the size of the event has grown the sportsmanship exhibited by the fans (and sometimes the teams) has devolved accordingly. This year the home-field advantage - rowdy Chicago - is already so palpable that the Europeans' success in recent years won't matter much out there on the golf course.
They're going to feel like they walked into the Coliseum and Caesar just released the lions. The only worse place for Europe to be playing would be Bethpage, and that's coming soon. Meanwhile, Chicago will do its best to prove that it is no "Second City" when it comes to volume and passion.
Home course advantage: USA - big time.
The switch to four at-large picks is working deeply in the U.S.'s favor. You can debate Mahan or Fowler vs. Snedeker or Dustin Johnson - if you absolutely must, but that's nitpicky. Nobody got picked who's a total fish, and nobody got left off who was indispensable. Here are the lineups:
USA - W. Simpson, Z. Johnson, B. Watson, Mickelson, D. Johnson, Snedeker, Furyk, Woods, Kuchar, Dufner, K. Bradley.
Europe - Garcia, Westwood, G. McDowell, Donald, Colsaerts, P. Hanson, Kaymer, McIlroy, Poulter, Rose, Lawrie, F. Molinari.
"We'll play that hand just fine," said golf expert Bruce Moulton, and he's right. All 12 Americans are playing in the Tour Championship. Europe is sending just five.
Love has his choice of strategies with this deep a team. If he uses the "pod" system begun at Valhalla, he has three strong groups, each teeming with veterans:
A) Simpson, Z. Johnson, D. Johnson, B. Watson - aka the "God Squad"
B) Mickelson, Bradley, Snedeker, Dufner
C) Woods, Stricker, Furyk, Kuchar
Woods, usually so persnickety about his partners, can actually play with any of the three in his pod. He feels comfortable with both "Jimbo" and "Stevie" (and plays well with them!), but he also respects "Kooch" enough to play nice in the sandbox. Moreover, Woods is playing his best and most consistent golf since coming back from his scandals and injuries. In his mind, he's back.
The God Squad boys - the Johnsons, Watson and Simpson - are still vastly underrated by the media and Madison Avenue, but three of the four are major winners, two within this calendar year. Worry a little about Dustin and Bubba, because they each can get wild, and when that happens things go south quickly. Just like you can't mate two horses that are both a little fast and a little crazy because their offspring will be very fast and very crazy, so too is it a risk to put those two volatile drivers of the golf ball and even wilder free spirits together. They could be a powerhouse, but they also need a tight rein.
Conversely, Webb and Zach are eminently cool under pressure; they don't rattle and don't hit the ball all over the park. Webb can be a birdie machine and Zach is Steady Eddie, even in the crucible heat of the biggest events. He's also a consummate team player and has had a great campaign over the last few months.
Speaking of looking at the last year, not long ago people were remarking that a Mickelson-Bradley duo would be Filet-O-Fish for the Euros. Now it looks like a juggernaut. Which Mickelson and Bradley will show up in Chicago? They're both mercurial. If they go 1-3 over four matches will that kill the USA's chances? Probably not. The team is so deep and so strong, they win in a laugher if Mickelson and Bradley play well, and win despite them should they lay an egg. The other eight guys will do the heavy lifting. Anything Bradley, Lefty, Sneds and Dufner give you is a bonus.
Even better, there are interchangeable parts to the U.S. team. Dufner and Dustin Johnson could trade places so D.J. could pair with Phil or Keegan and Dufner could play with Zach and/or Webb. Or D.J. and Kuchar could switch, leaving D.J. to play with Furyk, perhaps a good four-ball team. You could also trade Zach Johnson for Snedeker and have Zach team with Dufner, and Sneds with Dustin Johnson, leaving Bubba to go with Webb.
Thinking defensively, foursomes (alternate shot) needs more careful attention to pairings due to the intimate nature of the game. That's where you want to protect (meaning "sit") the wild drivers of the ball - to wit Phil and D.J. (and if he gets in a funk, Bubba). Conventional wisdom seems to indicate sitting rookies for alternate shot as well, perhaps Dufner and Sneds.
Who are the Euro pairs? That's a good question! Traditionally, Europe holds a strong edge in the doubles phases of the Ryder Cup - four-sevenths of the matches, half of that being the archaic crustiness of alternate shot, a format we just don't play in America.
But this year the U.S. team is deeper than the Euros. McIlroy-McDowell look formidable as a lead or anchor, then Donald-Westwood is the second strongest on paper. But that tandem may be yearning for Blackpool if they come out flat, get behind in their match, and the crazies in the gallery smell blood. And even if they come up short, who else can take up the slack? Poulter and Rose? Maybe. Do you perhaps switch things up and play Westy with Rose and Poulter with Donald? The performances by this all-England pod could determine the fate of Europe's hopes.
Europe's options dwindle the deeper one looks in their line-up. Kaymer has been ice-cold since winning the 2010 PGA Championship and Colsaerts has chilled off since a hot spring. They could be vulnerable, a soft underbelly that needs to be protected, but sit them too much and they'll be cold for the singles. Hanson has played well in big moments on a number of occasions and is the kind of man who could come out of nowhere to make a difference. Garcia is finally rounding into the form, but is loathed by American fans. He'll need the same brand of earplugs that Boston Red Sox owner John Henry wears when he goes to Yankee Stadium.
The bottom of the European line-up - arguably Molinari, Kaymer and Lawrie - will need the players above them to play over their heads. Is any combination of Poulter, Rose, Hanson and Colsaerts better than any of the American groupings? I like the U.S. chances.
Proposed singles line-up: Woods, Webb, Stricker, Phil, Bradley, Furyk, Sneds, Dufner, Zach, Kuchar, D.J., Watson
Rock solid 1-3, even money 5-8, and good strength 10-12. If Phil wins, it's a bonus, same for Zach. The middle - where you put the guys that need protection - actually can hold their own quite well.
Medinah is a big, ugly dog nobody likes except Chicago. Every golf magazine has, at one time or another, called it everything from the "most overrated golf course in America" to "the worst major championship venue." Yet, because no one has built a course in Chicago that's 1) big enough to hold the infrastructure necessary to host a huge event, and 2) difficult and interesting enough to be reasonably challenging to the best players in the world, we get saddled with "Medicinal" by default.
Chicago Golf Club and Shoreacres are magnificent architecturally, but can't handle the crowds and equipment. The only other option is Olympia Fields, which surrendered record scores at the 2003 U.S. Open. Cog Hill is basically a public Medinah, just without the ostentatious clubhouse (which looks like the Marrakesh Hyatt - which way to the Jemaa-el-Fnaa?)
"Medicinal," that's a good name for it because the golf course will put you to sleep. Indeed, it's a sleepwalker's course. Long, straight drive down the center-line, hit the green, make the putt - lather, rinse, repeat.
Speaking about good match-play venues in an interview last year (http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_news/interview_with_geoff_ogilvy_royal_melbourne_the_presidents_cup_golf_course_architecture), Geoff Ogilvy said that the best courses aren't the ones where golfers just grind out pars all day. Great match-play courses tempt players into risks - either they hit great golf shots and make birdies or eagles or miss and make bogey or worse.
When describing a strikingly similar, equally milquetoast course, Atlanta Athletic Club, Ogilvy described it thusly: "Although it's difficult because it's super-narrow and super-long, it doesn't hold your interest. There were some interesting short holes, but as a general rule, when they had a choice, they just made it long and narrow . . . It wasn't interesting to play. There was very little where you had to make decisions and use thought to approach the course."
The same is true for Medinah. It has exactly one half-par hole, a newly configured 15th that's now a 300-yard par-4. You can try to drive it, but the green is guarded by water. The media blitz by architect Rees Jones and the PGA of America has been so relentless you'd think Jesus walked in Galilee again. Look at us! Now we're strategic!
Reaction: What took so long? Medinah has undergone more facelifts than Michael Jackson and now, 85 years after opening, finally has a strategic hole? And they wonder why people look sideways every time a tournament is announced there.
But if you don't want to take my word for it . . . or Golf Magazine's, or Golf Digest's, or Golf World's or Golfweek's, here's what Tom Doak said in his seminal "Confidential Guide to Golf Courses":
". . . not quite as tight as Olympic Club, but at 500 yards longer it is definitely a maximum security prison: poor compensation, in my book, for its lack of strategic challenge. If you believe in the test that great golf courses produce great champions, it would be wise to reflect on the career of Lou Graham and to recall that Mike Donald was one swing away from becoming a national champion here. I consider to be the course's weakness the total lack of finesse play required."
Doak went on to call the 1975 U.S. Open a fiasco, while no less a personage than Dan Jenkins described the 1990 Open as a bad rash curable only if you had a little Hale Irwin Ointment. Perhaps not surprisingly, Medinah has hosted an inordinate number of lackluster tournaments for supposedly so great a venue. That's because it may require you to hit good shots, but it doesn't require you to make many strategic decisions.
Too hard in '49 (won by Cary Middlecoff) and '75 (Graham), 2-over 286 and 3-over 287 were the winning scores, respectively. But somewhere along the line the vampire lost its fangs . . . and dentures! In the 1990 U.S. Open, 124 sub-par rounds were recorded, shattering the old U.S. Open record of 64.
"They turned it into the Quad Cities Open," groused one member at the time.
Since then golfers have been treating Medinah like knights treat wenches in HBO's "Game of Thrones," rudely and brusquely. Tiger in particular has made it a home-away-from-home, primarily because of the flat greens.
Never quite right architecturally and certainly lacking character (other than the Frank Geary-esque corrugated metal struts lining the water hazards), straight and safe does well at Medinah and the U.S. team has plenty of that.
So it's off to Lake Unpronouncable (it's "kuh-DEE-juh" if you care), where Medinah will crown itself with laurels again, but happily so should the U.S. team. The bomber's paradise requires no deep thinking. As long as they don't let the pressure get to them like in 1991, the Yanks can dominate. Get out of the gate early on Friday, coast to a lead on Saturday, take a victory lap in the sun on Sunday. Get ahead, stay ahead, play smart, make everything you look at on the greens, let the crowds buoy you.
Prediction: U.S. 15½ Europe 12½
Between the fans, the Cro-Magnon man of golf course that is light on strategy (length is strength at Medinah), and a deeply talented American team, this one could be a laugher.
Match-ups Everybody Wants to See
I know they've done a blind draw since forever, but if TV can demand Sunday finishes and prime-time major championship broadcasts, you'd think they could do something about the weird mish-mashes we get from not alternating seeds like they do at the President's Cup and Potomac Cup for amateurs. Ryder Cup pairings resemble what poker players call "computer hands" (random matches such as K5, J7, Q3 and the like), so we rarely get the uber-stars squaring off against one another. We have a 1-in-14 chance of seeing Rory-Tiger in singles (but a much higher likelihood they'll cross paths in foursomes or four-balls), but a much higher chance of seeing Hanson vs. Mickelson or Lawrie vs. Zach Johnson or Molinari vs. Snedeker or Donald vs. Dufner.
But if the stars align, how much fun would it be to see: Rory-Phil, Rory-Tiger, maybe even Rory-D.J. or Rory-Keegan?
Rory, Rory, Rory
He's is the draw in golf right now. He's a cast-iron Player of the Year candidate as well as a Madison Avenue darling. (And with his tennis tart for arm candy, the wags might actually deserve a drop of ink, but no more.) Golf is as sexy as it was when Woods was soaring.
"He is even better than everyone said. He definitely lives up to the hype," said golf fan David Barone, a life-long Tiger-phile. "He really is Number 1 in the world right now." When the Tiger apologists become self-aware, that's big!
Woods-Garcia, Woods-GMac, Woods-Donald
Woods is still a draw too, and getting stronger with each passing tournament. He is finally putting four days together and contending. He's got every facet of his game under control. How about a steel-cage, mega-grudge match against Garcia, a slobber-noggin against gritty, defending Ryder Cup-clincher McDowell, or a round with Donald and a match involving former No. 1s? Any of these is TiVo-worthy.
GMac-Furyk, GMac-Phil, GMac-Webb
Westy and Donald have the star power, but McDowell has the hardware and clinched the last Ryder Cup. If he can't face Woods, a rematch of this year's U.S. Open final-round contenders or an exchange of broadsides with Phil would be electric.
Phil v. Anybody
By now golf fans are used to the best reality show in sports: "The hair-raising, death-defying hijinks of that wacky Phil Mickelson." He'll drive it all over the state, try some zany recovery shot, then get up and down from the deck of a sinking ship. He's mercurial to begin with. Then there's his insufferable habit of playing to the level of his competition. He could beat Westy or Donald, or he could get smeared by Kaymer or Lawrie.
"You yell two things at the TV," said Barone. "It's either 'Yeah, Phil!' or it's 'AAAAAAAAAAAAUUUUGH! Phiiiiiiiiiiiil!' But it's riveting."
Which Phil will we get at Medinah? Probably both. He'll give us shingles all weekend, but it's always fun - if infuriating - to watch. Similarly, with the mojo he could generate with Bradley as a potential doubles mate could be sensational. Phil and Keegan vs. Westy and Donald or Rory and GMac are highlight reels waiting to happen.
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma 's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 420 nationally ranked public golf courses in 40 different states, and covered seven U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, along with one trip to the Masters. A four-time award-winning sportswriter, Jay was called the best sports poet alive by both Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports writers and broadcasters. Jay has played about 3 million yards of golf - or close to 2,000 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf, PGA.com, Golf Magazine and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.
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