Who's the Favorite in the Ryder Cup?

By: Tony Dear

After 24 defeats in the first 36 Ryder Cups, the non-American side (Great Britain and Ireland, or Europe) finally arrived at an opening session of the biennial encounter as the tournament favorite.

Even in the 1980s and '90s when Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam, Jose-Maria Olazábal, and Colin Montgomerie graced the side (actually that septet never did appear on the same team, Lyle playing his last Ryder Cup in '87, Montgomerie his first in '91), it was never quite regarded as the likelier of the two teams to win because the other half-dozen or so players that made up the side, while European Tour winners, were not exactly superstar material. The names Rivero, Pinero, Brand Jnr, Garrido, Way, Richardson, Gilford, Broadhurst, Fulke, and Haeggman rolled off the European fan's tongue like his foie gras and Chateau Latour, but for the American they were obscure unknowns, no more recognizable than members of the Belgian royal family, and certainly not names to cause their opponents sleepless nights.

In 2008, however, Europe bought a team to Louisville, Ky., which, though light on major champions (Padraig Harrington was the only player who'd won a Grand Slam event), was generally considered the stronger of the two. It also had the benefit of momentum having won the previous three matches, and each of the last two by a barely conceivable nine points.

But it lost. Rather heavily in fact. The 16˝-11˝ scoreline wasn't quite as humiliating as the 18˝-9˝ massacres Europe had dished out to dumbstruck American teams at Oakland Hills in 2004 and the K Club in '06, but it was fairly humbling nonetheless.

Europe's captain Nick Faldo inevitably copped a lot of the blame. But those who thought the Englishman culpable and sought to vilify his apparent inadequacies in the team room, at press conferences, in his captain's vehicle, and just about everywhere else, had lost sight of Paul Azinger's brilliance. America's captain was simply better prepared and, strange though it seems given all Europeans' innate longing for Ryder Cup success, appeared the more passionate of the team leaders. Not only did he badly want to stop the rot that had somehow set into the once unbeatable U.S. team, he was also quietly but resolutely eager to put one over on the man who had beaten him by a shot in the 1987 Open Championship at Muirfield and then offered the rather inelegant "Tough luck old boy," by way of consolation.

Two years on from Valhalla, the teams appear as evenly matched as they ever have. Each has 12 players inside the world's top 50, and four inside the inner sanctum of the top 10. The gap between the U.S. players' average world ranking and that of the Europeans is an apparently inconsequential 0.91 (in favor of the U.S.).

Look at those rankings through red, white and blue-tinted lenses, however, and a different story emerges, one suggesting the U.S. might well have touched down at Cardiff Airport on Monday morning with a slight statistical advantage. America's four players inside the world's top 10 - Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk - are all inside the top five too, meaning that, at the top at least, America is stronger. That fact was magnified on Sunday when Furyk held off Luke Donald to win the Tour Championship and FedEx Cup in Atlanta.

Stricker, Mickelson and Woods have not been at their best of late, admittedly, but we all know what Mickelson is capable of, and how good a putter and how gritty a competitor Stricker is. And who knows what progress Woods might have made with swing coach Sean Foley since we saw him last at Chicago for the BMW Championship? Europe's lone representative at this uppermost level is Lee Westwood, who has been out of the game with an injury since the second week of August.

Also worth noting is that the American team has one fewer rookie - five to six, and that the total number of Ryder Cups played by its seven experienced members is 25. Europe's six players with Ryder Cup histories can muster only 19 between them. And, what's more, the U.S. has five major champions -Woods, Mickelson, Furyk, Stewart Cink, and Zach Johnson, while Europe has only three - Harrington, Graeme McDowell who won this year's U.S. Open and Martin Kaymer in the PGA Championship.

For their part, Europe's supporters will squeeze their own drop of hope from the rankings. Their team's 12th man, Peter Hanson, is 42nd in the world and won on the European Tour just five weeks ago. America's lowest-ranked player, Jeff Overton, is 48th and, though he had a superb spell in the summer when he finished second three times and third twice on the PGA Tour in the space of just three and a half months, he has gone totally off the boil in recent weeks, finishing no higher than 29th in his last five tournaments and that was at an event with a field of 30.

But the outcome of the Ryder Cup doesn't depend solely on stats and rankings, of course. If it did, Europe would not have enjoyed anything like the level of success it has since the late 1980s. Personalities play a pivotal part in match play and it is here where Europe has always appeared to hold the upper hand. That's not to say European personalities are somehow better adapted to match play, but picking effective pairs has seemed far easier a task for the European captain than it has America's.

The bond born of a shared nationality is a profound one and European captains have taken full advantage. When Ballesteros was almost single-handedly turning the Ryder Cup from a dreary exhibition of American dominance into one of the world's most gripping and keenly contested team events, his captain had only to locate another Spaniard on the team (usually Olazábal) for his talisman to be happy. Likewise Howard Clark and Mark James, a doughty pair of Yorkshiremen, was an obvious coupling as were Ireland's Christy O'Connor and Ronan Rafferty, Sweden's Jesper Parnevik and Per-Ulrik Johansen, and Scotland's Paul Lawrie and Montgomerie, to name just a few. These pairings didn't necessarily win all their matches, but each individual was certainly more likely to play to his potential in the company of someone he knew well, trusted and could understand.

Thus, Italy's Molinari brothers will almost certainly be thrust into the Ryder Cup spotlight simultaneously this week. Last year's World Cup-winning duo, they are fans of different soccer teams (Francesco - Inter Milan, Eduardo - Juventus), a very big deal in a country as devoted to the game as Italy, but enjoy an on-course rivalry as friendly as can be expected of two sibling golfers ranked as highly as they are. They will each want to hole the winning putt before the other and, despite the fact both are Ryder Cup rookies, will likely see a lot of action in the first two days. The two Ulstermen, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, should also prove a potent alliance, and England's Ross Fisher and Luke Donald appear to go together like fish and chips. Fellow Englishman Ian Poulter would happily partner any of his three countrymen, although Westwood has actually been practicing with Kaymer.

Elsewhere, Miguel Angel Jiménez could be back in league with Harrington with whom he scored half a point at The Country Club in 1999, although the Spaniard went out in Tuesday's practice round with Hanson. Pairing the Swede, Europe's perceived weak link, with one of the team's veterans is obviously a sensible move, although a better case may be made for either Westwood or Harrington taking on the role of mentor.

With 45,000 mostly British fans flooding the grounds each day, these 12 Europeans will get all the help they need from outside the ropes. And with the benefit, granted to the home team, of being able to set the course up however it likes, many might have expected the same help from inside them too. Had Montgomerie chosen to pinch the fairways in at around 320 yards, for example, the U.S. team's superior length off the tee might have been thwarted. And by deliberately slowing the speed of the greens, to say 10-10.5 on the Stimpmeter, he would have given the U.S. players, used to 12-13, something else to think about.

As it is, the Scotsman, who says he will be trying his hardest to make it back for the 2012 Ryder Cup as a player, decided that tricking up the course to suit his team was unnecessary, even a little unsporting. Though many of his predecessors, including Woosnam (2006) and Sam Torrance ('02), were happy to doctor the course according to their team's requirements, Montgomerie made it clear to Jim McKenzie, Celtic Manor's Director of Courses, that no advantage would be sought.

And really, why should it have been? Principles and sportsmanship aside, would it not have been imprudent of Montgomerie to devise a test different to that which European Tour players come up against at the Celtic Manor Wales Open every year? McDowell won the 2010 tournament with a brilliant 64-63 on the weekend to beat Welshman Rhys Davies by three. If the course this week looked and played differently to what McDowell, Donald (third), E. Molinari (T4), Jiménez (eighth), Kaymer (12th), F. Molinari (T56), and Ross Fisher (MC) had played in June, might that have worked in the Americans' favor, or at least denied the Europeans what small advantage it could have gained?

Being so familiar with the Twenty Ten Course (built on the site of Robert Trent Jones Jr.'s Wentwood Hills Course, which was remodeled by Ross McMurray of European Golf Design and reopened in 2007) in its usual state, and being able to call on what promises to be near-hysterical support should really be advantage enough for Europe.

With what the numbers assert is the slightly better team, U.S. captain Corey Pavin does have one ace up his sleeve. Montgomerie, however, would appear to have the other three.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it increasingly difficult for him to focus on Politics (his chosen major) and, after dropping out, he ended up teaching golf at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a "player." He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own web site at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.