Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Ryder Cup: Fairways, Fans and Greens Oh My! Why This Should Be USA's Year

The Ryder Cup is upon us once more. Over the last decade the competition has really captured the public imagination, and is now firmly entrenched as one of the greatest team competitions in the world.

What makes the Ryder Cup so special?

Golf is an individual sport and the golfers are reliant on themselves and maybe their caddie for a few sage words of advice. Their psychology is built around having no one else to rely on, pitting their game against the elements and facing and overcoming your greatest enemy, your own mind.

The Ryder Cup takes this individual approach and for two days it's thrown out the window. Even on the last day, you are not playing for yourself as your result will impact on the team.

The competition is split into three separate sections.

Foursomes is a competition between two teams of two golfers. The golfers on the same team only use one ball and take alternative shots. The hole is won by the team with the lowest score.

Fourballs is where four golfers, two from each team, play their own ball. The golfer who comes in with the lowest score wins the hole for his team.

The last day sees the Singles, where each golfer plays off against an opponent from the other team.

America had dominated the Cup until recently.In 1927 the first Ryder Cup took place in Worchester County Club, Massachusetts, with Team America running out as victors. The great Walter Hagen became the first captain to hold the trophy aloft.

When the now famous tournament first originated it was competed between America and Great Britain. The competition was very one sided, with Team USA winning 16 and Britain only winning three.

So, in 1973 Ireland joined the UK to play against America. America's domination of the Cup wasn't even dented so, after losing the next three in a row, Great Britain and Ireland gave way to Team Europe.

Team USA continued their domination winning the next three competitions against Team Europe, and it wasn't until 1983, in a fantastic competition where Team USA won on a dramatic last day by one point (14.5-13.5), that their domination was truly tested.

Since that fateful day in 1983, Europe have won eight Ryder Cups, including five in the last six, to America's three.

Europe head to Valhalla after winning the last three-in-a-row. And they have really dominated the Cup winning by massive margins. Much has been made of Team Europe's team ethic, and the fact that Tiger Woods seems not to be a team player and that Team USA are not a "team".

There is a camaraderie in Europe as many of the players travel together to tournaments around the world, often staying with each other in hotels.The players also come from similar social backgrounds which also helps the players bond.

While in America the players don't seem to have the same level of friendship, they don't fraternise outside the actual tournament, travel individually, and come from a variety of backgrounds. Basically, they don't mix with each other.

But things could be changing for Team USA in this years Ryder Cup.

Tiger is injured. And his presence won't leave any of his team mates in awe. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that team Captain Paul Azinger has chosen four rookies this year. And with Kenny Perry and J.B. Holmes, two good 'ol boys from Kentucky in the team, Azinger is hoping that the "raucous Nascar type fan will get behind them".

This boisterous, beer swilling fan is actually Europe's biggest fear going into the Ryder Cup. In the controversial 1999 Ryder Cup the American fans cheered every shot. Traditional etiquette decrees fans should stay silent during the swing—well at Brookline they did for Team USA, they didn't for Team Europe.

To add insult to injury the singles match between Justin Leonard and Jose Maria Olazabal went to the last hole. Both needed to putt for par but Leonard had a simple 4ft putt compared to Olazabal's 22ft. Leonard putted home and Team USA, their wives and fans all ran onto the green to celebrate. But if Olazabal putted his shot the hole would be shared and Europe would win. After five or six long minutes the green was eventually vacated and after Olazabal composed himself he putted for home. He missed, Team America ran back on to celebrate and the rest is history.

This upset many European players and commentators, Sam Torrance described the Americans behaviour as "disgusting" and Team Captain Mark James referred to it as "like playing in a bear-pit."

In Ireland in 2006, quite unconventionally the Irish crowd cheered every player's shot. But it wasn't until Darren Clarke took to the course that the Irish crowd responded in really tearing the roof off. The reception and good will that Clarke received left the Irishman in a tearful state, and he went on to repay his faithful fans by helping Europe retain the title. Clarke's wife had died six months prior to the Cup.

However, the reception he received left some of the junior American players overwhelmed and they failed to live up to their expectations as the tournament progressed.

All is not well in the Team Europe camp this time out, as Captain Nick Faldo has controversially left both Colin "Monty" Montgomerie and fan favourite Clarke out of the team. Both of these players are well known for their forthright opinions and in Europe it is felt that Faldo removed the two players from the equation to make himself the focal point.

But this move could yet backfire on Faldo, as these two players were the father figures of the team, and were a huge influence off the course. Clarke is a renowned facilitator and goes out of way to make himself available to the younger players. Padraig Harrington could hardly be described as a rookie, yet the triple major winner often used Clarke as a sounding board during the competition.

Monty, like Clarke, is one of the old hands in the European side and has vast experience. Monty is usually the one that players turn to for golfing advice and was the ying to Clarke's yang. How the team will cope without it's two biggest influences is anybody's guess, but Harrington and Garcia are both privately upset at having to step forward as the sounding boards for the other team members. Harrington in particular shys away from publicity and does not like to be the centre of attention.

And with turmoil in the Team Europe camp, Azinger has brought the team together earlier than expected. Team USA have had many bonding sessions, most recently the team were at a museum in Louisville, Kentucky dedicated to Muhammad Ali. In bringing the team out to public places like this Azinger is rightly hoping that the Kentucky public will get right behind the team.

Azinger has also brought the battle against Europe to Valhalla. At The K-Club last year the fairway's width was narrowed and the length of the holes shortened, while in Valhalla Azinger has insisted on widening most of the fairways and lengthening the holes. Thus setting the course up to suit the long-hitting American team.

One other aspect Azinger has paid acute attention to is the green speed. During the last three Ryder Cups the greens have all played slow. In Valhalla, Azinger wants the greens to play as fast as the greenkeepers can make them.

A stimp meter measures the speed of the green, or how fast the ball will travel on the green. A usual stimp reading for championship golf would be around 10. Azinger is hoping to have it around 11 or 12. To put that into perspective, the stimp reading at the K-Club was at 8. This is the usual setting for members golf, and it caused the American team and Tiger Woods in particular all kinds of problems.

Nine years ago in Brookline, Ben Crenshaw insisted on the greens playing slow. After the first two days Europe had a commanding lead so for the final day Crenshaw instructed the green keepers to speed up the greens. On the final day America won 14.5 to 13.5.

But Europe learnt from this too. And for the next Ryder Cup in England the greens were slowed down. Europe won. Again in Ireland two years ago Ian Woosnam gave the order to slow the greens.

Again Europe won.

In European golf the golfers play across a variety of courses in a variety of conditions. In America, the golf scene is reminiscent of American horse racing. The tracks are the same, and the conditions are usually the same too. The same can be said of American golf courses.

So, in adjusting the Valhalla course Azinger has set up a course his players are already acclimatised to. With Holmes and Perry having intimate knowledge of the course as locals, Azinger is hoping for America's first win since 1999.

Valhalla Golf Course was designed by the legendary Jack Nicklaus, and he feels the Ryder Cup will be won and lost on five particular holes.

The 1st hole was a straight forward hole until bunkers were added on the front right of the green and to the rear of the green. The tees were also pushed back to make the hole a long 446 yards par 4. The set up suits the long hitting American team, as any player who drives less than 300 yards will have a tricky approach shot.

Huge changes have been made to the 6th as the former 420 yard par 4 has been lengthened to a staggering 500 yard par 4. There is a stream (Floyd's Fork) that meanders through the course but it's effect could be brutal on this hole. Players will have to take a long drive to the left of the stream but that will still leave an approach shot of around 220 yards to the green, around a right handed dog leg. This will be one of the toughest tests the players will have to face.

The 13th is one of the most famous holes in golfdom. At 350 yards it is the shortest par 4 on the course, but the short length is matched by savage trickery. Five bunkers surround the small driving zone, making it a minefield for the inaccurate. But the real beauty is on the green. The green—one of the most spectacular you'll see anywhere—is raised 20 ft and is on an island in a lake. Only accurate golfers need apply.

A renovation to the 17th has created a tough uphill hole. The tee was lowered by 8ft and the fairways have been complimented by new bunkers on the right hand side, making the preferred landing area a very difficult target. This hole has also been lengthened by 50 yards, making it a very tough 425 yard par 4.

The monstrous par 5 18th is one of the best finishing holes in world golf. The hole was tough enough already, but the added placement of a bunker to the left of the green has made a tough hole even tougher.

Bookmakers have Europe at 10/11 and America at Evens, while you can get the draw at 10-1. But with America at home and the Europeans seemingly in disarray, you could be forgiven for betting on America to win.