These next few days just outside Minneapolis a dozen golfers, their caddies, half dozen vice captains’ from two differing teams, a whole host of back room officials and hangers on take part in the 2016 Ryder Cup. These being the 41st matches and a battle which already promises to be a bloated commercial exercise that culminates on Sunday evening after the 12 single matches complete between US and European players.
The event now hostage to an endless series of money spinners and one that has taken the original concept of Samuel Ryder well beyond the imagination of even Mark McCormack – the founder of sports management in the last century. But the untimely loss of Arnold Palmer this week is a reminder however of some more basic sporting values, and another great supporter of the tournament and all that was good about golf.
Indeed, he retains a record as the US player with 22 victories and twice victor as US captain. A record unmatched by any other at this time.
Palmer once saying of the tournament: “The game brings out the best in us, and the best will always bring out their games at the Ryder Cup.” However, the tournament Arnie spoke is a far cry from the competition that will be played in Hazeltine this weekend, now a top heavy transatlantic extravaganza – even without a ball being struck. All paling into insignificance against the gamesmanship of Severiano Ballesteros in 1997, when he became the first European captain at Valderrama, determined to retain the trophy wo hard won in New York state – with help of Philp Walton. Thus switching the format of the foursomes ay Valderrama to rattle the US team; reversing the order of the holes to have a grandstand finish at the new 17 and 18 as preferred closing holes. A format that has remained in place today at the course and not unlike Ian Woosnam’s thinking at The K Club in 2004 – which brought about another European victory – when he reversed the nine-hole design.
So it is no surprise that in Minnesota this weekend 2106 captain, Darren Clarke, faces an extended course, deemed to favour the US big hitters – and will call on all his accumulated expertise to add a Ryder Cup to his golfing CV. An important notch in his trophy list and one that other Major winners have obtained on this side of the water such as Seve and Ian Woosnam. Although Sir Nick Faldo fell well short in his bid at Valhalla. Albeit the emotional backdrop this week suggesting on paper a US win as Palmer’s passing may yet prove a key factor for the hosts. The loss best summed up – ironically by Phil Mickelson – “There’s a hole in the game that can’t be filled”.
Albeit the Ryder Cup was but a small part of Palmer’s contribution to golf, he did play on six teams, all of them home victories during a time when they faced only Britain & Ireland. More recently though Europe has been winning and so tension will run high as the foursomes get started on Friday. With a sense that momentum may favour Europe following Rory McIlroy’s win at the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup last weekend. A timely boost no doubt for a golfer that has enjoyed a mediocre couple of seasons, by his own high standards, without adding a major title since 2014. And struggling with the putter. All of which may now be behind him and see a more Medinah state of mind at Hazeltine for the Holywood man as he plays for his long time idol and captain.
That win at East Lake perhaps the catalyst for a European team which has a strong mixture of inexperience and some one time winners who have not really struck a club in anger for some months. Danny Willett an example, albeit he finished second at the Italian Open last week; Chris Wood, winner at the PGA Championship at Wentworth in May, but who has not matched that achievement in the ensuing months. Along with Andy Sullivan, who has three top five finishes this season, but was last in the top three back in July. Which could be an underlying worry for Captain Clarke – as it would be to me – were I coaching the European team this week. As the Ryder Cup is all about having players on form and that value proved over the years when the USA qualified players over two seasons and they performed poorly as a result. Thankfully Justin Rose delivered recently in Rio at the Olympics and will no doubt be catalyst in the Team Room.
He may also have to carry some of the burden for Henrik Stenson, who is trying to manage a knee problem that thus far has seen him playing little. So he may find himself used sparingly so as to be fit for the crucial Sunday singles where a rematch with Mickelson would inevitably draw a large cloud. All hoping to relieve the Open Championship battle from July at Royal Troon.
This time the US Team will be seeking revenge for the Gleneagles collapse and also the Miracle at Medinah defeats. The Europeans reliant on the wisdom of Stenson, Rose, McIlroy and one Sergio Garcia to drag them through. The latter a committed Ryder Cup player every time he shows up. As have been his countrymen, Seve, the 2012 captain Jose Maria Olazabal and Miguel Angel Jimenez in recent times. The Spaniard always fluctuating in form but stern when it comes to the Ryder Cup battles on US soil and offers a solid partner for any one of the European rookies. And along with Lee Westwood will offer that senior oversight in the crunch moments. Even if his own game is not what it was Westwood is another anchor-man in the turbulent stress of Sunday set to be cast in the role Nick Faldo to guide the Rookies.
Although my choice would have been Russell Knox who has more recent wins on the PGA Tour as Westwood never really made the impact he wanted – even after he moved to live in Florida. But his friendship with Clarke offering added value to the captain in those testing moments that will undoubtedly arise.
The Americans on the other hand have a group of players that are on form. None more so than Dustin Johnson with a number of others also in the world’s top ten or twenty. Names that are enough to put the frighteners on most mortals. But not without their problems either as Jordan Speith has seen a fall in results – by his own standards; Ryan Moore a rookie, Rickie Fowler having to earn a captain’s pick, along with Matt Kuchar. Then there is JB Holmes as the most curious choice given his poor form. Yet he has earned his captain’s favour ahead of Bubba Watson. But then Davis Love III is distracted by a need to make amends – in his own mind for Medinah – where the Sunday collapse must still hurt on those nights when he sits at home on the deck and reflects on a glittering career. Hazeltine now offering him the chance for redemption as will his back room team which also offers huge depth; with former 2006 captain Tom Lehman, Ryder Cup veterans Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk and Tiger Woods. The latter an ironic choice given that Wood’s own record in these matches is not impressive and he was once accused of not being the team player.
Although Phil Mickelson may have earned that title outright given his behaviour at Gleneagles and the public slanging of golfing great Tom Watson.
In many ways the latter is symptomatic of perhaps where the Ryder Cup has gone astray. Or that the meaning has become lost from Samuel Ryder’s original intentions when he said: “I trust that the effect of this match will be to influence a cordial, friendly and peaceful feeling throughout the whole civilised world… I look upon the Royal and Ancient game as being a powerful force that influences the best things in humanity.”
For Love those values this week have been made all the more poignant by the loss of Palmer and on reportedly crying on hearing the news at Hazeltine when preparing a segment to be played at halftime of an NFL game announcing his final captain’s pick. It was his son that texted him the news, which Love said changed everything. “It’s almost like we are all dealing with the loss of a family member,”
“Arnold is going to want us to put this behind us and go play, and it’s going to be tough to do. But we are definitely going to draw inspiration from his spirits. We already had pictures of him in our locker room and team room, and we’ll add a few more. He’ll be with us forever.”
In ways it harps back to the simplicity of that informal match in 1926 held at Wentworth Club between teams of professionals from Great Britain and the USA – which served as the impetus for the first official Ryder Cup. Then staged at Worcester Country Club in Massachusetts, the following June in a format still used today, consisting of competition staged in alternate years, with the two sides taking turns as hosts. Sam Ryder attended the first two home matches played at Moortown and Southport in 1929 and 1933 respectively and presented the cup to Britain’s successful captain George Duncan in 1929. Maybe that simplicity deserves an appearance once again in memory of Arnold Palmer.
“We’ve agreed that we’re going to do the right thing for the game, and certainly this one for the Palmer family. But both of our teams want to honour the Palmer legacy in the same way. I think you’ll see us all honouring him all week.” Said Love
For Clarke the blow is no less as he was more than fan of Palmer. But Hazeltine is also the moment of establishing his legacy in the tournament and despite all his talent he has only won the one Major. So Clarke has no doubt a win is what is needed in Minneapolis. That emotion he showed winning the trophy at The K Club on the 16th green – just months after his wife Heather’s death – one he perhaps never really enjoyed. So his focus this week will be to repeat that win as captain and settle a few of his own demons. But for that to happen he knows that his Rookies will need to shine. None more so than Matt Fitzpatrick – who like Clarke and Westwood – is part of the Andrew Chubby Chandler ISM stable. Not forgetting Clarke’s own Ryder Cup arrival at Valderrama under the tutelage of Ballesteros. That time only playing the once in the foursomes before he was pitted against the young US buck of the day, Phil Mickelson.
In contrast Lee Westwood made his debut at the same time partnering Sir Nick Faldo in both sessions on Friday and Saturday before losing the singles on Sunday to Jeff Maggert. With his ninth matches about to start he knows he will be unable match Faldo’s eleven match record and 46 points. But can use that expertise to help Europe win.
Do I think Darren Clarke’s Europe will do it? Well not based on the evidence. It won’t be the length of the course that will be disadvantage, although that might be a problem for some, but the putting with the European players needing to be really in tune with the Hazeltine pace. Clearly with the US winners on the team their players have that ability on home courses. Although the one European player who might prove a lightning rod once again being Kaymer. Just like at Medinah when he tamed Tiger and is one who seems to respond to pressure. No doubt he will have a role in guiding Fitzpatrick around in my view.
We could just sneak it but it’s Love rather money for me this time!