All is fair, both teams insist
For the first time in the 83-year history of the Ryder Cup, the biennial competition has come to a golf course specifically built for the event. Playing before their home fans already gives the Europeans an advantage, but with none of the 12 Americans having seen the course before this week, the edge might also extend to the venue.
The Twenty Ten layout at Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales, opened in 2007, a blend of nine reworked holes from a pre-existing course and nine new holes. It was the site of the European Tour’s Celtic Manor Wales Open in June, a tournament in which seven of the 12 European Ryder Cup members played. Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell, who would go on to win the US Open a few weeks later, earned a three-shot victory at Celtic Manor. Teammates Luke Donald (third), Edoardo Molinari (tie for fourth), Miguel Angel Jimenez (tie for eighth), and Martin Kaymer (tie for 12th) also played well.
Familiarity, then, is on the side of the Europeans. In its attempt to win back the Ryder Cup — the first fourball session was scheduled to start this morning at 2:45 a.m. Boston time — Team Europe also has the luxury, as host, of setting up the course.
The home team can do whatever it likes to the course, to play toward its perceived strengths or to negate an opponent’s strength. However, European captain Colin Montgomerie said he hasn’t made any modifications to the Twenty Ten.
“It’s set up in a very, very fair manner to allow the best team to win,’’ Montgomerie said. “I don’t think it was right to set the course up in any other way.
“It’s something that our European Tour players will be used to in the pace of the greens, the setup. The rough is graded very fairly. I think it’s not too tough, and yet it’s tough enough.’’
US captain Corey Pavin liked what he saw when he arrived.
“I’m glad it’s set up fairly, because I think that’s the way the matches are meant to be played, in fairness and in great sportsmanship,’’ Pavin said. “I think that’s what Colin is striving to do here.’’
With so many long hitters among the American dozen, there was speculation that Montgomerie might narrow the fairways and grow the rough. That doesn’t appear to have happened.
How important is it to dictate the setup? Paul Azinger knew exactly how he wanted Valhalla to play two years ago in Louisville, Ky., and made sure to share his plan with his players, so they could capitalize on what they knew during practice rounds.
“He told us how he was going to set it up,’’ said Steve Stricker, who went 0-2-1 in the 2008 US win. “We played with very little rough at Valhalla, and he put the pins in very accessible areas. He wanted to see lots of birdies, and he wanted us to be aggressive. That was all by design.
“We knew where those pins were going to be. We knew they were going to be in the middle of the greens, and prepared for it. They were practicing to all the edges and corners. It’s nothing new. The Europeans have done that over there.’’
No matter the setup, once the competition starts, it’s about executing shots and making putts.
“They could set it up differently — higher rough, tighter fairways, slower greens — but at the same time, if their team’s playing bad, it doesn’t matter what the setup is, and if our team’s playing bad, it doesn’t matter what the setup is,’’ said Bubba Watson, who made his Ryder Cup debut this morning, paired with fellow first-timer Jeff Overton in the fourth and final fourball match. They went up against an experienced European team of Padraig Harrington and Luke Donald, who have made nine Ryder Cup appearances between them.
Aside from possibly Watson-Overton, Pavin’s morning pairings weren’t a surprise. He sent Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson — frequent practice-round partners during the PGA Tour season — out first, against Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood. Mickelson won this year’s Masters (erasing Westwood’s final-round lead), while Kaymer captured the PGA Championship. Westwood had been out nearly two months with a calf injury but says he’s healthy enough to play.
The Georgia Tech duo of Stewart Cink and Matt Kuchar was off second, facing the Northern Ireland pair of McDowell and Rory McIlroy. Each side featured a Ryder Cup rookie and a recent major champion.
In the third match, as expected, Pavin paired Tiger Woods with Stricker, a team that went 4-0 at last year’s Presidents Cup. Montgomerie countered with Ian Poulter and Ross Fisher, both from England.
The four morning matches today are better-ball. The afternoon format is foursomes, or alternate shot. The schedule is repeated tomorrow, with the Ryder Cup ending Sunday with 12 singles matches. Since the Americans brought the trophy over because of their victory in 2008, they’ll need just 14 points to retain it; Europe needs 14 1/2 to win it back.
It has been 17 years since a US team has won the Ryder Cup on European soil. Since that 1993 defeat at The Belfry, Europe has won three straight at home, and five of seven overall. But the US still leads the overall series, 25-10-2.
Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org