It’s downright poetic: the “Greatest Event in Golf” (as countless golfers and pundits have described it) is being played in the most golf loving state in the union. This week the 41st Ryder Cup comes to Hazeltine National, the golf club specifically designed to bring the golf world’s pre-eminent events to Minnesota. Built in 1962 by Robert Trent Jones, Hazeltine has already hosted two U.S. Opens and two PGA Championships, but this week Hazeltine may see the biggest, most tumultuous event in its over half-century history.
Minnesota is the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but it’s also the land of 100,000 Birdies. They love golf here from the tops of their naturally blond locks to toes of their saddle oxford golf shoes. It’s the state wth the most per capita golfers than any other, and their love of golf certainly showed when record setting crowds came out to watch the 2009 PGA. Upwards of 50,000 people lined the fairways that week.
Heck, they were packed 20 deep to watch Tiger Woods, and that was just on the practice range.
It didn’t even faze them when the Golf Gods pulled the worst bait and switch since Charles Coody for Jack Nicklaus at the 1971 Masters. Y.E. Yang – the guy who wears patterns of little chickens on his shirts – became the first person to win a major after Tiger Woods held the 54-hole lead. He stole the Wanamaker Trophy from Woods, coming from three shots back to snatch the title late. A chip-in eagle at the short, par-4 14th hole (the 5th hole this year due to a re-sequencing off the routing) proved the shot that powered him to victory.
They spent all that money, they roasted in the summer sun, they walked around 7,600 yards (over four miles, for those of you scoring at home) and they got Y.E Yang, fluke winner. To their credit, they didn’t even care. That’s how cool Minnesotans are. It’s called “Minnesota Nice” and it’s the hallmark of these humble, kind, altruistic Midwesterners. It should be on full display all week.
Meanwhile, at the ’09 U.S. Open, New York drunks were throwing up in between yelling “Rooooooooooooryyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!” That’ll be on full display again in 2024.
But where New York in September can still be sticky and sweaty, in Minnesota the temps are in the Goldilocks Zone – not too hot, not too cold, juuuuuuuust right. It’s an autumn scene Garrison Keillor would have painted on vellum and pounded out on an old Underwood. Crisp fall apples, the crunch of leaves underfoot, a chill in the morning air that gives way to a cloudless, crystalline-blue sky and a warm sun reflected dazzlingly off the waters of Lake Hazeltine. Then a wood stove fire to dispel the cold autumn breezes that materialize once the sun dips below the hilltops. Every window in the clubhouse will be alight with a cheerful glow, and the laughter of the celebrants will be a sound in which, with the right kind of ears, you can hear the echo of the centuries.
There will be one other thing echoing through the centuries as well: it will be the Americans celebrating. They are going to pummel the Europeans this year. Take it to the bank: the Ryder Cup will rest on this side of the pond for the next two years.
The Americans have two solid advantages this year: experience and the home course. Either of those could be enough to prove the difference, but the devastating combination of both will be enough to smother the Europeans.
“It’s the scariest moment of your career. You can’t even pull the club back,” explained a shell-shocked Rory McIlroy after his first competitive Ryder Cup round. His words were prophetic - much to Webb Simpson’s dismay. Simpson’s first Ryder Cup stroke, off the first tee in the afternoon fourballs at Medinah in 2012, was a cold stone shank…with a driver!
Even you, Dear Reader, would be hard-pressed to shank a driver.
“You’ve never felt anything like it,” Tom Watson once confided to Your Author, and he’s right. The deafening whoop and crash of the media has lathered the entire golf world into a frenzy by the time Friday Foursomes tee off. Grillions of fans are watching worldwide. The weight of a continent rests on your shoulders. Your teammates are all relying on you. At any given moment any errant shot could be a gaffe of historic proportions. (Remember Scott Hoch?) Even the most seasoned professionals are mortally petrified of not just failing, but letting a country or a continent down in the biggest way possible.
That’s why one statistic burns like a proprietary torch over this Ryder Cup: 6 to 1, the number of Europe rookies vs. the number of American rookies.
Here are the lineups. (Ryder Cup rookies have an asterisk after their name, @ = Captain’s Pick)
Dustin Johnson Henrik Stenson
Phil Mickelson Rory McIlroy
Patrick Reed Justin Rose
Jimmy Walker Sergio Garcia
Jordan Spieth Rafa Cabrera-Bello*
Brooks Koepka* Martin Kaymer@
Zach Johnson Lee Westwood@
Brandt Snedeker Thomas Peters@*
JB Holmes@ Matt Fitzpatrick*
Ryan Moore@ Andy Sullivan*
Matt Kuchar@ Danny Willett*
Rickie Fowler@ Chris Wood*
At times, tandems of rookies will have to play for Europe in the fourball and foursomes sessions, and no matter what, there will always be no less than two European rookies in competition at all times. There’s no hiding them; they will have to play in every session. If the wheels start to fall off for them, it could trigger a team-wide meltdown. Meanwhile the Americans have just one rookie, Brooks Koepka. Everyone else is Ryder Cup battle-hardened.
Willett, Wood, Sullivan, Fitzpatrick, Peters, and Cabrera-Bello are the six strangers in a strange land, the interlopers in Minnesota. They have targets on them, make no mistake. And when trouble comes rumbling through the farmland in the form of an American surge, the ghost of Tony Jacklin won’t be there to rescue them. How do you generate chemistry with six new players? Especially in a hostile environment?
Moreover, the American side is employing the same strategy that propelled them to victory at Valhalla – the Pod System, three self-
contained groups of four players. Within each pod, players can interchange for both fourball and foursomes sessions, but the groupings of four players . 2008 Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger conceived the idea watching a television special about armed forces special ops teams. The team building aspect of smaller units promotes depth and cohesiveness.
One pod is likely comprised of Phil Mickelson and his pals: DJ, Spieth and Patrick Reed. (They all played a practice round together Tuesday.) A second pod may consist of Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar, Ryan Moore, and Zach Johnson. That leaves long hitting Brandt Snedecker to play with JB Holmes, Brooks Koepka, and Jimmy Walker, if the groupings today turn out to be the ones Davis Love uses.
The Best Team Ever Assembled - that’s what Davis Love called his team to the assembled media last week in a pre-Cup presser. He admitted afterwards that it was a bit of puffery; he was rallying his troops with something to carry into battle, but he did reiterate yesterday that he’d tell his team something similar.
That's what Nick Saban would tell his team when they're getting ready to go play Ole Miss. He wouldn't say, You guys have done a pretty good job this week, and you're a pretty average team, let's go out there and just give it a good shot. No, he's going to say, You guys have worked hard, you're the best team I've ever seen, let's go crush these guys.
Finally, there is one inalienable truth about team golf in this type of format: matches ebb and flow, and it’s a long road to get to 14 or 14-1/2 points, (depending on if you’re depending the Cup or not). You aren’t going to play great all weekend, you just have to play well in the clutch. Depth, cohesiveness, and experience through the lineup…that’s a huge advantage for the USA.
ON THE COURSE
Tony Jacklin’s 1970 U.S. Open dissection of Hazeltine National aside, the host club should also be an advantage for the Americans, and not just because U.S. Captain Davis Love can set it up how he likes. The center-line strategy, penal architecture style of Hazeltine’s design plays solidly into the hands of the Team USA.
Architect Robert Trent Jones was the originator of “double target golf,” and when Hazeltine debuted as a U.S. Open venue in 1970 it was the epitome of a modern American parkland-style course.
“Narrow fairways, deep rough, and greens without a lot of contour” was how Tom Kite described it upon seeing the course that week for what was at that time his first U.S. Open. Boring, flavorless, and straightforward, it was just how most American pros like their golf courses.
One of the major drawbacks to penal architecture design is that it seldom provides drama in a match play setting. Center-line golf doesn’t lend itself to exciting, go-for-broke shotmaking. That will be the one thing missing from Hazeltine, a succession of half-par holes where matches can swing back and forth from hole to hole or even from shot to shot.
“When you set up a course for the Ryder Cup it is completely different to a PGA Tour event," stated a rightly proud golf course architect Rees Jones, returning to the course his father created and on which Rees also worked for the ‘02 and ’09 PGAs. "I did Medinah four years ago, and Davis Love III is setting up the same way -- long hitters won't be penalized by the rough,” he explained.
That means greens in regulation – in particular proximity to hole on approach – and of course putting will be the critical stats to watch.
Hazeltine should turn into a putting contest, as indeed many Ryder Cups have, and with a deeper American team playing on a layout that will let them exploit their length advantage, they should be able to convert that into more and better birdie opportunities.
What Hazeltine does have going for it is ergonomics. In an age where some venues require long shuttle rides from parking to the course and others put the media center almost pff the property, it’s great to have a venue where everyone can drive their car to the course and walk right in the gate. No fuss, no muss, easy as a pie made with sweet Minnesota apricots.
The home course advantage, instead, lies with the crowd, and when twenty rows deep of ardent Minnesota golf fans all roar at once, it’s so loud it sounds like an airport runway with jets taking off in every direction. (Yes, even for Y.E. Yang…)
Further, it will be louder in the clutch due to a bit of course re-routing for the Ryder Cup. The players won’t be tackling Hazeltine in the normal -18 routing. Instead, the course is re-sequenced as follows: 1-4, then 14-18, then 10-13, and concluding with 5-9. They did this for a great reason; the 16th and 17th holes border Lake Hazelyone and the hard edge meant fewer fans could watch the action on those critical, potentially match-ending holes.
“The 16th hole, for example, has water going all the way on the right side of the fairway, and if the Ryder Cup matches were to end there, maybe 5,000 people would be able to see it,” said Hazeltine National PGA Head Professional Chandler Withington said. “That’s not a very high percentage of 40,000 people. We want as many people as possible to be able to see the play–especially on the pivotal holes.”
By contrast, their replacements, seven and eight, can accommodate the largest crowds on the golf course, 20-30 people deep. The par-5 7th (now 16th) is a reachable par-5 dangerously abutting the water’s edge, while the short par-3 eighth (now 17th) will also prove dramatic with it’s carry over water to a pedestal green. Keeping the home fans close during the crucial finishing stretch will give the Americans their second significant edge...Advantage USA.
OUR PREDICTION 15-1/2 TO 12-1/2 USA
Almost immediately after the loss at Gleneagles the now infamous “Task Force” was formed and the Ryder Cup entered the age of sabermetrics. Every stat has micro-analyzed within nanometers to figure out such great and impenetrable mysteries as foursomes pairings and team chemistry. But at the end of the day, the US has more guys that can hit the golf ball closer to the hole more consistently than the Europeans do. As long as their putters don’t rebel like a tin-pot Turkish general, they should be fine.
After it’s all over, people will praise the task force and the number crunching, but at the end of the day, the best thin Davis Love will have done at the 2016 Ryder Cup will be to prep an entire new generation of American golfer into being a better, smarter Captain wen their turn comes. Tiger, Furyk, and Phil will certainly be Captains some day. But so to may Bubba Watson Jordan Spieth, and Matt Kuchar. Davis’s greatest achievement will be the blueprint he leaves for the future. As for the team – well there’s always the hstory books
NEWS NOTES AND QUOTES
TOM KITE, SUPER-GENIUS
Davis Love at yesterday’s interviews: I told a story that Tom Kite always told me, just out-drive them and walk faster than them, get to your ball first and dominate. Every time you get 2-up, you know what's better than 2-up?
I said, No, what?
He goes, 3-up.’
RIGHT IN THE LUMBER YARD
1st Tee Fan: "Hey Bill, go Cubs!" Bill Murray: "This one's for Minnesota!" Murray slices tee shot: "Maybe that's for Wisconsin." (Hat tip: Bob Denney, PGA of America historian