By Michael Davis and David Newbery
IT was not until the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne in 1998 that most Australians were able to witness firsthand what being part of a team means to golfers who usually play individual events.
The event was in its infancy but you could have cut the air with a knife – such was the tension over three days at Royal Melbourne.
The late Peter Thomson was captain of the International Team and led it to a resounding victory over Jack Nicklaus’ team from the United States.
It remains the only occasion on which the internationals have triumphed.
The atmosphere was even more palpable when the event returned to RM in 2019, with galleries five and six deep lining the fairways. Golf fans who could not attend in person were glued to the telecast.
And this for an event, which compared to the Ryder Cup between Europe and the US, was a mere ‘babe’ the woods.
It brought home just why the Ryder Cup – an event held every two years since 1927 – is such a big deal for players and fans alike.
The event was scheduled for last year but has been delayed due to the pandemic.
But it’s on again this month (September 24-26) for the 43rd time in its history and another absorbing battle will be staged – this time at Whistling Straits – the superb, links-style course which sits along the shoreline of Lake Michigan, the second largest of America’s five Great Lakes.
One of a number of quirky elements to the Ryder Cup is the home team captain’s prerogative to ask for the course to be set up favourably for his players.
Three years ago, at Le Golf National in Paris, then European captain Thomas Bjørn knew his team was much more accurate off the tee than the Americans.
So he made sure that the fairways were tighter in spots where the US players would likely land the ball.
It worked and the Europeans dominated, winning 17½ to 10½.
There was also apparently some friction between US team members during the event which did not aid the visitors’ cause.
The Americans will be smarting after being ‘ambushed’ in Paris by Bjorn’s shrewdness.
This time, however, both US captain Steve Stricker and Europe’s captain Padraig Harrington are aware that Whistling Straits is not as easy to tweak.
“This is a much more natural golf course,” Harrington says.
“I’m interested to see what Steve has in store.
“But it doesn’t look like you can do a lot with this golf course.
“As much as it was obviously designed and built there, it looks like it’s just in a natural setting all its life and it’s going to present its way.
“Even the weather could be very changeable the week of the Ryder Cup.
“I think it will be a great venue for the Ryder Cup,” Harrington added.
“It’s a dramatic golf course. We need that in the Ryder Cup.
“The Ryder Cup is probably the most exciting golf event in the game – one of the biggest sporting events (in the world) and certainly the most exciting in golf.
“You need a dramatic golf course that lends itself to spectacular play, as well as some disastrous play. That’s what matchplay is about.”
Length is the only major adjustable feature that Stricker has to work with. While both teams will hit the ball a long way, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Whistling Straits play long all three days.
That being said, there’s plenty of Ryder Cup experience on the European team to handle anything the Americans throw at them.
Rory McIlroy (five appearances), Paul Casey (four) and Lee Westwood (10) are unlikely to be overawed.
With a combined 19 Ryder Cup appearances, they will have the most wisdom to impart upon the younger players.
They’ve seen it all during their time and they’ve also won a lot of matches over the years.
The home crowds will be cheering on the Americans, but as far as course knowledge, the 2015 PGA Championship was played at Whistling Straits, and players from both teams were at the event won by Australian Jason Day.
Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Tony Finau, Phil Mickelson and Justin Thomas all finished inside the top-20.
McIlroy (17th) was the highest European finisher while Tyrrell Hatton tied for 25th and Paul Casey tied for 30th.
Captains Stricker and Harrington have a big say tactically in the Ryder Cup, firstly with whom they pick to complement those who qualify automatically, and then, over the three days play.
They can craft their teams into exactly what they are looking for.
It’s completely on the captains and their tactical nous can ultimately play a big part in the final result.
A captain will try to team players who partner perfectly with one another, be it because of their style of play or compatible personalities.
Sometimes it can be both.
What happens behind closed-doors in the team room is very important and largely driven by the captain.
“We (him and Harrington) have the ability to create teams that we want to create for cohesiveness,” Stricker says.
Players, too, can have input on who they prefer to partner.
McIlroy says he wouldn’t mind being paired with Viktor Hovland, the emerging 23-year-old Norwegian talent.
“If I was trying to choose a partner, I’d put my hand up and like to guide him around,” McIlroy said.
How the teams are selected
Team Europe: Selection for the team is split into three sections. European Tour performance, World Tour performance, and the captain’s picks.
The top four players on the European points list, known as the Race to Dubai, will automatically be selected. Then the five leading players on the world points list (who have not already qualified via the Race to Dubai) will bring the team total to nine.
Europe’s number of captain’s picks has been reduced for 2021, with Padraig Harrington having three additional selections.
The qualification window closes at the BMW Championship, which is scheduled to hold its final round on 12 September.
Team USA: The Americans have gone the opposite way from Europe in terms of captain’s picks, increasing the number from four to six.
The initial six positions in the team will be the top six in the USA’s points list, which is taken from prize money in select events since 2019 (all majors and PGA Tour events in 2020 and 2021).
Steve Stricker will then add six further picks to complete his team selection.
The USA qualification period also ends at the BMW Championship.
Team Europe: As things stand, nine men – Jon Rahm, Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton, Rory McIlroy, Viktor Hovland, Paul Casey, Lee Westwood, Matt Fitzpatrick and Shane Lowry – occupy the automatic qualifying spots.
Pádraig Harrington will decide on his three Captain’s Picks after the conclusion of the BMW PGA Championship – the third Rolex Series event of the season – at Wentworth Golf Club during the week of September 13, 2021.
Team USA Ryder Cup rankings: Collin Morikawa, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Tony Finau.
The next six players in the rankings are: Xander Schauffele, Jordan Spieth, Harris English, Patrick Reed, Patrick Cantley and Daniel Berger.