MEDINAH, Illinois (Reuters) - After three days of practice in sunny weather, the 39th Ryder Cup finally gets underway on Friday at Medinah Country Club with hosts the United States appearing to hold a wafer-thin advantage over holders Europe.
Although the U.S. have triumphed only once in the last five editions of the biennial team competition, they have a proud record on American soil with just three losses since the matches began in 1927.
Never before, though, has the trans-Atlantic showdown featured two line-ups bristling with so much firepower and strength in depth with world number 36, Nicolas Colsaerts of Belgium, the lowest-ranked of the 24 players in action.
“I know that the matches are going to be tough,” European captain Jose Maria Olazabal told a news conference on Thursday after the pairings were announced for Friday morning’s opening foursomes.
“The U.S. team is playing great. We do have very strong pairings on the U.S. side, and the European players are going to have to play really, really well in order to win points. That’s the way this Ryder Cup is going to be.”
Olazabal, teary-eyed during the opening ceremony after a tribute to his late friend and former Ryder Cup partner Seve Ballesteros, will send out world number one Rory McIlroy and fellow Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell in the top match in a bid to give his team a fast start.
The ‘Super-Macs’ will take on American veteran Jim Furyk and rookie Brandt Snedeker while Englishmen Ian Poulter and Justin Rose, a successful partnership in 2008, play the potent U.S. duo of Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker in the anchor match.
“I wanted to have my strongest foursome pairings tomorrow for the first session, and that’s the logic behind these pairings here,” said Olazabal, who left out former world number one Martin Kaymer of Germany, along with three other players, for the opening session.
U.S. captain Davis Love III also had to think long and hard about which four players would sit out the opening foursomes.
He eventually omitted two major winners, in Bubba Watson (Masters) and Webb Simpson (U.S. Open), while throwing rookies Snedeker, Jason Dufner and Keegan Bradley into the fray.
“I won’t make any predictions, but I can tell you this: I love my team and I love the pairings, and I love the plan we’ve got going, and I‘m excited to watch them go play,” said Love.
Cup veteran Phil Mickelson and Bradley will take on Britain’s Luke Donald and Spaniard Sergio Garcia in the second match before Dufner and Zach Johnson face Britain’s Lee Westwood and Italy’s Francesco Molinari.
Since 1981, there has been very little to choose between the two teams in terms of matchplay grit and ability. The knack of holing putts at the right time under intense pressure has been the decisive factor.
The Americans last won the Ryder Cup at Valhalla in 2008 when their captain Paul Azinger shrewdly inspired team cohesion with a four-man ‘pod’ system and prepared the venue with very little rough and fast greens to suit his power hitters.
This week, Love has set up Medinah Country Club’s No. 3 Course in similar fashion, with virtually no rough as he hopes to give his array of big hitters something of an advantage.
”You don’t want to see players chipping out (from rough) and putting for par,“ said Love, who competed in six Ryder Cups. ”You want to see birdies. You want to see excitement.
“We’ve set it up the way we think fans will like it. We’re a long-hitting, freewheeling, fun-to-watch team. And I think it’s going to be fun to watch.”
Olazabal, whose players will have the iconic image of Ballesteros on their golf bags to inspire them “every step of the way” this week, also likes the look of the par-72 layout.
”The golf course is the same for everyone,“ the Spaniard said. ”We have strong players on both sides ... and they can adjust to any situation.
“It’s going to be a great show in that regard for the crowds. You’re going to see holes tied with birdies. You’ll have a few holes where anything can happen - risk and reward holes. It’s exciting. The way the golf course is set up is great.”
Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Nick Mulvenney