SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – They’re on the road, without their fans, facing an opponent with almost as much firepower and only slightly less favored than Mike Tyson in his prime. Europe’s perennial Ryder Cup underdogs have the Americans exactly where they want them.
Europe boasts the world’s No. 1-ranked player in Spaniard Jon Rahm; the U.S. squad has eight of the remaining nine. The average European ranks 30th; the average American comes in at ninth. According to golf’s most reliable metric — strokes gained — Yanks top the list in driving (Bryson DeChambeau), approach play (Collin Morikawa), sand saves (Brooks Koepka) and scrambling (Patrick Cantlay).
In fact, the only category in which they trail their counterparts from across the pond is confidence. With good reason: Europe has won seven of the nine Ryder Cup matches played this century, including a split of the four on U.S. soil.
“If we are watching them celebrate on our home turf, I think that’s going to be a hard pill to swallow,” said Tony Finau, making his second appearance for the U.S. team. “With that being said, there’s that extra motivation, I think, or extra drive, to change the culture of American golf and we have that opportunity this week.”
The Yanks will get their chance beginning Friday morning, when Rahm teams with countryman Sergio Garcia in the opening alternate-shot match against the U.S. pair of Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth. The second match pits Paul Casey and Viktor Hovland against Morikawa and Dustin Johnson; followed by Koepka and Daniel Berger against the English duo or Lee Westwood and Matt Fitzpatrick. The first session ends by Cantlay and Olympic gold medalist Xander Schauffle facing Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter.
The lineups for the afternoon of four better-ball matches will be announced after the morning session ends.
The Europeans enjoy a considerable edge in experience, with only three rookies to the Americans’ six. On the flip side, European captain Padraig Harrington will have to keep a close eye on his quartet of 40-somethings — Garcia, Westwood, Poulter and Casey — for signs of fatigue.
“We all know in Ryder Cups, there’s a fine line between playing too much, trying to stay fresh, fine line, 36 holes a day,” Harrington said. “Obviously, I have a slightly older team. ... You don’t see them having any issues with playing 36 holes if they have to. But yeah, it’s something I would be aware of, that we don’t want to burn players out.”
For a team seeking to maximize home-field advantage, the choice of Whistling Straits was a curious place to begin turning things around. Granted, it’s close by U.S. captain’s Steve Stricker’s home base of Madison. But the weather-beaten, heavily-mounded two-mile stretch of hard turf by the Lake Michigan shoreline is practically a replica of the seaside links courses that dot the coasts of the United Kingdom and Ireland, complete with the howling winds. The only thing that would make the Europeans feel more at home might be a fish and chips stand.
“If the wind and the weather stays as it is, I think the Europeans stand a really good chance,” said William May, who moved to Milwaukee from Bath, England six years ago. “It feels very English to me.”
Because of travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic, May won’t have much company. Harrington went out of his way to welcome those hardy souls during Thursday’s opening ceremonies.
“To those who have made it,” he smiled, “we appreciate your efforts.”
But the visitors weren’t relying on their fans for entertainment. In addition to the usual parlor games in the team room — cards and ping-pong — the Europeans charmed the locals during a practice round earlier this week by emerging from the tunnel and onto the first tee wearing foam Cheeseheads and Green Bay Packer-themed hats and polo shirts. They also scored a decisive victory in the social media battle, topped off by this one.
But while they may look a lot looser from a distance, Casey, playing in his fourth Cup, said they’ll the Europeans will be all business when they step on the first tee.
“I don’t think our switch flips that much as much as you think,” he said. “There’s still a lot of fun and humor. But we’re very serious in our preparation. We try to leave no stone unturned because we know the margins are so small.
“You know,” Casey added a moment later, “you can look up World Rankings and all these things, but we all know, it could be down to one putt or a fraction of a shot every day that’s going to make the difference.”