By Mark Lamport-Stokes
CHASKA, Minnesota (Reuters) – Home advantage for an experienced United States line-up versus European dominance — just one of many compelling matchups to savor in next week’s Ryder Cup between two star-studded teams at Hazeltine National.
The Americans have been meticulous in their preparations for the 41st edition of the biennial competition and appear to have several factors in their favor as they strive to end a remarkable run by the Europeans over the past two decades.
Holders Europe have won three consecutive Ryder Cups, and eight of the last 10, through a mixture of shrewd captaincy, consistently good team chemistry, often stellar play and an uncanny knack of sinking key putts at crucial moments.
This week, however, they will field six rookies in their 12-man team while the Americans have just one Cup debutant in Brooks Koepka (or perhaps two pending the final wildcard pick to be announced later on Sunday by U.S. captain Davis Love III).
Either way, this is a ratio of experience that U.S. fans can only hope will help pave the way for a much-needed home victory.
“We didn’t really look at rookies versus experience,” Love told reporters when asked if his more seasoned team held any advantage over Europe. “We looked at adding to our team to build the best that we could.
“Experience is good. We know what to expect. We know how to handle it, how to deal with it. We’re going to learn from our mistakes in the past and build on it.
“We have a plan we’ve been working on for a year and a half … we know what happened in the past but we’re looking to the future now and building. I think our experience is really going to help us.”
While Europe are happy to embrace the underdog tag on U.S. soil, their captain Darren Clarke has complete faith in the ability of his six rookies to thrive in the pressure cooker atmosphere of a Ryder Cup.
“It’s unquestionable that it’s going to be a very, very big task ahead of us,” said the 48-year-old Northern Irishman, a veteran of five Ryder Cups as a player.
“You’d have to say America would be favorites … if you’re going to look off world rankings, etc. But it’s 12 guys against 12 guys in match play, and anything can happen.
“There are six (rookies for Europe) but the talent that they all possess, I’ve got no worries at all about the strength of that team. I’m proud of that team. We’re going to do everything we possibly can to bring that trophy back home again.”
MAKING THE BIG PUTTS
Asked to explain Europe’s recent dominant run at the Ryder Cup, Clarke replied: “The Europeans have had the run of the greens. They have made a lot of big putts at the right time.
“The gap in the quality of the players is so small, that if somebody knocks in a 20-footer at the right time or something, that can make a huge difference.
“Davis is doing everything he possibly can to get that 20-footer going in on his side. I’m obviously trying to do the same … it’s going to be a closely-contested contest, as it has been.”
Since 1981, there has been generally very little to choose between the two teams in terms of matchplay grit and ability. 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.
Ultra-long Hazeltine National measures a daunting 7,628 yards off the back tees and while Love has certainly taken a leaf or two out of Azinger’s play book, he is looking well beyond driving distance with his Ryder Cup strategy.
“It (Hazeltine) is big and long and it’s a bomber’s course but we’ve broken it down a little bit,” said Love. “Just hitting long drives isn’t the whole key to this.
“It’s strokes gained, ball-striking, who can hit it closer to the hole with all their clubs, and who can make the most putts.”
Europe have triumphed 10 times in the last 15 editions but they face a challenging task on American soil where the U.S. have lost only four times since the matches began in 1927.
The 41st Ryder Cup starts on Friday morning with the opening foursomes matches.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)