The 37th staging of the Ryder Cup matches at Valhalla Golf Club, Kentucky this month promises to be one of the most thrilling in recent years writes John Hynes.
Without a Ryder Cup victory since 1999 and having lost five times in the last six stagings, Captain Paul Azinger is under tremendous pressure to deliver success in this month’s Ryder Cup at Valhalla.
Adding to the intrigue is the personal enmity between Azinger and European Captain Nick Faldo. Faldo claimed his first major title, the 1987 British Open, at Azinger’s expense and the two have never enjoyed a warm relationship.
The US team will be without the considerable presence of world number one Tiger Woods who is recovering from knee surgery. Opinion is divided as to how much of a blow this will be, however. Woods is by some distance the most talented golfer on the planet but he has never seemed comfortable in the team atmosphere of the Ryder Cup.
Past team-mates have complained that his mammoth presence intimidates them, and his 2004 foursomes partnership with Phil Mickleson at Oakland Hills remains one of the most embarrassing memories in US Ryder Cup history – the two men hardly speaking to one another en route to a 18th hole defeat to Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood.
Europe’s challenge will be led by Ireland’s Padraig Harrington, who has taken the mantle as the world’s best golfer in Woods’ absence. Harrington successfully defended his British Open title in July and followed it up with victory in the PGA a fortnight later, becoming the first European to win back to back major titles.
His role in Kentucky will not be confined to what he does on the fairways however. In the absence of European talisman Colin Montgomery – an ever-present since 1991 who has never lost a singles match – and Darren Clarke, Harrington must take up the mantle of team leader.
The European team contains four rookies (including Oliver Wilson, who is the first ever Ryder Cup player without a tournament victory) and Harrington’s guidance will be crucial in helping them survive the white-hot atmosphere at Valhalla.
US stalwart Phil Mickleson describes Kentucky as “NASCAR country”, and most golf fans will be familiar with the vociferous support provided by blue-collar American golf supporters.
Azinger’s choice of Dave Stockton as a vice-captain evokes memories of the infamous ‘War on the Shore’ at Kiawah Island in 1991 where Stockton captained the USA. Seething with anger at not having claimed the Cup since 1983, the US team donned camouflage golf caps and adopted a winning at all costs attitude.
A local radio DJ obtained the phone numbers of the European players’ rooms and gave them out live on air, urging listeners to ring them in the early hours of the morning.
The Ryder Cup surrendered its dignity and charm that week when winning became so crucial, and while the Europeans will expect a hostile atmosphere at Valhalla, all concerned will hope that the shamefully unsporting scenes of Kiawah Island and Brookline in 1999 are not recreated.
Harrington will be joined by fellow Irishman Graeme McDowell, one of those making his debut this month. McDowell has finally capitalised on his promise this year, his two wins on tour helping him to a personal best of 29th in the world.
The Portrush man will relish, and most likely thrive upon the volatile atmosphere at Valhalla.
He feels at home in the States, having studied at the University of Alabama where he broke the scoring record of Tiger Woods in the 2000 Pac-10 Championship.
The pressure cooker that Valhalla will become is unlikely to faze McDowell and he will hope to follow Harrington’s example in adding his name to the list of Irish players who have made telling contributions to the Ryder Cup’s dramatic history.
Rookies aside, this European team looks as strong as any in recent years and will harbour ambitions of recording Europe’s fourth victory on US soil. It is led by the most successful Ryder Cup player ever, Nick Faldo, and boasts the services of a host of very talented players.
Three-time major winner Harrington is joined by the likes of world number four, Sergio Garcia (who has an extraordinary success rate of 75 per cent in Ryder Cup matches), world number six, Henrik Stenson who sank the winning putt at the K Club two years ago and became World Matchplay champion in Arizona last year, and Lee Westwood, who is unbeaten in his last ten Ryder Cup matches.
Azinger can call upon an array of major winners but names such as Ben Curtis and Boo Weekley will scare no-one in the European team room.
The 37th edition of the Ryder Cup looks set to be every bit as dramatic as those which preceded it. Thousands will flock to Louisville to watch some of the world’s greatest golfers do battle under intense pressure.
A US team smarting from a record margin of defeat in Kildare two years ago will be hugely determined to clinch its first victory of the century, but the passion of a European team anchored by Harrington and Garcia may well see Nick Faldo accepting the Cup on Sunday evening.