It was a freezing fall Friday and the Ryder Cup was underway. The American team had arrived loaded with superstars, a team so strong that they could afford to leave behind four major champions. In preparation for their arrival, the home team had made some adjustments to the course.
Planning began months in advance – the fairways and greens have been dried and hardened and the rough behind the greens has been purposefully made lush and thick. When the game started, the home side made sure to be short rather than long in their approaches. Meanwhile, their opponents found themselves ridding themselves of bad lies after bouncing off the greens. It ended in a stunning collapse for Americans in singles and a shocking loss overall.
What year are we talking about here? Paris 2018 maybe? Gleneagles 2014? Maybe one of those in the Belfry at the time? No, all wrong. It was in 1957 in Lindrick, near Sheffield. GB&I captain Dai Rees knew the Yorkshire course well and made a point of using every inch of his potential to catch visitors cold. His reward was the only victory over America between 1933 and 1985.
So there is nothing new under the Ryder Cup sun. The local captain’s ability to play with the pitch to better adapt to his own team has always been there. But nothing predicts a Ryder Cup better these days than a home advantage, so he’s clearly more important than ever. The edges are pressed like never before.
Since the K Club in 2006, only one of the last seven Ryder Cups has been won on foreign soil. If it hadn’t been for the Miracle At Medinah in 2012 – one of the most bizarre twists and turns in event history – you would have seven in a row for the respective home teams.
Not only that, most of them haven’t been close. Europe won by seven in France, five in Scotland and nine at K Club. America won by eight at Hazeltine in 2016 and five at Valhalla in 2008. An event that owes its modern popularity to the drama caused by the very thin margins of the 1980s and 1990s has seen only two game ends in 20 years .
In general terms, it boils down to two things – drive and put. European captains have generally sought to reduce the Americans’ distance at the start and have them play on slower greens than they are used to on the PGA Tour. And the same is true of vice-versa when the matches take place in the United States.
Just run your finger over the last two editions to see how it goes. In Paris, Thomas Bjorn made sure Le Golf National had narrow fairways edged with ankle deep roughs. PGA Tour driving stats told him that not only was he the most accurate driver of the touring ball at Henrik Stenson, but five of his team were in the top 50.
In contrast, Rickie Fowler was the US leader in 53rd place and he was one of only four Americans to make the top 100. In fact, three of the four most accurate drivers in the US setup in 2018 were Jim Furyk. (10th on tour), Zach Johnson (63rd) and Matt Kuchar (76th). Unfortunately for them, all three were in buggies that week – Johnson and Kuchar were vice-captains under Furyk.
There was a pivotal match on Friday afternoon in Paris which put all of this to good use. Europe trailed 3-1 after a good morning for the United States. Stenson and Justin Rose had stepped out in the afternoon quartets against Fowler and Dustin Johnson and if Bjorn’s emphasis on the value of precise driving was ever to bear fruit, now was the time.
Stenson and Rose tied for the top nine and it was good enough to have a three-lead. It was perfectly boring golf – in the middle of the fairway, in the middle of the green, throw your putts. Johnson and Fowler routinely passed them by 25-40 yards, but found themselves having to come out of the rough with their second shots rather than go for the green. The pattern was repeated throughout the course, allowing Europe to complete its very first sweep of a quartet session. They never looked back after that.
The contrast between the narrow fairways and deep rough of Golf National and what the teams face at Whistling Straits next week could not be more pronounced. Eight of the 12 US players are in the top 50 driving distance statistics on the PGA Tour this year. Of the European team, only Rory McIlroy, John Rahm and Paul Casey appear in this top 50. It goes without saying that Steve Stricker will prepare the course according to his players.
Whistling Straits will be the longest Ryder Cup course in history. This will reward the distance rather than the accuracy of the tee. When the PGA Championship was last played there in 2015, Kevin Streelman was the most accurate driver of the week and only finished 54th. Dustin Johnson was the longest rider and tied for seventh despite a very poor week on the greens. It’s shamelessly a bomber course – Jason Day won that week and topped the pack in winning shots in conduct.
Stricker has played to be shy about what to expect for these matches, but we can assume there won’t be any surprises. The course will be set up for birdies. The fairways will be wide, the rough will be fine and the pins will not be taxing.
When the Europeans complained about Hazeltine when placing the dolly pins on Sunday – Justin Rose described them as more suited to a pro-am – it was all confirming to the Americans the best way to load the dice. Easy pins reward distance off the tee over accuracy and reduce everything to a putting competition to see who can birdies the most.
Ten of the US team are in the top 60 for total birdies this season on the PGA Tour. Only Rahm, McIlroy and Viktor Hovland are part of this company for Europe. If Stricker has not set up the course to take advantage of it, it will be a serious dereliction of duty.
Chances are, this will all end in a resounding victory for the United States, continuing the pattern of the last few games. Whether this is good for the competition is another matter. Indeed, if the Ryder Cup continues to alternate between practical victories for Europe in Europe and the Yankees in the United States, it wouldn’t be surprising if they ended up taking the captains’ hands completely, as is. the case in the Solheim Cup.
Too late for the week to come, obviously. This die has already been rolled.