Five burning questions for the Ryder Cup
September 23, 2021
By Ben Everill, PGATOUR.COM
PGA TOUR – The CUT
Ryder Cup preview
It’s been a lengthy build up, including a yearlong postponement and four days of practice at Whistling Straits, but this year’s edition of the Ryder Cup is almost here. Before play begins, I’ve tried to answer some of the burning questions you may have about this intercontinental competition between the United States and Europe.
Are Brooks and Bryson sharing dessert at the team dinners? Has Tommy Fleetwood got a new partner found a new partner he can love as much as Francesco? Will Wisconsin fans eat the state’s weight in cheese curds and brats? What songs will be sung on the first tee? And who, really, is the favorite on an American-style links that may see some European weather this week?
These are all important questions. But there’s only one that matters: Who will win?
Let’s dive in.
1. What is the health status of the game’s biggest stars who came in under a cloud?
When every point is vital, every player must be at his best. But after a Super Season chock full of big events, some of the biggest names on each team arrive with some question marks about their status. U.S. team members Brooks Koepka and Collin Morikawa both had recent injury concerns, while World No .1 Jon Rahm arrives after a rare missed cut that followed a stomach ailment.
Koepka, who has battled ongoing knee complaints and withdrew from the TOUR Championship with a wrist injury, didn’t exactly inspire confidence in his pre-tournament press conference. But remember, he also plays his best when he feels aggrieved. Having something to prove brings out the best in Brooks.
“I'm like glass, so I wouldn't say I am 100%. Left knee, right knee, I’m broken, man,” Koepka said before turning the narrative into his ability to tough it out. “I feel fine. I feel as good as I've felt in a long time. Over the past week and a half, I did a lot of work on it with Derek Samuel, my trainer. He was down with me for about eight days, so able to kind of work everything out and make sure it's fine but I feel good and I'm ready to go as much or as little as they want.”
Koepka said he’s willing to go 36 holes a day but word on the street is he won’t be doing so.
As for Morikawa, the two-time major winner said the back injury he suffered at the Olympics is no longer a concern.
“I'm 100% healthy. Knock on wood right now, but I'm feeling great,” he said.
Last week, Rahm withdrew from the pro-am of the season-opening Fortinet Championship with a stomach ailment and promptly went on to miss the cut. As the shortest pre-tournament favorite on TOUR since Tiger Woods in 2013, it was a shocking result.
Are there any lingering effects from that week?
“I'm physically ready for it,” he said Thursday. “I know I don't look like it but I train every day when I'm at home, believe it or not. I'm in really good shape. I have no problem walking 36. I feel like the biggest challenge in an event like this is possibly five rounds of the mental aspect of it, and that's where I think you need to learn to really unwind quickly and get ready when you need to.
“In my case, the most important things outside of all that would be hydrating properly and getting enough sleep. Those two things are going to be the keys this week.”
2. Does Whistling Straits give the U.S. a true home-course advantage?Whistling Straits during a practice round at the Ryder Cup. (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
The short answer is yes.
The U.S. side is stacked with bombers, and conditions at the lakeside Pete Dye course have been tailored to their styles. While to the eye it may appear like something found in Europe, it is far from it.
“It looks like a links course but it's not playing that way. The greens are soft, decently soft. You can't really run stuff around the green,” rookie Harris English said.
The rough has been hacked down to very manageable lengths – giving the United States’ long hitters a little more leeway off the tee -- and while Dye installed more than 1,000 bunkers, soft fairways and greens give a distinct advantage to those who carry the ball a long way in the air. It’s a setup that plays to the Americans’ advantage.
“The golf course, it won’t be as firm or as fast as maybe it would be in a major championship because you’re not trying to test the golfers as much and as thoroughly as they can. The Ryder Cup is match play. It’s a different animal,” former Cup hero Justin Leonard said. Leonard, who was not a long hitter, lost the 2004 PGA Championship in a playoff to Vijay Singh at Whistling Straits, but the course was playing much firmer that week.
“A lot of that does come down to Steve Stricker, and if he feels like his team has an advantage in length, maybe it’s better to have the golf course playing a little bit slower so that his players will be coming into the green with a little less club… a softer golf course I feel like length is a bigger advantage.”
The other obvious factor is the crowd. With travel restrictions coming from Europe in place and the pandemic still affecting the appetite for travel in general the home crowd advantage is magnified even more.
Europe tried Wednesday to garner favor amongst the locals by wearing Cheese Heads and the green and gold of Wisconsin’s beloved Green Bay Packers. It was a clever move from Captain Padraig Harrington but it won’t be enough when the matches get underway. The distinctive European fans aren’t around to help lift his troops.
3. What – at a higher level – is at stake here?
There is more than just the Ryder Cup at stake
This U.S. side represents a changing of the guard. It’s the first time since 1993 that neither Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson is on the team. This roster, which includes six rookies, is the youngest in U.S. history with an average age under 30. Dustin Johnson is the elder statesman at 37, and the majority of the team has yet to reach its 30th birthday.
The side is ridiculously stacked on paper. It has eight of the top 10 players in the world. Ten of the U.S. players are ranked ahead of Europe’s second-highest-ranked player (No. 14 Viktor Hovland).
So, if ever the U.S. is to arrest a slide that has seen Europe win four of the last five, seven of the last nine and 12 of the last 17 Cups, it must begin now. This team has a nucleus that could turn the tables with a decade or more of dominance. But can they actually make it happen? And what happens if they don’t? Another Task Force?
“It's a big one for our team,” said Tony Finau, who was a member of the U.S. Team that lost in Paris three years ago. “We have a chance to do something really special for our team, our country and especially for Stricks. … Our goal is not only to change the mold this year, but the history of the Ryder Cup for us. It means a lot to us young guys, and hopefully we change the mold not just this Ryder Cup but many Ryder Cups to come.”
For Europe, this could possibly be the last stand for a veteran core that includes Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Sergio Garcia. This may be the last Cup for multiple members of this great triumvirate of European Ryder Cup stars and they’d surely like to go out on a winning note.
4. What's the status of the Brooks-Bryson situation?Brooks Koepka on Thursday during a practice round at the Ryder Cup. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Don’t expect Koepka and DeChambeau to form a big-bashing pair this week but at least it appears they are on the same page as they both don the red, white and blue.
“A lot of this social media stuff has definitely been driven by a lot of external factors, not necessarily us two. We had some great conversations in TOUR Championship week when we had dinner, and then this week, as well,” DeChambeau said this week. “I sat down and had dinner with him last night, and it was fine. I think there may be something fun coming up here moving forward but won't speak too much more on that.”
Stricker called their relationship “a non-issue.” They’re part of a tight-knit team, many of whom have known each other since junior golf. The strength of his team’s bond has even surprised Stricker, who also captained the U.S. side in the Presidents Cup four years ago.
“I knew they were close, but they're really close,” Stricker said of his squad. “I think they've played so much golf together growing up, on the same college teams together, they play a lot of social golf together, … the level of how close has surprised me. That's a good thing. That's what I wanted from day one is a family-type atmosphere.”
5. What's the forecast and who does that favor?
Wind and rain can always be a factor when you’re playing golf on the shores of a large body of water. Whistling Straits, built on the shores of Lake Michigan, is no exception. Adding a wrinkle to Friday’s opening sessions is the fact that the winds will switch and start coming out of the west and south-west. Throughout the practice days, the wind has blown from the north and north-west.
Saturday’s forecast includes gusts up to 25mph, so it could certainly get wild out there, although a decent chance of late rain Friday night will also continue to soften up the course and give the bombers on the U.S. team some extra advantage.
“It would be a beach day at home,” European Captain Padraig Harrington smiles before getting down to brass tacks. “My players don't need that. They're good enough. They're great ball-strikers. We're not looking for extreme windy conditions, difficult conditions, tricky conditions. We don't mind a good solid test.
“We're all happy that the temperature is to go up on Friday. We don't have a problem with that. We're relying on ourselves, not relying on outside agencies and the conditions. Maybe there is a little bit of an advantage for us if it does go that way, but as I've always said, we really have probably our best team ever of ball strikers, so we're not relying on conditions to give us the edge.”
The official forecast from DTN meteorologist Brad Nelson is as follows:
“The morning on Friday will start out mostly sunny with light winds and temperatures in the 40’s. Increasing clouds can be expected through the day with pleasant weather conditions. Winds turn to the south-southwest at 10-20 mph while temperatures top out in the middle 70’s. A cold front moves through Whistling Straits Friday evening with rain becoming likely, mainly after 7p.m. This weekend will feature some fair-weather clouds at times and mild afternoon temperatures with chilly mornings. Breezy west winds are expected on Saturday, while weaker and turning southwest on Sunday.”
Bonus Question: Who is going to win?
Your guess is as good as mine. I’m saying 14-14! Of course, that would mean a happy European team would be able to take the Ryder Cup back across the Atlantic.