Not since The Eighties, led by Messrs Ballesteros, Faldo, Langer, Woosnam and Lyle, who swished and swiped their way to major success, has Europe enjoyed such remarkable consistency throughout golf’s most elite amphitheatres. After a two year wait, the 39th Ryder Cup returns to our screens in Illinois and you could be excused for thinking that Europe’s cavalry of golfing superstars will arrive, turn the Americans over and leave with Samuel Ryder’s coveted trophy tucked in the overhead storage compartment of the team plane. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
The problem facing European captain Jose Maria Olazabal is that the United States team possess a plethora of golfing talent. With a mix of experience and new names, at least in terms of the Ryder Cup, there is enough blend to suggest this team will be a force to be reckoned with. With Tiger Woods the most notable member of ‘Team USA’ who has regained consistency – three PGA Tour victories this season suggests the great man is well on the way back to his best form – it will be interesting to see how the 14-time Major winner addresses what many describe as a poor Ryder Cup record. In what will be his seventh appearance, Woods must try to improve his 13-14-2 (W-L-H) record if the US team are to have any chance of regaining the coveted gold trophy.
Another crucial factor is home advantage. The host city of Chicago is renowned for sporting excellence and the atmosphere over the three days of play is guaranteed to be nothing short of raucous. Ryder Cup veteran and 2010 captain Colin Montgomerie believes the partisan home crowd could hold the key as to where the matches are won and lost.
“It’s difficult to win there. The last three Ryder Cups have been won by the home teams and I think home advantage is a big one,” he said.
The most notable of home wins, however, came in 1999 when a US team, trailing by four points going into Sunday’s singles, staged one of the most dramatic comebacks in Ryder Cup history. Regrettably, the contest will be remembered for the manner in which the comeback was performed. All week, the visiting European team endured a verbal barrage from a passionate home support. But, although there may not be the same animosity within the galleries, current US captain Davis Love III has confirmed that there will be no let-up in terms of sheer volume.
“Chicago is an incredible sports town and the fans are going to be fired up. The first tee could be the loudest any of these guys have ever seen. If we’re winning holes, it’s going to get pretty loud out there. That’s what home-field advantage is all about. We’ll try to get the fans going loud in our favour.”
So, with the American team seemingly grasping the advantage before the opening tee shot has even been hit, how does that bode for Olazabal’s 12 strong contingency? On paper, it is fair to assume that Europe perhaps has the edge. Having won four of the previous five Cup meetings, it is apparent that our continent’s best golfers know how to get the job done when these two forces lock horns. However, sport is not played on paper and it is certainly not played with regard to reputation.
Coming into the Ryder Cup there is no doubt that Europe’s leading players are in form and none more so than the world number one Rory McIlroy. Having cantered to his second career major victory by eight shots in the USPGA Championship last month, the Northern Irishman, 23, followed that up by winning two of the four season-ending FedEx Cup events. After describing the Ryder Cup as “an exhibition” in 2009, many doubted how seriously McIlroy would take the competition when he made the team at Celtic Manor two years ago. After combining brilliantly with compatriot Graeme McDowell, McIlroy has since declared his love for the competition. Cue European adulation.
Another positive note for Olazabal is the return to form, and indeed the Ryder Cup, of fellow Spaniard Sergio Garcia. After missing out at Celtic Manor in 2010, Garcia had appeared to have fallen out of love with the game he plays so brilliantly. But after back-to-back wins late last season in his native Spain, the enigmatic man from Castellon ended his four-year PGA Tour drought by winning the Wyndham Championship in August. Luckily for Europe, Garcia has come back into form right in time for the competition he cherishes so dearly.
A final mention should be given to the late, great Severiano Ballesteros who passed away last May after a long and dignified battle with cancer. It is rumoured that the European players will wear the navy jumper and trousers and white shirt associated with Ballesteros for Sunday’s singles. Olazabal refused to confirm anything but revealed he had spoken to US counterpart Love about the idea.
“I talked to Davis Love about that and he was very understanding of it and I will say no more at the moment,” Olazabal said. “Seve is going to be there in our team in some way or form. We are going to miss him a lot. It’s the first time he is not going to be with us. He was a special man.”
As all of Europe holds its breath, Olazabal will hope the spirit of his old friend can carry his men to golfing immortality.