John Duggan writes that a European Ryder Cup team with Padraig Harrington, Shane Lowry and Rory McIlroy central to it is what we all want...
I believe I know why we are so excited about the 2021 Ryder Cup between the USA and Europe in Wisconsin.
Think about it. For all other major sports between March of 2020 and now in the pandemic, it was a drip drip of a return. Football, Gaelic Games and Rugby all slowly came back to empty stadiums and now, in some cases, full ones. Individual golf returned quite promptly. However, team golf, and a unique event such as a Ryder Cup which locks us inside a room of emotion for three days, is something we've been waiting for since 2018.
I have compared this sporting event to an amusement ride; nervous anticipation and then the thrill of the ride itself with all of its uncertainty and twists and turns and thrills. Then it stops and it's all over and one forgets about it. What is 'Europe' anyway? A Swedish rock band from the 80's? An entity that looks after us when we cannot manage our finances? A concept to stave off war? In sporting terms, it doesn't mean anything. This is classic television entertainment, with foursomes and fourballs designed to generate birdies and fist pumps - and there's always enough juice to make the singles interesting, even if the destination of the Cup becomes apparent. It's hard to beat a close Ryder Cup, with cameras zig zagging around 12 matches on the final day.
If 'Europe' doesn't matter, then the components of it certainly do. Such as small countries like Ireland which has such a big role to play in this Ryder Cup against the United States in front of the TV cameras and the global media. We have an Irish captain, Padraig Harrington, an Irish Ryder Cup veteran at this stage in Rory McIlroy and an Irish rookie in Shane Lowry. How cool is that?
Irish golf made it's mark on the Ryder Cup before the World Golf Championships came to our shores, before the matches at the K Club in 2006 and before a golden generation of Irish players won ten majors in 13 years.
Harry Bradshaw and Christy O'Connor Senior were part of the 1957 Great Britain and Ireland side which beat the USA. That was the last Ryder Cup win on this side of the pond until 1985, when an expanded European team beat the Americans at the Belfry to bring a competitive set of matches into the public consciousness.
Eamonn Darcy won a crucial singles match against Ben Crenshaw in 1987 as Europe beat the USA for the first ever time on US soil. Two years later, Christy O'Connor Junior's magical two iron at the Belfry helped Europe retain the trophy. Philip Walton won the pivotal singles match against Jay Haas in 1995. And Paul McGinley, long before his captaincy heroics, holed the winning putt at the Belfry in 2002. As a nation which didn't have much self confidence for decades, these were important sporting moments to be proud of.
Weighing up this Ryder Cup in advance is an interesting exercise in one's head, because on one hand, you have a USA team which clearly has the better players. Team USA has an average world ranking of 8.92, while the European ranking average is 30.83. On the other hand, the European players are much better at seeing this as a collective endeavour. The European players cannot wait to play; and their enthusiasm and team spirit means it's no surprise nine of the last 12 Ryder Cups have gone Europe's way. Padraig Harrington is one of the game's most interesting thinkers and he will be doing his level best to get the most out of his 12 players.
The course is Whistling Straits, a breathtaking vista on the shores of Lake Michigan. Playing as a par 71, it will be the longest course in Ryder Cup history. It has the feeling of a links course, it may be cool and the wind may blow, but that doesn't automatically mean the Europeans have an advantage. As hosts, the Americans get to set up the venue their way. Local native Steve Stricker is the American captain and he will ensure the course plays to the strengths of his team. That means generous fairways, light rough and quick greens. There are also four par four holes over 500 yards, which suits the bigger American hitters.
Stricker is a popular figure on the circuit. He may have Tiger Woods to motivate the team on video link, but Woods' aura won't be on the course. Patrick Reed was also left out. Phil Mickelson is a vice captain and I think that's also important in fostering a harmonious environment. When you look beyond the headline grabbers such as Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau, it's an impressive American side. Its average age is 29, compared to a European team with an average age of 35 which contains four players over 40. Stricker picked six rookies. Among them are Open champion Collin Morikawa, Olympic champion Xander Schauffele and PGA Tour Player of the Year Patrick Cantlay. Schauffele and Cantlay are likely to play together, as are Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, two players that actually delivered for the USA in their Paris defeat. Dustin Johnson also carries a formidable pedigree. The home side has won six of the last seven Ryder Cups, a statistic that also leans in America's favour.
There has to be concern about the form of some of the European players. Spain's Jon Rahm is the best player in the world, but didn't play well in California last week. Hopefully that was just a tune up. Tyrrell Hatton missed the cut at the US Open, the Open Championship and at Wentworth, where he was the defending champion. Lee Westwood hasn't had a top ten since March. Matt Fitzpatrick's best result on his last four appearances in America was a tie for 55th. Tommy Fleetwood's best display in a major this year was a tie for 33rd. As a counterpoint, I think Ryder Cup golf is ready made for Shane Lowry, who promises to be a real positive influence in the locker room and on the course. He's a natural team player and he's been hitting the ball well. I expect Rory McIlroy to thrive at a course where he could have won the 2010 US PGA, while Viktor Hovland of Norway is the bright young thing of European golf. Then there's wildcard selections Ian Poulter and Sergio Garcia. The hope for Europe's sake is that Poulter and Garcia can rediscover the magic which they have brought to the matches before.
Will there be a 'War on the Shore' or a 'Brookline' vibe where passions boil over? There will be no European fans on course and some Americans in the galleries will be raucous. America is an angrier place these days - and Stricker's request for US fans not to 'cross the line' is reflective of that. It will be tense for the players and tense for us watching at home, especially as we will be willing on Lowry and McIlroy. Europe's best way of silencing the crowds is to win matches over the three days. Can they do it? Can they hold onto the trophy? The evidence suggests otherwise, but if there's one man who can engineer this, it's Harrington. An iron will saw Harrington win three major titles in 13 months. He has promised a fun atmosphere and Europe will take it to the Americans.
So, clear your schedule this weekend. Find the European blue and yellow flag emoji on your phone. Wear silly clothes in honour of the players. With Wisconsin six hours behind Ireland, the timing is perfect, so get those snacks and beverages in. Gorge on this spectacle. Remember it will take 14 points from 28 on offer for Europe to retain the Ryder Cup and 14 and a half points to win it. Right now, the future is unwritten. Let's hope Irish eyes will be smiling on Sunday night. Enjoy the Ryder Cup!