The seven contests that will decide The Ryder Cup
Captain v Captain, Player v Player, USA v Europe: these are just the most obvious battle lines at The Ryder Cup. But below the surface there are plenty of other match ups to consider.
Rookie v Vet
Darren Clarke selected two veterans – Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer - as wildcard picks alongside one rookie, the prodigiously talented Belgian player, Thomas Pieters. With five rookies already in his team, the European captain felt that adding experience to his team was important in terms of balance.
According Dr. Bob Rotella, golf’s leading psychologist, Clarke is making a bet that the experienced players will be able to handle the extreme Ryder Cup pressure. ‘Every one of these guys can putt on the practice green. But can they do it in the heat of competition, when your partner and your team is relying on you?’ says Rotella. Experience, or in other words, the evidence of past performance, is the most tangible indicator of whether they will be able to do what they can do. With a rookie you’re taking a bigger bet. Neither is a failsafe option, which is part of the fun. We see how they handle the pressure when the moment comes and we see the relevance of past performance on confidence.
The counter argument is that if the past experience of Ryder Cup is losing and playing below their optimum level of performance, then the rookie becomes a more viable option, because he is free from the past, because he doesn’t have one, in the sense of being on a Ryder Cup team.
Gut v Data
Hazeltine is the first real ‘Moneyball’ Ryder Cup. Statistics have played a role in the past, but both Davis Love and Darren Clarke have gone public with their desire to squeeze every available advantage from the information available. The quality and quantity of player performance data available to the captains has increased even since Gleneagles. This raises an important question for the captains, which is how far they should rely on data and how much to leave to their intuition or feel for a how a player is suited to the particular challenges faced at a Ryder Cup. Dr. Mark Broadie’s work has led the way in shaping golf’s relationship with data and his thought leadership in this area is invaluable. ‘Strokes Gained’ is a concept that has been embraced by the professional game and genuinely moved golf forward in terms of analytics.
Autocrat v Democrat
If there’s a single shift in thinking among captains it is toward devolved decision making. More than ever the big decisions are shared between the captains and the team. This runs through the wildcard pics, the pairings, the course set up and the singles order on Sunday. The captains know they’ll be praised or beaten up depending on the result, so they figure that they should get help.
Ownership is a big word at this Ryder Cup, the desire to foster an attitude among the players that this is their team. Each captain is saying, ‘we want to give you input. I’m not always going to go along with it, but I want to take your view on board.
The difficulty comes is whether this more open style of management can be sustained when the pressure is at its most intense. The worse thing you can do is pay lip service to democracy.
Friendship v Friction
Much is made of Europe’s famed camaraderie, perhaps too much. Maybe winning teams are happier. But either way, you don’t need to be friends to be a good team, says Rotella. ‘It can’t be just a bunch of buddies, there must be mutual respect between team mates but you don’t need to want to have dinner with them every night’. The wildcard picks are the most difficult job of the captain, who sometimes must decide between a friend and a virtual stranger for the last spot. ‘The captain knows its way more important to win than make a hard call to a friend’.
Skill v Luck
In 1999 in Boston, Justin Leonard holed a monster putt at the 17th hole that sealed America’s success and ensured Ben Crenshaw was a winning captain at the Battle of Brookline. In 2013, Justin Rose did something similar for Europe, paving the way for European success at the Miracle of Medinah. Those putts contained every element of sport: skill, practice, nerve….and luck, perhaps the most underrated part of Ryder Cup week. ‘Great putts can make you look like a genius’ says Rotella. But even the greatest players miss more than they hole, and sometimes the difference between winning and losing is luck.
Long v Short
The differences between the 24 players at Hazeltine are marginal. Most players, says Rotella, will be hitting 11 or 12 greens in regulation during the round. All of them are excellent ball strikers and the differences in length off the tee is, in most cases, unlikely to prove a deciding factor. The short game is where The Ryder Cup is likely to be won and lost he says. This is an area that tests the relationships between pairings. ‘if you’re playing with a partner, a lot of it comes down to your comfort with their ability to pitch and chip the ball close. If you are spending the round putting out from ten feet, it wears you down’.
Tight v Loose
Sometimes the losing side is blamed for not caring enough to play to their best. Yet the reality is the opposite, says Rotella they care too much, which makes them tense and tight. There’s a danger that memories of Love’s previous captaincy, at Medinah in 2012, will be a factor in building pressure on the US team, particularly among the players who were there four years ago. “Some players on the American team might think that they didn’t come through for Davis on Sunday at Medinah and will go our charged up to make amends. That’s a nice sentiment but you better not try too hard, as this could be detrimental to their performance’. Confidence is often revealed by how a player is putting or chipping. ‘If you don’t feel good about your putting and short game you’re going to struggle in match play’.
Go back to recent matches, there have been a putt or a pitch that someone didn’t feel comfortable making. These are the moments which make a difference to winning and losing. Remember that two of the last three Ryder Cups have come down to the difference of a point or half point, which is one putt missed or the difference between a chip going ten feet past or costing up to the hole. The margins are miniscule.