US Open key to Ryder Cup plans
Ryder Cup captains tell James Corrigan how this week’s US Open and other majors will help them make key decisions.
James Corrigan: The next major of the season is the US Open at Oakmont [starting Thursday]. What sort of test will that pose?
Darren Clarke: A flaming brutal one.
Davis Love III: Oh boy, I’ve played two majors where five-over has won and Oakmont is one of them. It is on the brink of “sadistic”.
DC: It is. The first US Open I played was at Oakmont in 1994 and when I got there I said “what the…? How on earth do you play this place, how do you possibly win around here?” I’d never seen anything like it. Thick rough, narrow fairways, treacherous bunkers, and it feels like every green runs away from you. Christ, it’s hard.
DL: Yeah, it’s a place where you go to get your teeth kicked in. No doubt, someone will say it’s borderline fair, but majors are a test of discipline and of patience and the person who wins will not lose sight of the fact that there will be a champion on Sunday night. Sounds easy, but it isn’t.
Look at the Masters. In a few hours, Danny [Willett] went from being a really good golfer to a major winner and that takes something special. Jordan [Spieth] had a few bad shots there and people hold that up, but Danny did what he had to do, sticking to his game plan, staying disciplined and shot the lowest round of the day. That’s the kind of will you want on your Ryder Cup team, the type of player you want, the sort who is ready to step up. Darren’s lucky to have him.
DC: I am and let me assure you that Danny will build on this. Most definitely. Lee [Westwood] and I have a played a lot with him and got to know him really well and we both agree we’ve rarely seen anyone more dedicated. He’s willing to put himself in those places where it hurts if you mess it up. And that has a lot to do with it.
JC: On that note, what do you both expect from Jordan at Oakmont after his Augusta experience [where he went from being five clear at the start of the back nine to losing by three]?
DL: I have talked to him quite a bit since and he has a great attitude, but we will have to wait and see. As he says, he has to be patient and committed to his game plan. And hey, he’s 22, he does gets impatient. He can still be a kid and fall out of his routine and make mistakes. But he always learns from them and what impresses me is that when he talks it is never ‘I hope I can play well this week’, it’s ‘I’m planning on being in contention in these things for the next 20 years’. It was obviously a setback, but he has led seven out of the last eight rounds in the Masters and as Darren says, he ’s running up front and putting himself in the firing lane. Still, it is going to be interesting to watch him at Oakmont. Because this is a mental sport.
DC: If there’s any course in the world that can jump up and bite you quickly, it’s there. Oakmont feasts on any doubts. But look, this kid is so strong between the ears that I’m sure he’ll be fine.
JC: When you two watch the majors in your role as captains, do you believe they have any relevance to the match in September?
DL: In terms of points and what it means to the standings, of course. But the Ryder Cup is not hinging on Jordan hitting two in the water on the 12th on a different course, in a different state, five months before. It does make you sit up and take notice of players, though. Take Danny. In all honesty, I didn’t know that much about him. Obviously I’d seen his steady climb up the rankings, but I hadn’t watched him play before. Since then I’ve talked to Ian Poulter about him and obviously DC. Everyone knows all him about him now.
DC: Augusta clearly had resonance for me. Danny stepping up and capitalising on Jordan’s collapse was very heartening from a European point of view, not because of what happened to Jordan, but with what it meant to Danny. He’s a rookie but not really, as he’s now won a major and has that standing.
And Lee finishing in second alongside Jordan was huge, if only because of what it did to his place in the standings. If Lee makes it then he will have a chance to become the all-time leading points scorer in the Cup’s history and that just proves what an in-form Westwood means to Europe. So yes, granted, the Masters was just one week and was a long way out - but I’d be lying if it said it wasn’t pleasing for me to see.
JC: There had been so much Ryder Cup talk about the US youngsters, like Jordan, Rickie [Fowler], Patrick [Reed] coming on strong. Did Danny’s win change the narrative, as well as a 21-year-old Matt Fitzpatrick coming seventh?
DL: It’s funny, because I’d always point out that Europe had a youngster by the name of [Rory] McIlroy - and he’s not bad. Right now, Darren has a bunch of rookies in his automatic top nine, I don’t have any in my automatic top eight. But I do have a lot of on the fringes who could make it and that doesn’t bother me in the least. The level now is such that I look at these as experienced players, not rookies.
DC: I agree, but I would say there is still no pressure like Ryder Cup pressure and they will not know that until they’ve experienced it.
But saying that, I’m not sure it gets that much easier to cope with, the more you play. Over the years, we’ve seen first-timers who’ve handled the occasion better than proven veterans. You just don’t know. I like the look of our prospective rookies. I’ve always had faith in the European Tour’s ability to produce champions and this is a very good crop coming through.
JC: Sorry for asking the inevitable Tiger Woods question, but with his continued absence how do you see the likelihood of a comeback unfolding this year?
DL: I’ve spoken to him and even though he wants to return, he will not rush it for the big events and that’s right. In the past, he might come back at big, hard golf courses like, say, Akron and that didn’t do him or his game any good.
Oakmont wouldn’t be anyone’s choice to feel and play your way back in. I think back to the Wyndham Championship [last August], a regular tournament where he hadn’t played before and where he played very well. I think that’s the sort of event he needs and not just one or two, but two or three a month until he’s ready. My theory is that if he’s healthy and plays a full schedule he’s going to win tournaments. But if it’s stops and starts again, well, he won’t get any momentum.
DC: My view is that any time that Tiger is in a tournament it’s a better tournament for him simply being there and so bringing the extra focus. But all that matters now is what’s best for him. He’ll be at the Ryder Cup anyway, because he is one Davis’s assistants. And that’ll make it even more of a special week.
JC: The bookmakers have the Americans as favourites to win at Hazeltine. Do you think that is right?
DC: Most definitely! We will be the old happy underdogs again!
DL: Even if you were the prohibitive favourites, you lot would still claim to be underdogs - that’s European strategy. Look, I’m confident in my team and their ability to win. But is it right that we’re favourites after losing three in a row? We don’t have the momentum, they do, we don’t have the Cup, they do.
Maybe it’s the home-field advantage factor, but the truth is Darren and I will both tell you that it will probably be very close and will come down to a moment like Sergio [Garcia] chipping in or Jordan chipping in. We can’t control stuff like that. We can only try to have them as ready and as relaxed to play as possible.
JC: But is not that the point with the US, that your players have started to want to win the Ryder Cup too much?
DL: I’ve been using that logic the last three matches - we’re trying too hard and getting in our own way. I’ve already started with this and been talking to players such as Jordan about it. I mean, it’s great when you hear someone like him say at the start of the year that the Ryder Cup is at the very top of his priorities because you want that passion and determination.
But it’s not about making up for the previous three matches or anything like that. Do not try to be superhuman, just be yourself, play like you can, and don’t overanalyse the situation or what it means.
DC: As golfers, we all think too much. You’ve just got to go and play. You won’t achieve the result you want, if you are thinking about the result you want. You’ll see that at Oakmont.