Home advantage for a largely inexperienced US team against European passion will be one of the compelling storylines in this week’s Ryder Cup between two star-studded teams at Whistling Straits.
The Americans will have six Ryder Cup rookies on their 12-man team who will strive to reclaim the trophy against a close-knit and battle-tested European side that have mostly dominated the biennial match-play competition over the last four decades.
Despite a slew of new faces, the US does not lack talent given an average world ranking of ninth compared to 30th for Europe, but American struggles to play as a unit at the Ryder Cup have become an all too familiar refrain.
“The fact that the Americans have only won five times in 38 years has us all wondering can this juggernaut of an American team … beat that team,” NBC Sports golf analyst and former U.S. Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger said on a conference call.
“Because (Europe is) going to show up as a bonded team, and our guys are going to show up — I don’t know how they’re going to show up. They’re going to show up as the best players.”
World No. 2 Dustin Johnson, playing in a team-high fifth Ryder Cup, headlines a U.S. squad whose rookies include British Open winner Collin Morikawa, Olympic champion Xander Schauffele, and PGA Tour Player of the Year Patrick Cantlay.
A possible distraction ahead of Friday’s start could be the well-documented frosty relationship between Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka, who US captain Steve Stricker has said will likely not be paired together during the three-day event.
The narrative that the Americans lack the chemistry enjoyed by Europe will likely remain a common theme this week, perhaps even more given Koepka told Golf Digest the Ryder Cup threw off his routine and that he might not be cut out for team sports.
Even if the US team is able to find the right formula and silence questions about chemistry, they will still have their work cut out against opponents who have managed to consistently form a cohesive unit and typically thrive in the team format.
“Look, I’ll believe this forever — the Europeans are bonded by blood. They’re bonded naturally. This means everything to them,” said Azinger. “It’s sad really that this American side has gotten beaten like that, but (Europe) brings an intangible with them. It’s a fact.”
‘SENSE OF FREEDOM’
Europe will have seven returning players from the 2018 team that triumphed in Paris, led by Spanish world number one Jon Rahm, Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy, and Englishman Tyrrell Hatton, their only top-20 representatives along with Norway’s Viktor Hovland.
Also in the team are Spaniard Sergio Garcia, a veteran of nine Ryder Cups and Europe’s all-time leading points scorer, and Englishman Ian Poulter, who is known as “the Postman” given his knack for delivering crucial points in the competition.
Still, despite being the defending champions and having five players with four-plus Ryder Cup appearances, Europe is again being perceived as clear underdogs due in part to the current form and lofty ranking of their opponents.
“The European side seems to take this underdog role and mentality and use it to their advantage, whether they’re playing at home or in the U.S.,” said NBC Sports analyst and former U.S. Ryder Cup player Justin Leonard.
“With that comes a sense of freedom, of well we’re not really expected to win, so let’s go out and play freely. And I think you see that time and again at every Ryder Cup.”
Europe, led by captain Padraig Harrington, undoubtedly faces a challenging task on American soil where the US has lost only four times since the matches began in 1927.
The Americans took a recent trip to Whistling Straits, a links-style layout sculpted along two miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, to get a feel for the setup but Azinger said Mother Nature could make for a much different course this week.
“If the wind blows, I think they’re going to lose any advantage, really mainly on the greens,” he said.
“Everybody can handle the wind tee to green, but on the green somehow Europe makes all those putts in the wind.”