Two years ago the United States Ryder Cup team, behind skipper Paul Azinger, was able to wrest the cup away from the European team with a five-point victory, 16 1/2 to 11 1/2. It ended a streak of three straight Euro wins, and was the first win for the Americans since 1999.
Of course, that Ryder Cup was played on home soil, at Valhalla, with a strong crowd support behind the American team.
This time around the matches are in Wales, at Celtic Manor Resort, and the U.S. team will find no such crowd backing in 2010. In fact, they are likely to find a fairly rude, hostile environment awaiting them. This advantage for the European team cannot be understated.
Corey Pavin is the captain of the U.S. squad this time around. The choice of Pavin as skipper has always been a bit of an interesting one in itself. Pavin had moderate Ryder Cup success as a player, with a 8-5-0 record in his three competitions; 1991, 1993, and 1995. Two of those teams, the '91 and the '93 teams, won the Cup.
The '91 team was similar to the '10 team in that they came into the matches having lost the last three.
Pavin has always been a quiet, reserved type of fellow. Like with his moderate Ryder Cup success, he also had limited success on the PGA Tour. One major championship (the 1995 U.S. Open) and 15 victories overall.
But similar, I suppose, to Paul Azinger, both in personality and in career success, so perhaps that was the thinking behind his choice. Azinger, of course, guided the squad to victory two years ago.
Pavin's counterpart, on the other hand, European captain Colin Montgomerie, seems born to play the role of Ryder Cup captain. Monty's own Ryder Cup record is somewhat amazing. He won 20, lost only nine and halved seven. That is 23 1/2 points. It doesn't get much better than that.
Monty also seems somewhat of a natural leader, falling right into the role of captain. His well-known emotional past, which didn't seem to help him much in majors, may be an asset in a team competition like this.
Montgomerie has not been without his critics. He alienated Nick Faldo and Sandy Lyle earlier in the year when they offered to help him with the team, and his three captain picks have been met with a lot of skepticism, especially his choice to leave the seventh ranked player in the world off his team, Paul Casey.
Europe is favored in the matches, but this simply may be a factor of "Home Field Advantage."
Both teams are somewhat young and inexperienced, and many of the veteran players have not had a lot of Ryder Cup success. In fact, on the U.S. side, only one player, Hunter Mahan, who has played in only one Ryder Cup (2008), has a winning record at this event.
Another group has limited Ryder Cup experience, Zach Johnson, Hunter Mahan, and Steve Stricker. The rookies, of which there are five, are Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson, Jeff Overton, and Matt Kuchar.
The Euro veterans include Padraig Harrington, Lee Westwood, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Ian Poulter, and Luke Donald. The inexperience comes from Ross Fisher, Peter Hanson, Martin Kaymer, Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy, Edoardo Molinari, and his brother Francesco Molinari.
The European players had great success in 2010, both on their own tour and on the PGA Tour. Players like Martin Kaymer and Ross Fisher really came into their own this year.
Lee Westwood, before a calf injury slowed him, was having the best year of his career, and seemed poised to make an assault on the No. 1 player in the world. Ian Poulter and Luke Donald both had strong years again on the PGA Tour.
But some of the Euro players are not exactly playing up to the level you'd want coming into this competition.
Padraig Harrington, the controversial captain's pick of Monty's, has not been a factor on tour in almost two years now. Graeme McDowell, the U.S, Open winner, has almost disappeared since his win in June at Pebble Beach. And even youngster Rory McIlroy, having such a great year earlier in the season, has struggled mightily the last month, and even played himself out of the Tour Championship, falling from the top 30 in the Fed Ex Cup standings.
The American team might be playing slightly better golf, overall, coming into the matches.
The two leaders, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, both of whom struggled through the summer, have each played better in recent weeks, and given the squad a little confidence.
Jim Furyk has taken a ho hum summer and vaulted to the Tour Championship title and the FedEx Cup crown.
Matt Kuchar, Zach Johnson, and Dustin Johnson have all played well this year.
There is some concern on the team, though. Youngster Rickie Fowler, ever since Pavin picked him for the team, has done nothing. Stewart Cink had one good week which got him on the team, but other than that has had a poor 2010. And Bubba Watson, having such a great year, has suddenly lost his game heading into the fall.
On paper, the advantage for the Euro squad is getting harder and harder to see. These two teams are more similar, and not always in a good way, than many may think. It may come down to other factors. Here are five factors that I think will be key in determining who lifts the cup:
1. How does the U.S. handle the pressure of the anti-American crowd at Celtic Manor?
2. Can Monty keep his emotions in check and actually use them to his advantage?
3. Can the American players who sit atop the world rankings (Woods, Mickelson, and Stricker) flex their muscles and step up an intimidate this inexperienced Euro group?
4. Which teams youngsters are going to step up? One of these kids is going to stand out. Fowler? McIlroy?
5. Can the Americans keep themselves close enough going into the singles matches? I think this might end up being the key. If the U.S. can stay within a couple points heading into the singles matches, I think they have a great shot at retaining the cup.
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