After the second practice day at Valhalla, Ky., Nick Faldo gave the clearest indication yet of his intended selections for Friday’s intriguing opening foursomes.
Watching his prospective pairs practice together, Faldo seems to be leaning towards picking players of the same nationality together.
On Tuesday, Irishman and team talisman Padraig Harrington played with his Northern Irish friend Graeme McDowell, Englishmen Ian Poulter and Justin Rose joined forces, as did countrymen Paul Casey and Oliver Wilson.
The Swedes, Henrik Stenson and Robert Karlsson, found themselves together, and the Spanish maestros, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Sergio Garcia, also took the time to study each other’s game.
The only exception to this rule was Englishman Lee Westwood, who teed off with Soren Hansen of Denmark.
Many in the media have taken this to be Faldo’s likely Friday pairings, and there may be some truth to this. Certainly, Poulter and Rose look destined to partner up—considering the long-time friendship the two neighbours have.
Equally, Harrington and McDowell can be seen as a probable partnership, as the three-time major winner takes the Ryder Cup rookie under his wing.
Elsewhere, however, some of the pairings look less permanent. Lee Westwood is likely to be involved in almost all rounds of the competition, and as a result will likely be frequently played with Sergio Garcia—another indispensible member of the team.
El Nino and Westwood have a strong Ryder Cup record together, and as two key members of Europe’s team, will form a critical partnership.
Equally, the pairing of the two Swedes, Stenson and Karlsson, looks unlikely to last. Both men are very different characters—Stenson outgoing and with a keen sense of humour, Karlsson more introverted—and their contrasting styles are unlikely to be compatible.
Expect Stenson to line up alongside the jovial Jimenez, as Karlsson finds company in another demure Scandinavian, Soren Hansen.
The problem for Faldo, however, is that he can only choose four of his pairings for Friday morning’s foursomes, and another four for the afternoon’s fourballs. As a result, some players (four, to be exact) will have to miss out each time.
The Englishman has to balance two key problems—getting points on the board, and getting his rookies some crucial match experience before Sunday’s vital singles (where every man is involved).
Faldo is not one for sentiment, however, and will doubtless look to put his strongest side out on the first day. Nevertheless, the length and physical toll of Valhalla’s 7 496-yard layout will doubtless force the 55-year-old to mix and match his afternoon pairings more than he might wish.
As a result, expect the Friday pairings to look something like this:
Morning Foursomes: Harrington & McDowell, Garcia & Westwood, Stenson & Jimenez, Rose & Poulter.
Afternoon Fourballs: Casey & Harrington, Karlsson & Stenson, Garcia & Westwood, Rose & Poulter.
This will leave both Soren Hansen and Oliver Wilson as the only two European players not to play on the first day. With a day off from competition, Faldo will hope both men will be able to make a positive impact on Friday’s matches. Unlike his other marquee names, however, he just won't trust them enough to pick them regularly.
Foursomes (one ball, alternate shots) is a format that plays into the hands of the consistent pair. As a result, the groupings mentioned above all consist of players that can drive the ball straight with regularity, but also have solid short games.
The most important factor, however, is chemistry—and so Faldo will be keen to ensure all his prospective players get on well. Neither Rose nor Poulter are particularly accurate players, but their close personal relationship should ensure they get the nod, even if their current form is no better than other team members.
The other three pairings, however, are arguably the best Europe can muster.
As for the fourballs (each player plays own ball, best score counts), chemistry is less important, and weaker players can be paired with stronger players with fewer consequences.
Faldo will look to put some of his strongest players together, with the intention of blowing the US away from a barrage of birdies, but he will also give the likes of Karlsson and Casey the chance to prove their worth.
Both men’s games are arguably better suited to fourballs (where their inconsistent shots will be less important), and both men are capable of hitting a "hot streak" that may well win their side crucial holes.
If Wilson and Hansen are to play at all on Friday, you imagine it will be in the fourballs.
Ideally, Faldo will be hoping to pick up at least five of the eight points available on the first day, establishing Europe’s dominance from the beginning. That way he will be in a position to give everyone who has yet to play the opportunity to do so, ensuring all 12 team members are prepared for Sunday’s singles.
That’s the plan, anyway.