The pick: Europe 17, United States 11

    Writing from Medinah, Illinois
    Thursday, September 27, 2012

    Finally, golf.
    Finally, after about seven years in the making, the 39th Ryder Cup Match becomes serious on Friday morning at Medinah Country Club. And, U.S. captain Davis Love III’s wonderful sentiment aside, this is a match neither team wants to lose.
    The Americans have lost six of the last eight Cups. The Europeans have an uncanny way of taking individual matches that appear to favor the U.S. going in, and build momentum over the first two days that the Americans can’t overcome on Singles Sunday. With 1999 at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., the notable exception.
    Unless Love has a feeling come Saturday night, it’s hard to imagine anything different happening this time. Often, the Friday morning matches set a tone that rings true through the closing ceremony, when the Europeans smile and the Americans cry.
    The action starts with foursomes, which Americans call alternate shot and rarely play. The Europeans don’t play it on their Tour either, but they have a way with the matches, and the records of Friday morning’s eight players lean heavily toward the visitors taking a lead.
    With the Americans listed first and Ryder Cup foursome records for all, here are the four matches:
    Match 1: Jim Furyk (3-5-2 in foursomes) and Brandt Snedeker (rookie) vs. Rory McIlroy (1-1-1) and Graeme McDowell (1-1-1).
    This might be the best U.S. chance for a victory in the morning. Snedeker’s as hot as they come, straight out of his Tour Championship / FedEx Cup sweep. Furyk is a fierce competitor. However, McIlroy is the world’s top-ranked player, and fellow Northern Irishman McDowell is the equal of Furyk as a gritty competitor. This has the feel of a halve going in.
    Match 2: Keegan Bradley (rookie) and Phil Mickelson (2-5-4) vs. Sergio Garcia (8-0-1) and Luke Donald (6-0-0).
    Garcia is both a player and an agent provocateur in the Ryder Cup, and Donald is Chicago’s European representative. Both have exemplary records in foursomes. Mickelson? Not so much. The key for him is to make sure Bradley doesn’t get flustered if Garcia channels his inner Seve and the Europeans win a few holes early. Europe is the heavy favorite.
    Match 3: Jason Dufner (rookie) and Zach Johnson (1-2-1) vs. Lee Westwood (7-2-4) and Francesco Molinari (rookie).
    European captain Jose Maria Olazabal pairs his rookie with a gritty veteran, and they end up playing against the least experienced American team. Europe has to be favored here, but Johnson won a Masters when nobody expected him to. The U.S. would be happy with a halve.
    Match 4: Tiger Woods (4-7-1) and Steve Stricker (1-1-0) vs. Ian Poulter (2-1-0) and Justin Rose (2-0-0).
    There could be fireworks in the morning finale if Woods, who conked a spectator with a drive on the 18th hole in Thursday’s practice round, keeps it in the fairway. He and Rose have the same teacher (Sean Foley), so there are no secrets there. Woods has been paired with Stricker more than anyone else in Ryder and Presidents cups, so there’s a comfort factor there. Poulter is the wild card. Logic says Europe, 1 up, or a halve.
    The summary: Expect Europe to get 2.5 or 3 points in the morning, putting the Americans in catch-up mode.
    The overall prediction for the Cup: Europe 17, U.S. 11.
    – Tim Cronin


Poulter and the British press boil over

    Writing from Medinah, Illinois
    Wednesday, September 26, 2012

    In the United States there is the first amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of the press.
    In the United Kingdom there is no such guarantee. There is, however, Fleet Street, that bastion of bluster where some great and not-so-great newspapers are (and sometimes once were) headquartered, and where, if there is no news, there is no chance of blushing while making some up.
    That explains the line of questioning in the press tent on Wednesday after England’s Ian Poulter said he wanted to go out against the American team and “kill ‘em.”
    Blood in the water for the London scribes!
    Rory McIlroy, who followed Poulter into the tent, was asked if he was thinking like Poulter.
    “I think kill is a little strong,” McIlroy said. “I’d like to beat them.”
    Then came the suggestion that McIlroy, the world’s top-ranked player since winning the PGA Championship, was a “marked man.”
    “I’ve never heard that term before in golf,” said Phil Mickelson, stickhandling like Medinah member Stan Mikita. “Rory a marked man? That’s the first I’ve heard of it.”
    To Mickelson, this Ryder Cup is all about love and kisses.
    “The animosity is gone because we know each other well,” Mickelson said, throwing verbal rose petals. And as he left the podium, he said to the English-accented reporter who asked about the target on McIlroy’s back, “Nice try, though.”
    Both questioner and answerer laughed.

    The $11.4-million Man

    Brandt Snedeker is, if not the hottest player on the American team, the newly richest. That title comes from last weekend’s heroics in Atlanta, where he won the Tour Championship at East Lake and captured the FedEx Cup in the process. The payday: $11,440,000.
    “It’s been a crazy couple days, to say the least,” Snedeker said Wednesday. “I beat some of the best players in the world last weekend. I feel my game is exactly where it needs to be. Friday morning can’t get here quick enough.”
    Snedeker is one of four Ryder Cup rookies on the U.S. team. The Americans have lost six of the last eight Ryder Cups, but Snedeker pays no mind to that. He has his eyes on the cashless prize.
    “The biggest thing is not to put too much pressure on ourselves because there are so many guys in that room that want to win it for Davis,” Snedeker said. “To play a Ryder Cup on home – on U.S. soil with him as your captain, you don’t want to let him down.
    “He’s done everything the right way his whole life. If anyone on this planet deserves to win a Ryder Cup on U.S. soil, he does. So now our job is not to mess it up. We’re going to try to have as much fun as we can and make him look like a genius all week.”

    McIlroy, Woods and Sunday

    No. 1 vs. No. 2. Dan Jenkins called those meetings in college football “poll bowls.”
    Until the Bowl Championship Series came along, they were never guaranteed.
    They aren’t guaranteed in golf, either. With Rory McIlroy No. 1 and Tiger Woods No. 2, the prospect of a match-play meeting in Sunday’s singles play is mouth-watering.
    But it’s not guaranteed. In the Ryder Cup, each captain submits his lineup, like a baseball manager. Davis Love III won’t know where Jose Maria Olazabal will put his players in the order of play, and vice versa, in any of the five sessions.
    For singles, with 12 spots, the odds are against such a matchup. Wednesday, Love sounded more interested in the prospect than Olazabal.
    “We’ll have to see what happens,” Olazabal said. “I know you’re eager to see that match, but I think the Ryder Cup is more important than that single match.”
    Love has played in the U.S. vs. Rest of World Presidents’ Cup, where such matches can be arranged.
    “It would be neat to sit up here and match ‘em up,” Love said. “It would be pretty good theater. It would be fun. I don’t think I’m going to be the first captain to go to the other team’s room and try to rig the pairings. But it would be fun to watch, that’s for sure.”

    Around Medinah

    If you’re wondering how many people are cramming into Medinah’s grounds, the estimated number varies between 40,000 and 45,000 a day. PGA of America officials don’t want to say, but the first total is the number of general admission tickets that have been sold for each practice and competition day. The other 5,000 are the estimated number of tickets for the 77 corporate tents, and the other 20 equivalent tents, including three “Captains Club” tents and hospitality in the clubhouse and pro shop. That makes the six-day total from 240,000 to 270,000. The White Sox should draw so well for a homestand. ... There will be a flyover during Thursday’s opening ceremony, which will likely entail the shifting of flight patterns for planes inbound to O’Hare, about 10 miles to the east. On Wednesday, with a light east wind, jets, jumbo and otherwise, were flying over the course all day. ... The European team wore shirts with the Chicago skyline outlined on the front on Wednesday, the second attempt in as many days to win the crowd over. Tuesday, they wore the bright orange associated with the Bears and University of Illinois.
    – Tim Cronin


It's Luke Donald's kind of town

    Writing from Medinah, Illinois
    Wednesday, September 26, 2012

    It’s the most unusual home-course advantage in Ryder Cup history.
    Luke Donald lives about 20 miles from Medinah Country Club. A member at Conway Farms Golf Club in Lake Forest, he breezes in and plays Medinah No. 3 a couple of times a year.
    He tied for third in the 2006 PGA at Medinah. He knows enough of the course to know where not to hit it.
    This week, he’s the hometown player on the visiting team. Whether that will give him an advantage in the decibel wars expected beginning Friday remains to be seen.
    “The people of Chicago are very friendly,” Donald said. “They get raucous, they get loud, but they do it in a good spirit.”
    Donald clearly has never been to the United Center when the Detroit Red Wings are visiting the Blackhawks. Blood is more likely to flow than the milk of human kindness. Some Ryder Cups have gotten that way as well. This one? It’s too early to say, but Donald fancies that it will come down to what golf tournaments always come down to.
    “It’s about putting the ball in the right place,” Donald said. “The greens here are fast and slopey. I think that’s the key to this golf course if you want to make a lot of birdies.”
    U.S. captain Davis Love III has set the course up for birdies, with the shortest rough this side of Augusta National. Donald has slipped from No. 1 in the world rankings to third, behind teammate Rory McIlroy and potential foe Tiger Woods, chiefly because he hasn’t been able to close the deal in majors. Instead, and the most recent example was the Tour Championship, he starts slow and finishes strong. A final-round 67 brought him into a tie for third at East Lake.
    This week, however, plays into a Donald strength. He’s an excellent team player, with an 8-2-1 record in four Ryder Cups, with a 6-0 record in alternate shot, what the Europeans call foursomes play. He could pair with Ian Poulter, whom he took for a few quid in Tuesday’s practice round.
    “It’s always pleasing when you can take cash out of Poulter’s wallet,” Donald said. “A few moths fell out.”
    Donald’s Chicago connection came about via Northwestern, which in turn came about only because he couldn’t get into Stanford.
    “Wally Goodwin was the coach at Stanford, and the former coach at Northwestern, and when I was rejected by Stanford, Wally pointed me towards Northwestern,” Donald said. “I made a visit, and really liked what he saw.”
    Donald excelled as a Wildcats player, hired on coach Pat Goss as his coach as well – Goss, clad in purple, was unmistakeable walking with orange-shirted Donald in the first practice round – and married a Chicago girl.
    “I’ve been fortunate to travel around most of America, visit most of the big cities and some of the smaller ones, and I always get drawn back to Chicago,” Donald said. “The people are welcoming and friendly. I just love the culture of Chicago. It’s a sporting town, which appeals to me.
    “I think the city uses the lake in a great way. You feel like you’re almost on sea or an ocean. There are great restaurants, great museums. It just feels very comfortable and easy to live, a place I’ve come to really enjoy.”
    Donald said if his team wasn’t playing golf this week, he’d take them on a tour of Lincoln Park for a few beers, baseball at Wrigley Field, then downtown to see the sights: Michigan Avenue, Buckingham Fountain, the Bean in Millennium Park. But he also said he considers himself 100 percent British.
    “Through and through,” Donald said. “I’ve reaped the benefits of the college system. It’s helped my golf. But I have a close relationship with my country.”
    Come Sunday, the European team will be wearing blue to honor Seve Ballesteros, the dashing Spaniard who helped bring the Ryder Cup to a fever pitch. The Americans – at least fans have been asked to – are expected to wear red. That’s perfect for Donald, the old Wildcat. In regular tournaments, he’ll always wear purple at least once to honor the alma mater. Maybe the Donald fans in the house of 40,000 should do the same.
    – Tim Cronin


Let the orgy begin

    Writing from Medinah, Illinois
    Tuesday, September 25, 2012

    The gallery thronged Medinah Country Club on Tuesday, confirming the notion that even Ryder Cup practice is a big deal.
    It must be. Otherwise, 400 people, much less 40,000, wouldn’t get out of bed at an early hour to watch Peter Hanson play golf.
    But there he was on the first tee at mid-morning, and battalions of fans followed him and his cohorts, including Luke Donald – Chicago’s very own European Ryder Cupper – and Ian Poulter. He was difficult to tell from the others, since the team was decked out in orange shirts to the last man.
    Tuesday was the first of three days of practice for the Seinfeld of sports events, a three-day bacchanalia that decides absolutely nothing beyond which group of 12 guys were better this week.
    That, however, is enough to sell out all the tickets, plus 77 corporate tents, plus several others that defy mere numbering – NBC Sports Group has a palace on a hill overlooking the 13th tee – or are located in permanent structures, including the clubhouse and the pro shop, for the equivalent of 97 super suites in all.
    All for a 15-inch trophy topped by the likeness of Samuel Ryder’s personal pro, Abe Mitchell.
    And the golf world, which revolves around Medinah this week, has Jack William Nicklaus to thank for turning the Ryder Cup from a sleepy exhibition into the biggest thing this side of a certain April week in Augusta.
    Nicklaus, invariably the smartest man in the room, told Lord Darby in the late 1970s that the only way to make the Ryder Cup competitive was to add players from continental Europe to those from the British Isles who were clobbered every two years.
    Darby, then the president of the British PGA, convinced his side Nicklaus’ idea had merit, and within a few years, thanks to the emergence of Seve Ballesteros, then Bernhard Langer, the Americans had their hands full. What was a biannual walkover became a competition.
    That was hammered home to Nicklaus and the rest of the American side at what was then called PGA National Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., in 1983. Two years earlier, the strongest American team in history – how would you like Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Hale Irwin, Johnny Miller, Lee Trevino, Ray Floyd, Larry Nelson, Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite as your first nine to pick from, with Jerry Pate, Bill Rogers and Bruce Lietzke just hanging around? –  crushed Europe, 18.5-9.5, with a 7-1 second day the key. Stunningly, Ballesteros wasn’t picked for the European squad, since he’d played most of the year on the PGA Tour.
    Ballesteros was back in 1983, collecting a miracle half-point against Fuzzy Zoeller, even as Lanny Wadkins, with the greatest 60-yard sand wedge in history, was doing the same against Jose Maria Canizares – it has to be the best one struck with lightning flashing in the distance, with U.S. captain Nicklaus kissing the divot, and then nicknaming Wadkins “wheelbarrow,” for the, er, gumption he needed to hit that shot at that moment. Wadkins’ master stroke to secure the halve gave the U.S. a 14.5-13.5 victory, and the game was afoot.
    If there is a Ryder Cup rout these days, it is the Europeans authoring it. This week’s visitors have won six of the last eight in this turkey shoot, including at Oak Hill in 1995 and Oakland Hills in 2004. The last American win in Europe came at The Belfry in 1993. Things have been batty since.
    They could well stay that way. The eight Americans with Ryder Cup experience are 41-59-16 in their matches. The 11 returning Europeans are 60-32-18.
    The three most experienced Americans are Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk. Mickelson is 11-17-6, with a 4-4 mark in singles. Woods is 13-14-2, but 4-1-1 in singles. Furyk is 8-15-4, and 4-2-1 in singles.
    Woods, never thought of as the ultimate team player, called the European domination during his time – his only Ryder Cup team victory came in 1999 at The Country Club – his fault on Tuesday.
    “I am responsible for that,” Woods said. “I didn’t earn the points I was put out there for. I was out there for five sessions each time, and I didn’t go 5-0 on our side. I’m part of that, and that’s part of being a team. I needed to go get my points, and I didn’t do that. Hopefully I can do it this week, and the other guys can do the same, and we can get the ball rolling.”
    For Woods, that was a remarkable admission, the first big surprise of the week. Perhaps there will be others.
    – Tim Cronin


U.S. keeps Junior Ryder Cup

    Tuesday, September 25, 2012

    The big-boy Ryder Cup has generally been the province of Europe of late, but not the Junior Ryder Cup. The co-ed teenage version went to the U.S. for the third straight time on Tuesday, the Americans dominating the dozen singles matches to score a 14.5-9.5 victory over their new friends from Europe at Olympia Fields Country Club.
    The singles margin was 7.5-4.5, and it was the ladies who carried the day for the American side, winning five of their six matches. Casie Cathrea, Karen Chung, Casey Danielson, Alison Lee, and Esther Lee emerged victorious. The six U.S. boys only picked up 2.5 of a possible six points. Among those defeated: Beau Hossler, the 17-year-old Californian who led the U.S. Open for a time this June. He dropped a 3 and 1 decision to Dominic Foos of Germany. Cameron Champ halved his match with Toby Tree of England, whole Robby Shelton and Gavin Hall won their matches.
    The match from Monday halted by darkness was resumed at 8 a.m., when Europe’s Matthias Schwab and Quirine Eljkenbloom rallied from 1-down to score a half-point by squaring the match with Americans Gavin Hall and Alison Lee. That made the score U.S. 7, Europe 5 entering the singles matches.
    Wednesday at Medinah, the players will have a nine-hole “friendship match,” Americans and Europeans paired together.

    – Tim Cronin