2018 Ryder Cup Preview & Predictions
The 42nd staging of the biennial genial golfing grudge match between the leading professional players of Europe and their American cousins breaks new ground, taking place in France over the spectacular L'Albatross course at Le Golf National near the Frenc
With the small gold cup firmly in the grip of the USA, Europe may have its work cut out to regain the coveted trophy.
The Ryder Cup, one of world sport’s most coveted events, three days of gripping, head-to-head match play golf between the finest professional players the USA and Europe can muster. It captures the imagination not only of fans across those two continents but further afield too, an electric atmosphere on course, high-drama on TV, the emotions and nerves of players and watchers alike stretched to breaking point, on a par with the Masters and the Open Championship. However, it’s a different animal though to run-of-the-mill stroke play events. Quite unlike the Majors, the format of the biennial Ryder Cup is exclusively match-play. Players not only playing for themselves but primarily for their playing partners and their teams, and all without a penny piece in prize money on offer. Pride and two-year’s worth of transatlantic bragging rights are what it’s all about.
The 42nd Ryder Cup takes place over Le Golf National course near the French capital, France, only the second occasion the European event has been staged outside Great Britain and Ireland. Up to 50,000 fans, each day from both sides of the Atlantic will gear-up for a colourful and combative three days of competition. Three practice days will also attract sell-out galleries, and TV coverage beamed to almost a billion people in 180 countries worldwide.
Going into Paris, 2018 and the 42nd Ryder Cup, USA Team leads the series with 26 victories to Europe’s 13, but that only tells a fraction of the story.
The Ryder Cup was becoming everything its founder ever imagined, and more, the high-drama of golf. Mano a mano, close competition, but the event was fast growing a hugely successful event commercially, with European nations bidding for the pride and privilege of hosting the event.
Arguably, the most dramatic Ryder Cup of all came in 1997 at Valderrama in Spain. Under the captaincy of the late, great Seve Ballesteros, Europe emerged victorious, against all the odds.
Indeed, despite losing out at Brookline in 1999, European Team had become much more competitive, indeed dominant, winning threein-a-row between 2002 and 2006, and again from 2010 to 2014.
However, USA Team goes into the Paris match as holders of the Ryder Cup, having won convincingly, 17-11, under the canny captaincy of Davis Love III, who outwitted his opposite number, a somewhat hapless Darren Clarke. Love’s players, shorn of the injured Tiger Woods, but with a blend of experience – Phil Mickelson and Zach Johnson - and youthful exuberance - Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka, the Stars & Stripes were flying proudly at Hazeltine.
All of which brings us to the French connection, the much-anticipated debut of the Ryder Cup in France. Tickets sold out months in advance, players from both sides of the Atlantic jockeying for position and a place on their respective teams. Europe led by Thomas Bjørn, the visitors and holders, the USA by Jim Furyk.
Each team has its selection process, a
combination of selection on merit and captains’ picks, as captain attempt to field the players in form alongside those with a proven Ryder Cup track record.
Furyk’s first eight players will be automatic qualifiers - the leading eight on the PGA TOUR money list after the BMW Championship. Bjørn’s European outfit comprises the first four players from the European Points List, followed by the leading four players from the World Points List and completed by four wild-card selections.
With the stage set for three days of intensive, high-octane golf, the event comprises 28 total matches, each of which is worth one point. There are no extra holes in Ryder Cup matches, should the two sides be tied after 18 holes, each side earns a halve point.
The first team to reach 14½ points from the 28 available wins the Ryder Cup outright and, if the match ends in a 14-14 draw, the team holding the Ryder Cup, USA Team, will retain the tiny golf trophy.
Built on agricultural land since Louis XIV and the Château de Versailles, when it was one of the areas where wheat was farmed, Le Golf National was designed by architects Hubert Chesneau and Robert Von Hagge who created a spectacular and spectator-friendly stadium course, a venue that has cut its teeth by hosting the prestigious Open de France since 1991.
Even though the Ryder Cup is condensed into an intense three-day competition window, and towards the end of a long gruelling season, the format demands not only skill but strength, stamina and courage too. Culminating in all 12 players of either side going head-to-head in Sunday singles golf, winner takes all as the drama unfolds.
There is little between the two non-playing captains, Thomas Bjørn and Jim Furyk. The Dane is 47 years old, one year younger than his opposite number, who turned professional in 1992, a year ahead of his European rival.
Furyk has one Major title to his name, the 2003 U.S. Open. Bjørn has come close, runner-up twice in the Open Championship, once in the U.S. PGA and has 15 European Tour wins to his name, earning some US$25m, compared to the US$67m his opposite number has banked.
Furyk has far greater Ryder Cup playing experience compared to Bjørn, nine appearances including two wins. The Dane just has three with two wins, but Bjørn has been a European vice-captain on four occasions, arguably the better preparation for what lies ahead in the Parisan suburbs later this month.
Ryder Cup captaincy is a fusion of art and science, man management, motivation and selection of players for four-balls and foursomes, as well as the crucial nomination of players in order of play for the Sunday singles, judgment of who plays well with whom, which players are either full of or lacking in confidence.
Also, even before it all gets underway, each man selects his four captains’ picks, whichever skipper performs best against most or all of these criteria is likely to fill the Ryder Cup with the best French Champagne come to the evening of Sunday 30th September within a decent driving distance of the Palace of Versailles.
But, whilst captaincy is crucial, playing is paramount. Both teams look set to comprise a blend of battle-hardened experience and those with the fresh, fearless fun of playing Ryder Cup golf for the very first time.
With final standings and subsequent automatic qualification for European Team yet to be decided when on 2nd September the rankings will reveal the identities of eight of the 12-man European team. As things stand, Francesco Molinari, Justin Rose, Tyrrell Hatton and Fleetwood make up the four qualifiers on the European Points List, joined by Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Alex Noren and Paul Casey qualified through the World Points List. Then four spots left, most probably drawn from Thorbjørn Olesen, Ian Poulter, Russell Knox, Eddie Pepperell, Sergio García, Matthew Fitzpatrick and Henrik Stenson, who is a major doubt through injury and loss of form.
Molinari, without question the best player in the world throughout the summer of 2018 will enjoy the ‘Sheet anchor’ role for European Team. World #4 Justin Rose standing foursquare alongside the Italian. McIlroy, who in his younger, less experienced days referred to the biennial match-up against the USA as little more than, “an exhibition match,” forming the foundations of the European 12.
Given the Ryder Cup experience of both García and Poulter, both can expect a call from captain Bjørn sometime this month, enabling them to prepare, physically and mentally, for the challenge they both revel in, leaving the exciting-but-inexperienced Olesen and Stenson - if fit - to face the big guns of the USA.
Much transatlantic talk is of Tiger Woods, now 11th on the points list on the PGA TOUR and on a run of form few thought they would ever see again from the 14-time Major winner. However, given a lacklustre Ryder Cup record and serious doubts concerning the once-great man’s ability to last the pace over 18 holes, the required 36 in one day on Thursday and/or Friday looks certain to see his role cemented only as a non-playing vice-captain.
However, notwithstanding the Tiger teaser, Furyk’s USA Team looks, if not invincible, then undoubtly irresistible, world numbers one, two and three - Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and recent PGA Championship winner Brooks Koepka leading the cavalry charge of American big guns. With Jordan Spieth and Ricky Fowler backing up, Masters champions Bubba Watson and Patrick Reed in the automatic eight.
That leaves Furyk with, not only the Woods dilemma but also whether to take a chance
on an out-of-form - but Ryder Cup stalwart - Phil Mickelson, the ‘Steady Eddie’ Matt Kuchar, ‘Mr. Dependable,’ Zach Johnson, fiveappearances but only once on the winning team, 2012 U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson, or the two relative exotically-named rookies, Bryson de Chambeau and Zander Schauffele.
Whatever the respective cast from each side of the Atlantic Ocean, the dramatis personae looks so evenly balanced, both in terms of past results and experience and playing ability in a pressure cooker environment. The stage is indeed set for pure theatre throughout.
Also, like most major sporting occasions, the difference between victory and defeat will come down to small margins - a putt missed here, a hole lost there, a chip in from the fairway to clinch a crucial hole, a bunker found due to final day adrenaline pumping through the veins.
On balance, USA Team looks marginally stronger and runs deeper than its European counterpart. However, Europe is playing at home, having prepared Le Golf National - as it is perfectly entitled to do - prepared to suit their style. Home advantage bellowing out from the massive galleries lining L’Albatross course throughout, and a stronger team ethic that is traditionally there in USA Team, traditionally 12 individuals rather than a team.
All of which leaves the respective captains, and their respective backroom teams, selecting the right partnerships on Friday and Saturday. The correct order of play come Sunday, gaining, and maintaining the momentum in a contest that can ebb and flow like the restless tide.
Then there is the role ‘Lady Luck’ might play, an injury here, a lipped-out putt there, the bounce of the ball, any one of some unintentional actions with unintended consequences.
It’s a tough one - some might say, ‘too close to call’, but on balance, and setting aside home advantage, the strength in depth of the USA, the fact either an outright win or a tie would spell victory. Moreover, the canny captaincy of Furyk over the potentially temperamental Bjørn might just see USA Team hold on to the small, but invaluable gold cup.
European Team Captain Thomas Bjorn speaks to the media during press conference prior to the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club
Jim Furyk the Captain of theUSA Team talks with the media during the 2018 Ryder Cup Press Conference atBellerive Country Club
US Ryder Cup Team golfers (left to right) Brian Harman, Kevin Kisner and captainJim Furyk practice in July at Le Golf National ahead of the Ryder Cup