At Ryder Cups, numbers often go out of the window. Form, world ranking, major wins – few of these tend to count for much in golf’s most gladiatorial combat. This year, even the date has performed a numerical conjuring trick. Merchandise, signs, and official records, will refer to the tournament, taking place three quarters of the way through 2021, as the 2020 Ryder Cup.
Numbers have suffused the teams’ preparations too. Much of the media has focused on America’s strength on paper. The team’s average world ranking of 8.9 is a historic low, their team including 8 of the world’s top ten. Europe only have one, albeit it the world number one, Jon Rahm. It’s true in part that ‘twas ever thus. Every two years, we seem to be, in the eyes of some commentators, perched on the precipice of a period of perpetual American dominance. It hasn’t happened recently, and it may not this time. But, the odds against Europe winning, against a hostile American crowd on a favourable track in Whistling Straits, look steep. Not impossibly steep though, and team Europe need look no further than the the feats of Europe’s Solheim Cup team, who silenced the crowd to claim a brilliant victory three weeks ago.
As well as that triumph, the Europeans have been focusing on other numbers. The men in blue will walk out bearing bags stitched with a number to mark their order of appearance.
Lee Westwood was the 118th man to represent Europe in the Ryder Cup. The last man to qualify, Austrian debutant Bernd Wiesberger, will be number 164. The idea is to inspire pride in the rareness of the achievement. More men have been to space than have represented Europe at the Ryder Cup. More men have climbed Everest.
It would be overstating things, particularly in the context of Europe’s recent dominance, to describe the task facing the holders as Everest. But nonetheless, retaining or winning the Ryder Cup in 2021 will be a precarious, challenging climb.
America’s strength is not only in numbers, but in youth. Six of the Americans are rookies, and if this seems at first like a disadvantage, then a recent look at rookie history might disabuse the notion. When America last won the Ryder Cup, at Hazeltine in 2016, a rookie, Brooks Koepka, was their best performer, earning 3 points out of 4. The other rookie, Ryan Moore claimed 2 points from three matches, while top points scorer Patrick Reed won 3.5 out of 5 in only his second Ryder Cup. America’s 2021 debutants, without the scars of previous defeats, look poised to win a similar bounty for their side. In Fedex Cup winner Patrick Cantlay and Harris English, two of America’s rookies are, along with Rahm, the form players in world golf, two of only three men gaining at least 2 strokes per round in the last three months. Daniel Berger is not far behind, and could, if he plays enough matches, become one of the event’s stars. Collin Morikawa and Xander Schauffele are two of the game’s most consistent performers on big stages, with steady, all-round games that should suit foursomes in particular. The final rookie, Scottie Scheffler is huge off the tee, and can be a threat in fourball, but may not have to play too much given the riches available to Steve Stricker, the American Captain.
By contrast, the European team is a bastion of experience. The problem is that some of its experienced stars will have to rely on that experience over recent form. Mr 118, Lee Westwood is playing his 11th Ryder Cup, but has been out of form since a scintillating start to the season. Tommy Fleetwood comes in off the back of a Ryder Cup debut for the ages in Paris, but has struggled at times this season. Other second timers would benefit from coming in with better form or look like imperfect fits for Whistling Straits. It is hard to see any of Harrington’s picks matching the extraordinary impact of Leona Maguire at the Solheim Cup.
Europe best chance may be to rely on its top stars to play five matches. It is a tall order on a monstrous golf course, but a decision that, if they get in the zone and get a feel for the greens, could pay dividends. Jon Rahm, who took down Tiger Woods in singles on debut in Paris will be a talisman. Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia have both the talent and the experience to star, while Paul Casey, seemingly destined to go forever under the radar, could be another star in his fifth Ryder Cup. Rookie Victor Hovland, with a smile to drown out the American crowd, is the second highest ranked European and likely to be key to their victory hopes, possibly striking up a daunting partnership with McIlroy. Shane Lowry could be another who needs to go on a momentum building roll to give Europe a good chance.
Europe will expect to have an advantage in team cohesion. They don’t have a Brooks and Bryson sideshow to distract, and the side is full of players like Tyrell Hatton and Fleetwood with the charisma to rise to the demands of team golf. That category brings us, inevitably, also to the postman, Ian Poulter, the man who embodies Ryder Cup momentum. His putter will have to be as hot as it has been on Tour recently, but he will as always be doing his utmost to fire up the European side. If Europe faces a deficit into Sunday, it would be no surprise to see Poulter going out early, as he did in Medinah in the second singles match, to try and inject some fire into European veins and spark a comeback.
That is not to say that Europe will not have a monopoly on players enjoying themselves. Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth is the American buddy movie taken to the golf course. Perpetually nice Tony Finau, fresh from a recent win (and memorable ode) seems like the type everyone would want to play with.
Ultimately, perhaps the biggest luxury the US has is that if it struggles early on, Stricker appears to have more possible pairings to unleash than his opposite number Padraig Harrington.
So, without further ado, here are some foolhardy predictions.
16-12 USA. Europe will keep in touch over the first two days by rolling out the big guns for plenty of matches but it will need a special singles performance to overcome the Americans on home soil. This feels like a bridge too far for a slightly ageing European team against a home US side bursting with brilliant youngsters.
Top points scorer – Europe
Jon Rahm. The Spaniard is in red hot form and has a fine match play record, becoming just the second man to defeat Tiger Woods in Ryder Cup singles in 2018.
Top points scorer – USA
Justin Thomas is a team golf stud, and has an established partnership with Jordan Spieth that should be a strong source of points for the USA.
If Europe retain the trophy, then Hovland is likely to be one of the stars and if he wins on the first morning, he could well play all five. But, given the predicted score, it makes more sense to hedge on an American. Cantlay is the obvious choice here, and with better form, Collin Morikawa would be tempting to back, but Xander Schauffele, likely to play plenty with Cantlay, could sneak in as the man to beat