Ahead of Europe’s Ryder Cup defence at Whistling Straits, we brought together two Sky Sports golf pundits – one European and one American – to discuss everything from boisterous crowds, captain’s picks and the ongoing tit-for-tat between Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka...
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The USA are big favourites with the bookies to win back the Ryder Cup. Do you make Europe the underdogs?
Rich Beem: Tell me the last time America didn’t look good on paper? But you’ve got to have a good team atmosphere and good team chemistry and that’s probably why the Europeans play so well. The Americans do struggle with that. At Hazeltine, it was fantastic. In France, it was a completely different dynamic. We don’t seem to put it together all the time, which will give the Europeans hope.
Paul McGinley: You have to make America favourites, particularly with home advantage and the fact so many players are playing so well. Xander just won a gold medal, Morikawa is on fire... Those things combined will certainly make the Americans incredibly tough to beat, but as we know, that doesn’t always mean they are going to win.
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What can the Americans learn from their thrashing at Le Golf National in 2018?
RB: Well, we seem to get too focused on playing the golf course, rather than playing our opponents. I don’t know that to be 100 percent true, but that’s what I see. We handed out a lot of gifts in France, particularly during fourball matches. Whenever an American put it in the rough or out of play off the tee, the other one would invariably follow suit. Maybe there is a weakness strategically, with people playing for themselves too much.
PM: I don’t think there’s much to learn, just because the golf course caught them on the hop in 2018. They weren’t prepared for a tight golf course with lots of rough, and they weren’t equipped or mentally ready to play it. That was the big advantage we had at Le Golf National. But you can guarantee Steve Stricker won’t be putting in heavy rough like Thomas Bjorn did in France. The fact they are in control of the set-up gives them a slight advantage.
Does Whistling Straits favour either side?
RB: I don’t think it’s a bad course for the Europeans. It’s pretty much right there in front of you. I don’t necessarily believe it’s going to favour the Americans, other than the fact that it’s a big golf course and long. That may give us an advantage so long as we can find the fairways. Unlike Hazeltine, where literally you could hit it anywhere, there’s still a lot of danger at Whistling Straits.
PM: I agree, it’s a good course for the Europeans. If you could pick any golf course in America that would be most suited to the Europeans, it would be Kiawah Island or Whistling Straits. Just look at how many Europeans were in the top 20 at the PGA Championship when Phil Mickelson won. Also, look at the history of Whistling Straits and how many Europeans have played well there in the PGA Championships over the years. It’s certainly got a lot of nuances that we see on European-style courses. Yes, the fairways are going to be wide, but the wind whips in off Lake Michigan and you can get inclement weather. It’s also a golf course which takes a lot of learning. It’s a Pete Dye design and we know he likes to fool around with the visuals and add an intimidation factor. Put the potential for inclement weather on top of that and those are dynamics which work away from the stereotypical golf courses we see week in, week out, on the PGA Tour.
Do you think the fans will behave?
RB: It’s turning into a corporate event, and you get a lot of folks coming to the Ryder Cup who are football fans. You get a slightly different vibe. You will get some folks who are drunk and feel like being boisterous. I’m sure there will be some pretty bad behaviour on the American side, but I also heard some stuff in France so it works both ways. We just seem to be a little more vocal.
PM: The cliental is certainly becoming younger and more boisterous and alcohol fuelled. That’s just a dynamic which is happening in professional golf, including at The Open. But I think the big story at Whistling Straits revolves around the fact that Europeans, at this moment in time, are not allowed to travel and we’re unlikely to have a travel corridor between now and then. It looks like it’s going to be almost 100 percent American support, so that’s an extra thing the Europeans will have to deal with.
In your experience, how tough is it playing a Ryder Cup away from home and trying to shut out all the noise?
PM: I did it as a player in 2004 under Bernhard Langer in Detroit. It’s like going into the lion’s den and it requires a totally different mindset. In some ways there’s less pressure playing away from home, but you’ve got to use the noise against you as fuel and try to quieten the crowd down. A great example is Novak Djokovic in tennis. It’s very rare that he is the crowd favourite and yet he uses it as fuel to propel himself. That’s the mindset players will need to have playing in an away Ryder Cup.
If you were Harrington or Stricker right now, what would be keeping you awake at night?
RB: I think the anticipation of it, because it’s been an extra year of preparation. It’s probably easy to overprepare and overthink things. But when it comes to the form of players, Stricker’s got a lot of reasons to feel confident. I mean, the top six in the automatic places are in the top 10 of the world. The next four – Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed, Harris English and Patrick Cantlay – have all won at least once this year. On the European side, Harrington’s got a lot of experience he can call on. People talk about Rory’s form, but look at Ian Poulter. He struggles in the individual competition, but he is a different animal in matchplay. I think it’s the same with Rory.
PM: It’s all in the prep. Padraig was at Whistling Straits last week and he would have been getting a feel and sense of the golf course and what style of player it will suit. He’ll then be working with his statistics team to formulate potential pairings, and communicating with the players and caddies in the build-up so they can hit the ground running. But I think the most important thing for both captains is to ensure as many players are coming in with a bit of form. You don’t turn on form like a tap in the Ryder Cup. Usually players who have good Ryder Cups are coming off the back of some strong performances over the previous six weeks.
Is Phil Mickelson deserving of a wildcard?
RB: No, I don’t think so. If you look at his body of work for the entire year, it’s not great. The PGA win was the outlier. From a leadership standpoint I’d rather have him on the sidelines as a vice-captain because there are too many things which aren’t clicking. Putting is one of them and he’s awfully erratic off the tee. The performance at Royal St George’s was a little shocking because he missed the cut by a long way.
PM: I’d find it very hard to not have Mickelson on the team as a Major champion, particularly because he won on a golf course which is very similar to Whistling Straits. It plays into his creative mindset and with the big personality that he is, I think Steve Stricker will want to have him in the team.
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What about Patrick Reed – or does he come with too much baggage?
RB: I would pick Patrick Reed every day of the week. I don’t know what kind of relationship he has with Bryson, but I think you could find someone to pair him with because you know he is absolutely going to go down swinging. To me, he’s the Ian Poulter of the USA.
PM: Again, I would be very surprised if he is not on the team. You want players who can rise to the occasion and Patrick Reed is certainly one of them. He is a bit like Ian Poulter and seems to raise his game to another level in Ryder Cups. Very few players are able to do that; a lot are burdened by the pressure, but you know what you are going to get with Reed.
Assuming the rumours are true and Ian Poulter and Sergio Garcia are going to get in, who do you think will get the last pick for Team Europe?
RB: I think Shane Lowry would be a pick over Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson if he doesn’t qualify automatically. He has a sublime short game and when it comes to the Ryder Cup, you’ve got to chip and putt well and he is one of the best. But if he’s already in, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Harrington going for an in-form rookie. I think there’s enough veterans on the European side so far. Someone like Robert MacIntyre is a great shout. He would be phenomenal in foursomes because he’s got a game which is very consistent. I would seriously think about putting him on the team because his record in Majors this year is awfully strong.
PM: A lot will depend on what happens over the next four weeks. There’s a lot of ranking points available. Obviously Victor Perez was in the automatic places for a long time but he’s going in the wrong direction and should he miss out, it’s very unlikely he’ll get a pick because he’s lost form. You want players who are gaining form. Justin Rose is someone who Padraig will be keeping a close eye on, especially with his CV. If he can find some form, he will be right there at the top of the line. But I also think if Shane Lowry misses out, I’d expect him to get a pick because Padraig knows him very well and he’s a former Open champion. There’s still a lot of pieces of the jigsaw that could move. Even somebody like Matt Wallace could make a late charge, just like he did last time.
If Francesco Molinari doesn't make it, who would you pair Tommy Fleetwood with?
RB: I would probably pair him with Ian Poulter. I think the passion Ian has will drag Tommy up a little bit. Knowing Tommy as well as I do, I think Ian’s energy would get the most out of him.
PM: From all the feedback from France, the Tommy and Molinari partnership was very much developed from statistics and there was a feeling that their games and personalities blended really well at Le Golf National. And so it proved.
It’s too early to say what information Padraig is getting, but what I do know is that Tommy is a fairway and greens merchant and those are the sorts of players you want in the Ryder Cup. He’s also a popular personality and I don’t see any player having any doubts if they were asked to play with him.
Who will be the top rookie?
RB: I think Viktor Hovland. He’s an amazing player. I would be shocked if he didn’t have a fantastic Ryder Cup. I’ve always looked at Hovland as one of the last guys I would want to go up against in matchplay. His ball striking is so good and his short game has got a lot better. If you put him in some funky spots – which you can do at Whistling Straits – that’s where his imagination and talent really shine.
PM: I think Shane Lowry. With his background in matchplay, I think he will rise to the occasion. I think the golf course will really suit him, especially if there is inclement weather and a bit of breeze, which we will in all probability get at Whistling Straits. I can see Shane going on and becoming a very successful Ryder Cup player.
Finally, the most important question: who do you think is going to win?
RB: I’m very biased, but I think the Americans are going to win. We really need it and want it this time after getting smoked in France. I think Captain Stricker will set-up the course which suits us a little bit more, and I think our strength off the tee is going to help us out a lot.
PM: I’m never going to go against Europe and I do think Europe have a better chance than the bookies are saying. As good as the players are on the American team, the dynamics of the Ryder Cup are very different. Playing with a partner in fourball and foursomes is very different to what the World Ranking is based on. What I will be looking at is the form that both teams are bringing into the Ryder Cup. We are fortunate from a European perspective that this team will be in far better form than it would have been had we played this Ryder Cup last September. That gives me a lot of hope, so I’m going to say Europe by a small margin.