By Gary D’Amato, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –
Week after week, professional golfers go about the lonely and selfish pursuit of birdies and paydays. They succeed and fail on their own merits and condition themselves to remove emotion from the equation.
They are consistency junkies, and excitability is the enemy of consistency. Adrenaline is helpful only in very small doses.
Even keel and even par go hand in hand.
And then, once every two years, the Ryder Cup comes along.
For one week, 24 of the best golfers in the world — 12 from the United States and 12 from Europe — are thrust into something akin to a college football environment, complete with teammates, captains, uniforms and partisan fans who dispense with the polite “golf clap” and scream at the top of their lungs.
For once, the players aren’t focused on individual goals. They’re playing for team, pride and country. It’s match play, head-to-head. Pressures and expectations are different.
“If you don’t play well and you don’t win, you’ve let a lot of people down, whereas on a normal basis you move on to the next day,” said ESPN analyst Curtis Strange, a five-time Ryder Cup competitor and the 2002 U.S. captain.
“Every other week, if I fail I’ll move on. I’ll do my best. I think at the Ryder Cup, doing your best sometimes isn’t good enough. You have to win.”
The 39th Ryder Cup, Friday through Sunday, promises to turn Medinah Country Club in suburban Chicago into Soldier Field West.
“It’s a home game for us,” said Steve Stricker, who made the U.S. team as one of captain Davis Love III’s four at-large picks. “It’s going to be pretty crazy.”
The challenge for the Americans is to harness the energy and use it to their advantage.
“You have to be careful of being too high, but it’s hard not to when your teammates are rooting like hell for you and you’re playing in your own country and 25,000 fans are screaming for you,” Strange said. “It’s a tough mix.
“I’ve seen it work both ways. Players get fired up and players hurt themselves because they get too emotionally involved.”
For whatever reason, the Europeans seem to be better at handling the Ryder Cup’s circus atmosphere. Europe is the defending champion and has won four of the five Ryder Cups played since 1999.
The Americans’ lone victory during that span came in 2008, when the matches were held at Valhalla in Louisville, Ky.
“It seems like over the years that they have handled the emotional part of it better than we have,” Strange said. “Seve (Ballesteros) thrived on it. Nick (Faldo) did to some degree.
“All their top players seem to have thrived on emotion and noise whereas we have been not quite that way. We have seemed to be almost uncomfortable with that.”
The individual records support Strange’s point. The United States’ three most experienced Ryder Cuppers — Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk — have a combined record of 32 victories, 46 defeats and 12 halves (ties).
Europe’s most experienced foursome — Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia, Luke Donald and Ian Poulter — is a combined 46-22-11.
Perhaps more to the point, the U.S. does not have a single player with a winning Ryder Cup record on its roster; Stricker and Zach Johnson both are 3-3-1. Eight of the 12 Europeans have winning records in the Ryder Cup.
Europe goes into the matches with three of the top four players in the world ranking: No. 1 Rory McIlroy, No. 3 Donald and No. 4 Westwood.
McIlroy, 23, has won four times on the PGA Tour this year, including the PGA Championship.
But the U.S. team is loaded, too, with 11 of its 12 players ranked among the top 18 in the world.
“I think we have got a great team,” Love said. “I think we are extremely deep this time, deeper than we have ever been.”
Woods, Dustin Johnson, Webb Simpson, Zach Johnson and Keegan Bradley all have won since June 1, and Jason Dufner, Matt Kuchar, Bubba Watson, Mickelson and Stricker all won earlier in the year.
“In my time playing and paying attention in the 1990s and early 2000s, it doesn’t seem like both teams were playing well going in,” said Stricker, who will make his third Ryder Cup appearance. “But this time, that’s the case.
“It’s going to be tough. It always is. All 24 guys are ranked in the top (35) in the world. That’s pretty stout.”
The Americans have four Ryder Cup rookies (Bradley, Dufner, Simpson and Brandt Snedeker) and the Europeans have one (Nicolas Colsaerts of Belgium).
“The thing is you’ve got veterans on both teams and young guns who play without fear,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Europe’s Peter Hanson. “Being at Medinah in Chicago in front of the American fans, I think that gives America the advantage.
“It all boils down to putting. Who makes those putts?”
Strange said the intangibles favored the Americans.
“I just like our team,” he said. “I think everybody is playing well. Everybody has been on the leader board. I like everything about it. I like the matchups. I like that Davis has got some rookies, which adds energy to the team. I think we have the stronger team.”
If the Ryder Cup has proved one thing, however, it’s that the strongest team on paper doesn’t always win.