Putting will decide which team takes home the '04 Ryder Cup
BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. - Theories abound about which team will win the 35th Ryder Cup Matches.
You can make great cases for both sides. After all, the supremely talented Americans will always be top dogs based on their world rankings and grand trophy cases at home. But recent history - the Europeans have won three of the last four cups, and six of the last nine -- throws all those glossy rankings into a nearby water hazard.
The truth is anything could happen this year's Ryder Cup, set for Sept. 17-19 at the South Course at Oakland Hills Country Club in metro Detroit. And that's what makes this event such great fun.
The debate about who will win will rage until the opening ceremony on Sept. 16. Let's look at both sides as objectively as we can (despite living on this side of the pond).
First, we'll put on our red, white and blue T-shirt, sing "America the Beautiful" and hail why the Americans will win.
- Any team stacked with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk and Davis Love III, all ranked among the top 10 in the world, must be a guaranteed winner.
- The Americans have the home course advantage and their games are better equipped to handle the treacherous green complexes at Oakland Hills.
- One of Europe's best, and most experienced players, won't hit a single shot. European captain Bernhard Langer, who boasts a stellar Ryder Cup record, would have probably made the team had he not concentrated on his captaincy. Unknown David Howell and rookie Luke Donald are unproven replacements.
- The Stars and Stripes are more motivated than ever under the U.S. flag, because of Sept. 11th and the losses they've endured in past Ryder Cups. Hal Sutton, the U.S. captain, is also a master motivator.
- OK, let's reverse things and jump to the other side of the pond. Grab your lagers and ales, toast to victory and celebrate why those crafty Euros will win.
- The Europeans flourish in the underdog role. The expectations to win are just too much for the Americans to handle.
- The Euros are much friendlier with one another and meld better as a team than the selfish, underachieving Americans.
- The Americans are sending their least experienced team in years, with five Ryder Cup rookies -- Fred Funk, Chad Campbell, Chris DiMarco, Kenny Perry and Chris Riley - and two one-timers, David Toms and Stewart Cink. Add Jay Haas, a 50-year-old who hasn't played in the Ryder Cup since 1995, and the Americans have some holes.
In reality, though, those theories don't supply the real answer for America's woes. The Ryder Cup is really nothing more than a glorified scramble in front of 40,000 fans: Whoever makes the most putts will win, a fact even Sutton admits.
"Everybody has these lofty expectation of the American players," he said. "They add up the World Rankings and the World Rankings when you look at the U.S. versus Europe, it's pretty lopsided. Problem is, is that it's going to boil down to who makes the most putts that week.
"And sometimes the greatest player in the game doesn't make enough putts that week to win. One thing that is great about the game of golf is that David actually beats Goliath sometimes."
Sutton will do his best to keep any kind of biblical upset from happening at Oakland Hills. His decisions, along with a few key holes and players, will ultimately decide the Americans' fate.
Nothing will decide the Ryder Cup more than strategy. If Sutton can find a combination that works, the Americans could steamroll their opposition.
"There is a science to it," Sutton said of making match-ups. "I think there is a chemistry to it. I think figuring out the right mix is critical."
The only clue Sutton's given to his game plan?
"Expect the unexpected," he said.
Don't bet on him pairing heated rivals Mickelson and Woods, but he could shake up some friendly duos, like Mickelson and Toms, to find a new way to win.
Every championship golf course has its holes that confound even the pros. The 7,084-yard South course at Oakland Hills, for the most part is a straight-forward, old-world test. Torturous rough and some of the wildest, slickest greens in the world will overshadow the traditional hazards of trees, water and bunkers.
Three holes will stand out: the back-to-back par-4s at No. 15 and 16 and the longest par-4 on the course, the 493-yard 18th.
The 400-yard 15th is arguably the toughest driving hole at Oakland Hills. A bunker, added in the redesign by Robert Trent Jones in preparation for the 1951 U.S. Open, guards the middle of the fairway. Players will either try to brave the corner of the dogleg left and blast it by the bunker or lay-up, leaving a long approach to a tricky green.
The pond on Oakland Hills' most famous hole, the 406-yard 16th, could gobble up balls on either the drive or the approach. The green front slopes to the hazard, so any shot with too much spin will find a watery grave.
The 18th, normally a par-5 for the members, will play long to an elevated green should any of the matches reach the final hole.
One other hole to keep an eye on is the 356-yard sixth hole where a new forward tee has been added specifically for this event. At 306 yards, big hitters will bomb away for an eagle putt.
Former U.S. Ryder captain Lanny Wadkins recently told a Detroit paper that the Americans should win "going away."
"The guys at the top have to play well," he added.
But let's be honest. Most of the recent Ryder Cups have been won or lost with underrated Europeans (see Paul McGinley in 2002) stepping up to steal points. The Americans need some of their rookies to play over their heads to win.
Don't expect Fred Funk, the shortest hitter on either team, to play much of a role in Sutton's plans. Chris Riley, whose wife recently had a baby, might not be ready to contribute serious points.
But steady, mature players like Perry, Cink and Haas have enough experience in international competitions to grind out tough matches under pressure.
For the Europeans, Colin Montgomerie must continue to do what he did at the Belfry in 2002, lead by example and keep his unblemished Ryder Cup singles record intact. Talented but inconsistent, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Thomas Levet, must complement the big four of Padraig Harrington, Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke.
In the end, it will come down to who wants it more.
"I've said all along that we will play to win," Sutton said. "That's the one mistake the U.S. has done, has made. They tried to be politically correct (by keeping their emotions in check), and to my knowledge since I've been playing professional golf, Europe has yet to do that. They play to win."
September 8, 2004