In the hilly heart of golf’s homeland with the threat of bagpipes hanging in the chilly early autumn air, golf’s most compelling event – the Ryder Cup – arrives Friday.
There is a twist to this Ryder Cup, which is being played in golf’s motherland for the first time since 1979. The Europeans, once the Washington Generals of what was then a gentle exhibition, are favored to win – again.
But the Ryder Cup doesn’t fit neatly into a mold. It’s a team event in a solitary sport. It’s played as much on emotion as on technique, both sides trying to co-opt the spirit that runs like blood through the biennial event.
It’s brash, loud and almost always brilliant.
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And that’s just Ian Poulter.
This time, it’s being played at what is called the Centenary Course, a Jack Nicklaus design that feels as American as Black Friday sales. In the game’s most romantic country, the Ryder Cup has come to a place far from the water and absent the rugged charm of windblown links.
A few miles down the road, Stirling Castle still sits atop a rocky hill to keep an eye on potential marauders, and just outside the gates at Gleneagles are rolling acres of farmland dotted by hundreds of sheep, some shorn, some not.
Inside Gleneagles, a modern sports town has been created with stadium seating wrapping around the first tee and rows of high-end luxury boxes arrayed alongside fairways. A week after a vote on Scottish independence failed and the slow to modernize R&A, keeper of golf’s international flame, voted to accept women after 260 years of male-only membership, it is time for the game to take over again.
The Europeans have owned the underdog role for years, using it the way Sylvester Stallone used “Rocky.” That mindset along with more grit, better putting, the Phil-Tiger pairing, the spirit of Seve and Poulter is why the Europeans have won seven of the last nine Ryder Cup matches.
This is where all those cliches – fair and unfair – about private jet-flying PGA Tour pros have been given life because every two years, it seems, the Americans find a way not to win. Two years ago on Saturday, the Europeans were being turned into porridge until Poulter resuscitated them, setting up a Sunday comeback victory of legendary proportions.
This is not primarily about redemption for the Americans.
“My motivation isn’t because we lost two years ago,” Zach Johnson said. “I’m not here to redeem myself or the team.
“Two of (nine wins) in the last 18 years is part of it. I think that’s more important. That’s my motivation.”
Having run out of answers, the Americans asked 65-year old Tom Watson to captain this team, hoping he can scare up some of the magic that helped him win the British Open five times. The U.S. has not won a Ryder Cup on foreign soil since 1993 – coincidentally or not the last time Watson was captain.
In ’93, Watson’s motivational slogan was “What they invented, we perfected.” With four Europeans ranked among the top six in the world, Watson said, “I’m using different thoughts this time.”
Watson has adopted an old-school approach, not exactly hammer and nails, but bricks and mortar. Captain Paul Azinger had his winning pod system at Valhalla four years ago. Watson has, well, Watson.
Don’t expect surprises from him. He’ll probably pair Phil Mickelson with Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson with Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler with Jimmy Walker.
While European captain Paul McGinley has enlisted the emotional and inspirational support of Manchester United lion Sir Alex Ferguson, Watson brought in two wounded warriors to talk with his team Tuesday night.
Don’t dismiss the American chances. It’s a formidable team whose prospects have been downgraded for two reasons – the past 25 years of this event and the sense that only Rickie Fowler and, to a lesser extent, Jim Furyk – are sharp.
Yes, there are concerns. Cup rookie Jordan Spieth shot 80 in his last event. Rookie Patrick Reed missed six cuts in his last 15 starts. Webb Simpson’s game has gone cold. Phil Mickelson had one top-10 this season. Bubba Watson is Bubba Watson.
And Fowler’s “USA” haircut.
But emotion and momentum are enormous in the Ryder Cup. Perhaps playing away from home and against the expectation of failure can work to the Americans’ advantage. Nerves, more than in a major championship, are impossible to escape. Containing them in shaking hands and numb legs is the challenge.
“I can safely say it was tenfold, the pressure of the Ryder Cup. No comparison,” Graeme McDowell said when asked to compare the pressure he felt in the Ryder Cup to his 2010 U.S. Open victory.
In the game’s motherland, it’s that time again.