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Ryder Cup: Pairings, putting, luck

By Sunday evening, the FedEx Cup and the Tour Championship will have been decided, the trophies raised, the pictures taken, the checks written, the PGA Tour season essentially wrapped up in a big-money bow.

Then the serious fun begins.

The Ryder Cup next week at Medinah outside Chicago should be, in the words of the victorious 2008 American captain Paul Azinger, “an epic match.”

Yes, it should.

For all that’s in play at East Lake this weekend – the $10-million FedEx Cup grand prize, the Tour Championship title and golf’s new bromance between Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy – the looming Ryder Cup has begun to permeate the early fall air like smoke from a not too distant fire.

Luke Donald came off the golf course Friday afternoon and talked about being an Englishman in Chicago where the matches will be played. He’s a northsider, a Cubs fan from the days when he could see the Wrigley Field lights from his Evanston apartment.

Next week, Donald will be a visitor in his hometown, playing for Jose Maria Olazabal’s deep and imposing European team.

“Staying in a hotel 20 miles from where you live is kind of a strange,” Donald said.

But it’s the Ryder Cup, when golf becomes a team sport. It’s about bonding and ping pong in the team room. It’s about nerves and anticipation. It’s about flags waving and fans singing.

It’s just about the best thing in golf.

“I see two pretty evenly matched teams for sure. But what I see as the challenge is for America to become a team in four days against a group of Europeans invested in each other since day they born,” said Azinger, who will be part of ESPN’s coverage.

“The challenge for the Americans in all Ryder Cups past, present and future is how in four days you can create an environment as good or better than they have.”

Azinger was referring, in part, to the natural chemistry between McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, who share a Northern Ireland heritage. The Englishmen – Ian Poulter, Justin Rose, Lee Westwood and Donald – are similar, Azinger said.

But this American team, captained by Davis Love III, will arrive at Medinah sitting on go. What appeared in January to be a lopsided match favoring the Europeans is now close to even. The American team, almost to a man, is playing well. Ditto the Europeans, who have won six of the last eight Ryder Cups.

“We’re going to all have to play well to win,” Dustin Johnson said. “It’s going to take the whole team. You can’t just have two guys playing good. It’s going to take all of us together.”

The American team has four Ryder Cup rookies – Webb Simpson, Jason Dufner, Keegan Bradley and Brandt Snedeker – compared to one for the Europeans, Nicolas Colsaerts. But Simpson won the U.S. Open, Bradley thrives on big stages, Snedeker is one of the best putters on the planet and Dufner’s laconic style and reliable game make him a perfect partner for almost anyone.

Simpson, who played the Presidents Cup matches in Australia last winter, has been asking veterans about how the Ryder Cup is different. Jim Furyk, playing for the eighth time, told him that everything will be exaggerated from nerves to excitement to fatigue.

Everything matters in the Ryder Cup. Love says the Ryder Cup feels like being in contention on the back nine of a major on Sunday afternoon. But it feels that way Friday morning when the first match tees off at 7:20 a.m. and it doesn’t stop until the champagne is sprayed Sunday evening.

It’s about pairings and it’s about putting.

You can bet on Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker playing together just like McIlroy and McDowell will be together for the Europeans. Rose and Poulter were good together at Valhalla four years ago while Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley may be a fit on the U.S. side.

Johnson told Love that he likes playing with Matt Kuchar “and we put a whooping on Phil and Keegan the other day.”

The dream scenario is a Sunday singles pairing of McIlroy against Woods.

“That would be fun,” Woods said.

“I’m not going to sit here and lie and say I wouldn’t enjoy it because I would,” McIlroy said.

The singles matches are set through a blind draw so unless emissaries are working behind the scenes to make sure Woods and McIlroy are slotted against each other (maybe Fred Couples and Miguel Angel Jiminez can pass notes on behalf of their respective captains), an element of luck will be required to put them together. Everyone wants it happen.

That’s next Sunday.

Getting there should be a blast.

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