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The Knife Edge of the Ryder Cup

Dermot Gilleece investigates the factors that could change everything

Posted Sep 04, 2013 by Chris White


By his own admission, Gregory Bourdy was thinking about the Ryder Cup as he knocked in birdie putts on the final three holes at Celtic Manor, to capture the Wales Open on Sunday.  Presumably, he meant events both past and future, given that the scene of the biennial showpiece in 2010, happened to be staging the first qualifying event for the 2014 team for Gleneagles.

One imagines there will be new faces in the European line-up from the side which snatched a dramatic victory at Medinah last September.  And who knows, Bourdy could be one of them.  Mind you, at 31, he doesn’t quite fit the picture painted by skipper, Paul McGinley, when he talked at the weekend about “a lot of young players on the European Tour” who were ready to “step up to Ryder Cup standard.”

Of course a captain is expected to say this sort of thing in the long run-up to qualification.  But deep down, I wonder how many raw, youngsters McGinley would actually like to have in action against an American side led by his boyhood hero, Tom Watson.  As a vice-captain at Medinah, how would he have felt about such a rookie facing the five-footer which Martin Kaymer sank against Steve Stricker on the 18th green, late on that fateful Sunday afternoon?

Sure, parade some gifted youngsters who will represent the future of the European cause.  But preferably in well-protected positions around the middle of the order. McGinley, himself, was a seasoned campaigner of 35 when he found himself in a decisive battle at The Belfry in 2002.  And when Justin Leonard sank his outrageous 50-footer against Jose Maria Olazabal on the 17th green at Brookline three years previously, he had already captured the Open Championship.

Philip Walton was another campaigner with valuable mileage under his belt when delivering the winning point at Oak Hill in 1995.  And Hale Irwin was the oldest member of the American team and with three US Open titles to his credit, when his half with Bernhard Langer made all the difference at Kiawah Island in 1991.

McGinley needs no educating on these finer points of Ryder Cup combat, nor on the implications of having Watson as his opposite number.  While he must obviously work with the players who have come through the qualifying process, other than his own three picks, he is certain to have a wish-list of seasoned campaigners, much as he might be publicly extolling the virtues of youth.

The closeness of recent Ryder Cup battles tells its own tale.  And there was a reminder by PGA of America president, Ted Bishop, on why he went in single-minded pursuit of Watson to restore his country’s one-time supremacy in the Ryder Cup.

“If you look at the last 13 stagings, seven of them have come down to one point or less,” said Bishop. “And nine of the last 13 have been won by two points or less. Now consider a situation at Celtic Manor [2010] where Jim Furyk and Rickie Fowler were playing their second match in alternate shot and Furyk hooked his shot outside the ropes in the mud.  They got relief from casual water and Fowler took the drop.  Unfortunately, he just happened to take the drop with the ball he was carrying in his pocket [inadvertently having two balls in play], which resulted in loss of hole.
“Now fast forward. Furyk and Fowler win the 18th hole to halve the match with Westwood and Kaymer.  So that drop made a half a point difference in the outcome of that Ryder Cup. Had it not happened, we would have tied 14 14 tie and the United States would have retained the trophy because we had gone there as the defending champions from Valhalla.”

“Fast forward again to Medinah.  Tiger Woods is standing on the 18th tee with a 1 up lead over Molinari.  If he halves that hole it's a 14 14 tie and the United States has now retained three Ryder Cups.  I mean, that's how close this competition has been.”

He went on: “I don't know if the Europeans are any better today than they were six or eight years ago, but I will say this: the closeness of these Ryder Cups was one of the reasons that we picked Tom Watson as our captain.  If you’re considering what a captain might bring to the Ryder Cup, you look at a guy like Watson with his success and his experience of playing in Scotland.  And you think, ‘maybe somewhere along the line during that week, he's going to be worth a point or a half a point to somebody’.  And that that will be the difference in the outcome.”

Which is a fascinating thought.

- Dermot Gilleece

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