Tom Watson’s preparations for this Ryder Cup have been far from serene. Losing two of his key players in Jason Dufner and Dustin Johnson to injury and self-imposed professional exile respectively, the USA captain was also relieved of the opportunity in picking Tiger Woods after he ruled himself out.
On top of that, Watson was left to lament that he made his three picks before the FedEx Cup after seeing Billy Horschel and Chris Kirk’s spectacular form in the season-ending series of tournaments. When put against the underwhelming form of some of his team, Watson may have felt in-form players could have added confidence to his team.
Yes, it looks as though Europe have the stronger team on paper. Current US Open, Open and PGA champions (Martin Kaymer and Rory McIlroy) as well as the world no.1 (McIlroy again) add gloss to a formidable squad of players that boast Ryder Cup experience, major championships and quality in abundance. As well as that, they are on home soil which bodes well for them as the Americans have not travelled well in recent times.
However, with all the focus on McIlroy and Ian Poulter as leaders of what people are predicting as the inevitable European charge, it would be foolish to write off their trans-atlantic foes before a ball is even struck. Looking down the roster of American players, it is clear they possess sufficient fire-power to spoil the party at Gleneagles and exact revenge for the Miracle of Medinah two years ago.
Phil Mickelson is now playing in his tenth Ryder Cup, having made his début in 1995 when Rory McIlroy was six years of age. His experience is key and has shown that he is adaptable in partnering players of varied styles. In 2012, he forged a productive partnership with then rookie Keegan Bradley, winning all three of their fourball and foresome matches (including a 7&6 trouncing of Lee Westwood and Luke Donald) before being rested, maybe regrettably so, by Davis Love III. Watson is likely to continue that pairing in Friday morning’s fourballs with genuine hope that they will deliver a point.
Mickelson will feel as comfortable as ever on Scottish soil after clinching a stunning double in the Scottish Open and Open Championship last summer and Bradley has shown himself to be a smooth operator away from home as well with two top-20 finishes in his last two appearances at the Open. Watson will be confident that they can tip the scales in USA’s favour throughout Friday and Saturday and put them in a commanding position going into the singles- a format the Americans have historically excelled in.
Then there is Rickie Fowler. The American answer to McIlroy in many ways, Fowler has already signalled his intentions of ultra-competitiveness by shaving USA into the side of his head. A mark of war, perhaps, but Fowler is not merely trying to ruffle feathers, he has the game to match it. The world no. 10 has shown brilliant consistency this season and will bank on his superior form instilling the confidence and mindset required to topple the Europeans. Finishing outside the top-20 once (tied 23rd at the Deutsche Bank Championship) since the US Open in June, Fowler is one of the hottest players on the planet right now and is a force to be reckoned with.
Mickelson’s experience is nicely complimented by a similar war-horse in Jim Furyk. The 44-year-old is appearing in his ninth tournament and will likely be a great point of support and comfort for rookies Jimmy Walker, Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed before they approach the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the opening tee for the first time. Furyk is likely to be partnering Spieth at some point who, at 21, is the youngest American competitor of all time but is very much a rising star in the world of golf and has shown he is capable of coping with the pressure of the big-time even at this tender stage of his career.
Interestingly, one of the beneficial aspects of the American team is the absence of Tiger Woods. Throughout history, captains have wanted Tiger Woods in their team to intimidate and strike fear into the hearts of Europe. However, it is a plan that has largely backfired. Woods’ record in the Ryder Cup makes for dismal reading if you’re a fan and there have been some commentators pointing out that the Americans won comfortably the last time Woods did not play in a Ryder Cup in 2008 at Valhalla. Woods in a team environment has never seemed like a comfortable fit and his non-attendance at Gleneagles can only make for a more congenial atmosphere in the team room.
Having Mickelson as the most illustrious player makes more sense for Watson and for the USA team as a whole. He is someone the younger players look up to as mentor and confidant. He consoled Hunter Mahan in 2010 after losing the pivotal singles match to Graeme McDowell and stepped in to answer questions for him. That showed Mickelson for who he really is; a true team player and man of universal popularity. Woods has never boasted that popularity among his fellow pros- not least of all Mickelson- and his absence can only serve to boost the credentials of the so-called “underdogs.”
Europe are the bookies favourites and the media coverage over here seems to have been packaged in a way catering for the hopeless romantics vying for a Guinness-soaked McGinley triumph but to undermine the Americans is to risk cataclysmic humiliation. The Americans are strong, the Americans are experienced and the Americans are fully-charged and hungry for revenge so do not flutter with disbelief if they hoist the golden trophy high on the terraces at Gleneagles on Sunday evening.