Four years ago I lamented the sad state of the U.S. Ryder Cup team and predicted a bad defeat for it, in two places in cyber-print. I was right. Two years ago right here, against conventional wisdom, I predicted the U.S. would win. I was right. A few weeks ago, forgetting just how weak the U.S. squad was four years ago, I called this year's team the worst ever. So, why would I confuse matters by saying that with four days to go before the matches start, I predict an absolute nail-biter but can't yet predict a winner? Because that's what my internal medium is telling me.
I think Europe has far more of the absolutely top-notch players now than the U.S. does (although the U.S. may have more depth at the second and third tier of players). But I confess that I still don't understand the Euro selection criteria. It makes no sense to me that Paul Casey and Justin Rose, ranked 7th and 23rd in the world, didn't qualify automatically while Peter Hanson, ranked 42nd, did. This is very much to the American's advantage.
Anyway, while I know that it's a fool's game to compare the teams player by player, it IS one way to assess relative strengths. I've arbitrarily paired one Euro with one American, and this is what I found (although I won't take time to explain each assessment). I think Phil Mickelson right now is a better choice to play well than is a struggling Padraig Harrington. Score one for the Americans. Jim Furyk and Ian Poulter rate a draw, even though Furyk is the more accomplished player by far and is coming off a huge win. But Poulter is deadly in match play. Hunter Mahan and Luke Donald: Another draw. Stewart Cink, in an off year, is a draw with Ross Fisher. Steve Stricker has the best swing in golf and a wonderful putting stroke, and is a wonderfully nice guy, too. But wiley veteran Miguel Angel Jimenez is his equal in the British Isles. Another draw. The Americans are still up one -- but they lose it, slightly, because I think Euro Martin Kaymer is more likely than Dustin Johnson to hold steady. I'll put the U.S. back ahead though with Zach Johnson, unflappable, getting the nod over U.S. Open winner Graeme McDowell. American Matt Kuchar is hot, but somehow I think Peter Hanson will play the role always played by at least one Euro (Peter Baker comes to mind), that of the unexpectedly quiet assassin. Okay, call them even, with the U.S. still one up overall.
But then the bottom appears to fall out for the Americans. I'll take Rory McIlroy over winless young Rcky Fowler, who hasn't played very well for more than three months now. And I'll take each of the Molinari brothers, Eduardo and Francisco, over badly slumping American Jeff Overton and over emotional, talented goofball Bubba Watson. That puts the Euros up two, with one left:
Tiger Woods gets compared to Lee Westwood. Tiger's troubles have been well documented. Westwood has played so well in majors the past two two years, and has so much better a Ryder record than Tiger, that he seems like a clear choice here. But Westwood barely has played since hurting his ankle a couple of months back. And Tiger's game is rounding into shape. And, for the first time in ten months, Tiger will be playing for something or somebody OTHER than himself. As a narcissist, this would ordinarily cause him to have trouble, as indeed he has had trouble in many Ryder Cups. But when a narcisist spends all year beating himself up, as Tiger has, then the chance to rise above himself and play for team and country can bring out the better angels of one's nature. So it will with Tiger Woods. Playing just four matches instead of five, he'll be the pleasant surprise of the matches for the U.S., and will outclass Westwood.
But this still leaves the Euros one up. Here's where I hedge my bets, though.
Everybody seems to expect the Molinari brother team to be an almost unstoppable force, specifically because as brothers they will feed off each other (and have a history of doing so in team competition, quite well). But the reverse is also true: When brothers go bad, they can go REALLY bad together, because just as brothers can be spectacularly capable of being "in tune" with each other, so too can brothers, if they start to struggle, go into deep funks because of the closeness of the brotherly bond. It's a weird dynamic.
So my prediction is that if the Molinari brothers play well, the Euros win a close one. But if the Molinari brothers implode, which they could, a Tiger burning bright could rally his team, whose accomplishments by usual Ryder standards are meager, into a performance better than the sum of its parts.
Maybe I'll make a final prediction before Friday, and stop the hedged bets. But that's where things stand now.
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