Saturday 24 June 2017

Strongest ever team ready to gain revenge for Valhalla humbling

Europe' s Captain Colin Montgomerie. Photo: PA
Europe' s Captain Colin Montgomerie. Photo: PA

EUROPE reunited will rise from the sackcloth and ashes of Valhalla this weekend and wrest back the Ryder Cup from the USA.

Colin Montgomerie has assembled the most powerful European team in Ryder Cup history at Celtic Manor and, with the assistance of an accomplished back-room staff, has rediscovered what Graeme McDowell calls 'the X-factor'.

Exhaustive efforts have been made over the past two years to learn from that hiccup in Kentucky and, judging by the eye-popping enthusiasm and kevlar confidence in the European locker-room right now, they have not been in vain.

Fittingly, Montgomerie arranged for a video link with Seve Ballesteros on Tuesday night and all 12 players who sat entranced through the Spaniard's passionate address can, from today, bring his unflinching, unyielding spirit back into play at the Ryder Cup.

The flame Ballesteros lit all those years ago was snuffed out in Valhalla but should be restored to former glory this weekend as Seve's successors not only beat Corey Pavin's US team but do so with a lot more comfort than many might suspect on a golf course that suits them to a tee.

McDowell made his debut on Nick Faldo's team two years ago but, in a sense, he and other rookies on that occasion were denied a taste of playing for the real Europe at the Ryder Cup.

Yet Ireland's US Open champion and his team-mates at Celtic Manor have revelled all this week in what Lee Westwood describes as the most inspiring locker-room atmosphere he's felt in six visits to the Ryder Cup.

"I think there was a lot of passion at Valhalla but I don't think it was guided in the right direction at times," said Westwood, diplomatically. "I think we could have pulled it together a lot better as a team.

"We're all working in the same direction here for sure. This is one of the best atmospheres I've experienced at the Ryder Cup."

Fully recovered from the calf muscle tear which has sidelined him since the Bridgestone World Golf Championship at Firestone, Westwood asked his captain for the honour of leading Europe into action for the first time today.

And Monty granted the 37-year-old Englishman his wish, in the process shelving plans to open with Northern Irish aces Rory McIlroy and McDowell.

Yet Irish trio McDowell, McIlroy and Padraig Harrington will all see action in an opening session of fourballs which give the home team a gilt-edged opportunity to take a clear lead in the match.

Westwood has been paired with US PGA Champion Martin Kaymer of Germany in a fascinating fourball with US Masters champion Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, who only missed out on the play-off at Whistling Straits last month because of a controversial two-stroke penalty on the 72nd hole.

"To hit the first shot for Europe at the Ryder Cup is an honour and one which Lee deserves," said Monty, who nominated the Irish pair for the second game, where they'll encounter in-form rookie Matt Kuchar and 2009 British Open champion Stewart Cink.

Surprisingly, Pavin kept dynamic Presidents Cup duo Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker for the third game.

Was he hiding the Tiger or did the US captain simply outsmart himself in a bid to give Woods a crack at McIlroy after all the hullabaloo on the back pages this week?

Satisfaction

Monty expressed satisfaction that McIlroy now will have an opportunity to ease himself into the Ryder Cup action, saying: "I'm happy he hasn't been drawn with Tiger. I'm sure they'll meet at some stage this weekend but it's good for Rory to get a game under his belt first."

McDowell laughed when asked if 'Rory Wigs' might be donned on the first tee. "I was thinking about that but maybe not," he said.

When McIlroy suggested "I hit a good tee shot with mine on", McDowell fired back: "You've still got it on." Clearly, the two Northern Irishmen are in ebullient form for one of the most exciting mornings of their career.

With 2,000 people expected to sit in the grandstand which is wrapped around three sides of the first tee and some 45,000 spectators on the course, regardless of the weather, the atmosphere at Celtic Manor should match the K Club in 2006 for raw passion and excitement.

The one guy who'll revel on this stage is England's Ian Poulter, who teams up with his regular World Cup comrade and Volvo Match Play champion Ross Fisher for a dream clash with Woods and Stricker.

"It's going to be a hell of a match, I cannot wait," he said. "If ever there was a match you'd want to play it's against their best two players. The crowd is going to be electric and the roar on the first tee will be sensational. I can't wait to give them some feedback."

Perhaps Pavin's most surprising decision was to send out a pair of rookies, Bubba Watson and Jeff Overton, in the final fourball, to the exclusion of Valhalla veteran Hunter Mahan or last Sunday's FedEx Cup-winner Jim Furyk.

When it comes to experience, European wild cards Luke Donald and Harrington have a clear advantage in this game but Ireland's three-time Major champion will have to break the pattern of a frustrating season and bring his splendid form in practice this week into the competitive arena.

"It's great to play with Luke from my standpoint," said Harrington. "His consistency, especially on some of the tougher holes, enables me to open up a little more and have a bit of freedom. It's worked well in practice this week and I think we can trust one another to do our thing. I've every confidence in him and I hope he has the same in me."

Though he expects Pavin to use Mahan and Furyk in the afternoon foursomes, Monty said he was "surprised" to see the final US pairing. "I wouldn't say it was a strange decision, but Luke and Padraig would not expect to play two rookies in the last game."

Europe bring six rookies into Ryder Cup, the most since Brookline in 1999 and one more than the Americans this weekend.

Yet Westwood hit the nail on the head when he said: "One of them (Kaymer) is a Major champion; two have won the last two qualifying events (Peter Hanson and Edoardo Molinari); one is about as steady as it gets from tee to green (Francesco Molinari) and the final one is World Match Play Champion (Fisher)."

And the other, of course, is McIlroy.

The 2010 Course, where McDowell won the Welsh Open in spectacular fashion in June, is a typical European Tour track with slow greens and flanked by bottomless rough, which requires the biggest-hitting US Ryder Cup team in history to hit it straight -- or else.

Europe's 12 hugely motivated stars can hand the States their stripes.

The Ryder Cup,

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