Sunday 18 March 2018

'I'd happily take no points if we had a European victory'

Europe's team have enough quality to recapture the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor, says Dermot Gilleece

T he story of a young man's flight from depressed times in his native place to seek his fortune in Canada wouldn't be out of place in the collected works of Charles Dickens.

Especially when we learn that the brave adventurer returned as a millionaire to buy 1,400 acres in the Usk Valley in South Wales, including the shuttered old maternity hospital where he was born.

This week, just off the M4 motorway outside his home town of Newport, Sir Terry Matthews will see wild dreams come to glorious fruition with the staging of the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor. An area where talk of sport is usually dominated by rugby will give way, temporarily at least, to matters golfing, and whether Europe can regain a trophy they surrendered at Valhalla in Kentucky two years ago.

It is an event which brings into opposition very different teams from that occasion. And, most intriguingly, the notoriously fragile temperament of European skipper Colin Montgomerie will have to confront the celebrated guile and tenacity of his American counterpart, Corey Pavin.

America has only five survivors -- Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, Hunter Mahan, Stewart Cink and Steve Stricker -- from the 2008 side. But they are unquestionably strengthened by the presence of Tiger Woods, who will bury deep-seated prejudices in the hope of finding a worthwhile finale to a dismal year.

"Players win the Ryder Cup but the captains lose it," Pavin has acknowledged, having experienced this harsh reality as a member of Tom Lehman's back-room team at The K Club in 2006. The winner of 27 tournaments went on to claim: "Coming down the stretch in the US Open (which he won in 1995) was a piece of cake compared to playing in the Ryder Cup."

Which runs totally counter to the view of Jack Nicklaus, who insisted: "C'mon guys, it's not like coming down the stretch at a major. Good gracious, if you make a mistake, you still have 11 other guys helping you."

Pádraig Harrington had reason to agree with Nicklaus when joining The K Club celebrations having contributed only half a point to the European cause. And his inadequacy would hardly have been noticed had he not been forced to accept the same paltry return at Valhalla.

"My career is not going to be defined by the Ryder Cup," said the winner of three major championships. "I wouldn't want to win five matches out of five and the team lose. In fact, I'd happily take no points if we had a European victory."

So, where is all the pressure coming from? Certainly not from management companies who will tell you that a Ryder Cup appearance will do virtually nothing to enhance a player's commercial worth. The pressure is created essentially by the natural competitiveness of elite sportsmen anxious to impress their peers in an intense team environment.

As Johnny Miller, with typical candour, put it: "It's the only time of the year when you care more about others than yourself." And the notion that failure can leave permanent scars should be seen against the German Masters victory by Bernhard Langer on October 6, 1991, only seven days after he missed a five-foot putt which handed the US victory in the Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island.

The tournament's seriousness has been touted largely by beneficiaries of its capacity to raise huge revenues, though pickings may be decidedly thin this time around. For the public at large, it should be an opportunity to sit back and enjoy marvellous television images of master classes in golfing skill, with dare-devil shots over water and a thrilling short-game spectacle.

This venue has been literally purpose-built. The 'Twenty Ten', a par-71 which can be stretched to 7,493 yards, combines the architectural skills of Ross McMurray of European Golf Design and the respected American, Robert Trent Jones Jnr. It marks the last piece of a golfing jigsaw on which Matthews spent an estimated €150m from a €1.5bn fortune, while creating a venue capable of staging the most demanding event in golf.

The first five holes on the 'Twenty Ten' are new and were designed by McMurray with some advice from former Welsh Ryder Cup star, Brian Huggett. The sixth to the 13th are from the Wentworth Hills course designed by Trent Jones Jnr. The 14th is a stunning new creation; the old 15th has been remodelled and the final three holes are new. And with a view to achieving a uniform look overall, the old holes have been modified, specifically with regard to bunkering.

Is it then the ultimate matchplay course? "My brief undoubtedly involved designing a course which would be more interesting for matchplay," replied McMurray. "For instance, trees have been loosened up on the 15th (377-yard, sharp dog-leg right) so that players are attracted to drive the green. This involves a carry of about 265 yards, a bit like the 10th at The Belfry."

The most significant benefits, however, are to be found away from the fairways. On the last four holes alone, there are 50,000 square metres of spectator viewing, which means that 50,000 people could stand there and be comfortable, even with their arms outstretched. In addition, there will be hospitality platforms capable of holding up to 8,000 spectators." Given his status as the reigning Wales Open champion, Graeme McDowell can be considered an expert on the course. "It's going to be very different from when I won last June," he said. "The weather could be a factor. Even if it's dry, the temperature is still going to be chilly, which should play into our hands.

"I also think the golf course with its linksy run-offs is less American-style, visually, than The K Club. This should be a better fit for us and I believe we'll perform well around it. The 13th, 14th and 15th are going to be very key holes. Virtually every match is likely to be going through there, whereas I expect very few matches to go to the 18th.

"Thirteen (189 yards) is a great par three where we'll be hitting a five or six iron to an elevated green with water short and right. With the pin front right, it will be a terrific matchplay hole. Fourteen (485 yards) can be a really brutal par four off the very back. Going down the left, you've got to avoid pulling your drive into heavy rough while there's a hazard down the right. Then you have a five or six iron to a very difficult green.

"Fifteen is a dramatic, risk/reward par four which is going to deliver a lot of birdies and eagles. A great spectator experience. It's probably a three-wood for most guys and completes what I see as a key part of the golf course.

"When I played there in June, I didn't attack the green on the 18th (575 yards) with a three wood because you're kind of coming off a downslope over water to a reasonably small target. I felt if I got within 230 to 240 yards of the green, I would hit hybrid at it. It's a great risk/reward par five where you'll see gambles in the fourballs and singles, but I would expect to see a few lay-ups in the foursomes."

Harrington believes the speed of the greens will be critical. "The American players are used to green speeds of 11 to 12 all year round," he said. "At Celtic Manor, they'll be running at 10 to 11. That difference of one foot on the Stimpmeter will be huge. And Europeans will adjust better to any wind across the course and the effect it will have on clubbing."

In the context of these assessments by Harrington and McDowell, it is clearly no coincidence that the US have not won on European terrain since 1993 at The Belfry. But there are other factors which cause participants to be perplexed by their own failure. As with Curtis Strange in 1995 at Oak Hill, where he said afterwards: "I really didn't think they would win. I honestly thought we were too good."

After 2006, Lehman agonised long over the record defeat at The K Club. Finally, seven months later, he concluded: "Where the Europeans were hitting every shot at the flag, I lost count of the times our guys would be going for it and then suddenly played like they were in the US Open: the strokeplay, 'I'm-going-to-get-my-par' mentality. You want guys going for every shot and not being worried about it costing too much if they hit it in the water or whatever. At worst, it's only loss of hole. Being so accustomed to strokeplay and having so little experience of matchplay, especially in a team situation, it's my opinion that when the pressure comes on, we Americans revert to what we're comfortable with, which is strokeplay."

By way of counteracting this, the US had two factors working in their favour at Valhalla. One was that a three-point lead at the end of the opening day meant they were never under serious pressure, and the other was that a fully committed captain, Paul Azinger, had them so fired-up that negative thoughts were promptly banished.

Harrington has, by his own admission, fallen into the strokeplay trap. "Lehman was right," he said. "I'll be strongly recommending in the team room that we get immediately into the matchplay mode. You've got to be aggressive and I remember being aware of this early in the week at Oakland Hills. It needs to be emphasised."

Meanwhile, McDowell revealed an interesting fourball strategy from Montgomerie. "Playing under him in the Seve Trophy, I learned that he believes better-ball is not about one guy getting the ball in play and the other guy having a lash. He believes two balls are better than one; two chances of birdie from 20 feet are far better than having one guy in there and the other in trouble.

"I think a big part of the week will be the dynamic in the team room, especially on Thursday night when the draw comes out. That's when you're sitting around, having a chat about what's going to happen the next day. That's when you want to hear 'let's get passionate about this, guys'. We had a great team two years ago but maybe our team room wasn't fizzing the way it should have been. We really didn't have that X-factor."

From a European standpoint, one of the most satisfying aspects of the Ryder Cup is how representative it has become of the game throughout the continent. From the inclusion of Spaniards, Seve Ballesteros and Antonio Garrido, in the first European side in 1979, five other continental countries -- Germany, France, Italy, Sweden and Denmark have since been honoured.

Who could have imagined that the first brothers to play in the event since England's Bernard and Geoff Hunt in 1963 would be Italian? Well, Francesco and Edoardo Molinari are there, along with Germany's Martin Kaymer, the first continental winner of the US PGA Championship.

And for the fifth time in the history of the event, this little country of ours is contributing three representatives to the side, along with vice-captains Paul McGinley and Darren Clarke.

Europe should regain the trophy, simply because they have the better players on home terrain. But, as Strange pointed out, the Ryder Cup can be a baffling experience where momentum plays a huge role. And for all its faults, it retains a timeless fascination.

Sunday Independent

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