USA captain Tom Watson has picked out Ian Poulter ahead of world No 1 Rory McIlroy as the most important scalp for his team in this week’s Ryder Cup.
After flying into Scotland with his players for the 40th match starting on Friday, the five-times Open champion immediately highlighted how important it was for the visitors to clip Poulter’s wings in Perthshire. That follows the Englishman picking up 12 points from 15 games in four previous appearances, which included an inspirational performance as he birdied the last five holes in the Saturday fourballs when Europe pulled off their “Miracle at Medinah” two years ago.
“When you beat the stud on the opposing team, that gives your team a boost, not a question,” replied Watson to being asked if McIlroy was the man his team had to take down more than anyone else in their bid to record a first victory on European soil since 1993. “But Poulter has an 80 per cent record for the matches he’s played in – we’d like to reduce that.”
Before boarding their British Airways flight from Atlanta to Edinburgh, Watson made it clear to his players that their mission this week is to erase the lingering pain from Medinah, where Europe equalled the record last-day comeback to win 14½-13½.
“I made it very clear to them that this is a redemption trip,” stressed the 65-year-old.
“For those players on that team [there are seven of them], it’s time to make amends and redeem yourselves from what happened in 2012. I think it’s a motivation rather than a negative,” added Watson.
While well aware that his opposite number is trying to use that hurt from Chicago to put fire in the bellies of his players, European captain Paul McGinley used his first press conference of the week – a joint one with Watson – to point out that both him and his players can also use Medinah to their advantage.
“I think we learned a lot [there] as well and I was very fortunate to be part of the backroom team there,” said the Irishman. “It was a big learning curve for us in a lot of ways.
“We were really getting walloped the first two days and that was the first time I was in that situation.
“I learned a lot from [European captain] Jose Maria [Olazabal], the decisions he made and the structures he put in place to give us the best chance of getting out of the hole that we were in. Looking back on it now, it was a great experience.”
While it’s not something he’d ever have contemplated in his prime as a player, Watson said he was tickled by one of his players, Rickie Fowler, turning up for the flight with ‘USA’ shaved into his hair.
“I thought it was terrific,” Watson declared, smiling. “It brings a light spirit to the team and I wouldn’t be surprised if [PGA of America president] Ted Bishop puts ‘USA’ on the side of his head if it means we’re going to win.”
Two years after Bubba Watson broke tradition by asking the American fans to cheer as loud as they could as he teed off at Medinah – Poulter followed suit the next day – both captains are confident that over-exuberance won’t spill over on the first tee on Friday or any of the other two days of the clash.
“Not that I would endorse it or want our players to do it, what Bubba did spontaneously, as a one-off, was fantastic,” said McGinley.
“At that moment in time, I thought that was great.
“That’s what makes the Ryder Cup so special. Having said that, we all know, just like the crowd behaviour, there’s a line and we all want to stay on the right side of that line.”
Concurring, Watson added: “There’s a moment for certain things to happen, but there’s also a line that you shouldn’t cross and we are both traditionalists in that way.”
Football-style chanting may not exactly be traditional in golf, but it’s become a feature of team events like this. As the first tee resounds with Europe’s chant of “Ole Ole Ole”, Watson is hoping to hear American fans in the crowd respond with a song of their own.
“We have the US soccer cheer of ‘we believe that we can win’,” he revealed. “It’s really exciting when you hear it – it’s pretty cool.”
McGinley admitted Europe will go into the match as “slight favourites” and said that was “not something to be afraid of”. He also pointed out, though, that the mean average in terms of world rankings actually made the Americans the stronger side on paper.
Broaching the same subject, Watson said: “When the matches start at 7.35am on Friday, there’s going to be equality and we’ll just see who wins. I know our team is totally committed to bringing the Cup back and I’m going to do everything in my power to help them do that.”