As far back as January, when both visited the Middle East for the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship, the likes of Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler were displaying a hunger for the Ryder Cup that has never really been apparent in the Team USA camp over the past 20 years.
“It’s a huge goal this year for me and possibly at the very top of the list to try and get that win as a team,” said Spieth at the time, having experienced his first taste of the biennial event at Gleneagles in 2014 and enjoying its cut and thrust nature, though not the fact he ended up on the third American side in a row to suffer defeat.
Nine months on, the opportunity for Spieth, Fowler and Patrick Reed to back up their words with match-winning performances is here and, according to Butch Harmon, pictured, the pre-match talk in the Team USA camp heading into this week’s match at Hazeltine is definitely not hollow. Far from it, in fact.
“They better be because the last 20 years they’ve been getting their butts kicked,” said the respected coach in reply to being asked if he felt this American side was possibly the most determined ever heading into the biennial bout starting in Minnesota on Friday.
“They’ve only won two of the last ten and I think this team is very committed and into it – into it more than any of the US teams I’ve seen in all the years I’ve been involved in the Ryder Cup and this is my 11th one working for Sky Sports.
“This team has been talking about it all year.
“It’s the most committed I’ve seen the guys being and how much the European players are into the Ryder Cup is one of the things I’ve really admired about them. It is so important to them.
“I’m not saying our guys haven’t tried in the past because everybody tries, but now we are seeing a much younger group of guys who are not only good but also into the Ryder Cup.”
Four of the 12 players on Davis Love’s side are coached by Harmon, namely 2015 Scottish Open champion Fowler, world No 2 Dustin Johnson, Brandt Snedeker and Jimmy Walker, the latter heading into his second appearance in the event buoyed by winning the US PGA Championship earlier this year.
“I was with the guys when they were up at Hazeltine last Monday (for a get-together) and Jimmy was one of them,” said Harmon of the Texan, who was paired with Fowler for both the fourballs and foursomes by Tom Watson two years ago at Gleneagles, where they halved the first three before losing heavily to Victor Dubuisson and Graeme McDowell on the Saturday afternoon.
“He is really geared up for it as he really looks forward to the Ryder Cup as he loves the competition and the head-to-head part of it. Even though he and Rickie didn’t win a match at Gleneagles, they took three of them to the last hole and I think you might see that pairing again.
“I think you may see Jimmy with a bunch of different guys as he’s pretty much a player you could pair with anybody. He’s got that type of personality and is an unbelievable competitor. He’s really fired up. He was ready last Monday and I had to tell him, ‘you’re a week early pal’.”
With Darren Clarke at the helm for the first time, Europe are seeking an unprecedented fourth win in a row while the Americans have recalled Love, the captain in 2012, to try and avoid a ninth defeat in the last 11 matches.
“I thought he did a great job at Medinah, where it was down to the greatest comeback in the history of the Ryder Cup that the US lost that match,” said Harmon of Love. “The Ryder Cup comes down to almost a putting contest due to it being match play. The ones who hole the pressure putts come out on top, as Ian Poulter showed when he birdied the last five holes on the Saturday night at Medinah.
“That gave Europe momentum. I don’t think Davis did anything wrong. I liked the way he set up his team for Sunday and he had them all ready to go. The guys just didn’t deliver.
“I think a lot of the time a captain gets too much credit when they win and too much criticism when they lose. But, as a friend of his for a long time, I can tell you that Davis has done a phenomenal job for this match.
“He’s done everything in his power and it’s now down to his team. He’s one of the most well-liked players on the Tour and he has really listened to the players going into this match. He’s got their opinions and taken on board what they had to say.”
Whereas Europe have six rookies in their side, Brooks Koepka is the sole newcomer this time around for the Americans.
He qualified automatically just three years after winning the SSE Scottish Hydro Challenge at Macdonald Spey Valley in Aviemore, having headed to Europe to cut his professional teeth and becoming a trend-setter in that respect among young Americans.
“I think it was a smart way for him to do it and years ago I advised Adam Scott to do it the same way. Adam went on to become one of best players in the world and, of course, win The Masters,” said Harmon.
“Europe is a great testing ground for a young player. Those who play only in America get spoiled. The conditions are so good, the practice facilities are so good and the travel is easy.
“I think you can learn more playing in Europe. It is a better judge of where your game is. You not only have to play on different types of grass and golf courses but also have to play in different weather conditions.
“Travelling is a lot more difficult. You’re not travelling from state to state but country to country. It is a great way to test yourself and it was a great proving ground for Brooks.”
Harmon is confident that Koepka can handle the pressure of playing in golf’s biggest team event and the same goes for the European rookies, who include Masters champion Danny Willett and this year’s BMW PGA Championship winner, Chris Wood.
“In this day and age, due to how good these young players are, the term rookie is overplayed in the Ryder Cup. Just because you haven’t played in one before doesn’t mean that you can’t handle the pressure of it,” he insisted.
“The European team has a few rookies but I don’t look at rookies being a problem any more. In the old days it might have been with a lack of competition worldwide. But, with everyone playing against each other these days, I think describing someone as a rookie is immaterial.”
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