Europe can use local knowledge to spring Ryder Cup surprise

Host David Ginola with the European team, right, and their USA rivals, left, at the Ryder Cup opening ceremony at Le Golf National in Paris. Picture: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty
Host David Ginola with the European team, right, and their USA rivals, left, at the Ryder Cup opening ceremony at Le Golf National in Paris. Picture: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty
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Forget the world rankings. Forget the Tiger Woods factor. Forget the Americans discovering team harmony in the event. The 42nd Ryder Cup, just the second edition of the transatlantic tussle to be staged in continental Europe, is all about Le Golf National and that, for this correspondent at least, points to a home victory this weekend.

Yes, of course, this United States team looks pretty formidable, even stronger, in fact, than the one which triumphed comfortably in the event for the first time since 2008 at Hazeltine two years ago. All 12 of the players in Jim Furyk’s team are inside the top 25 in the world rankings, giving the visitors their best-average ranking of 11.17. In comparison, Europe’s average is 19.03 - their third best since the world rankings began in 1986.

Yes, of course, Woods is heading into his eighth Ryder Cup appearance in buoyant mood, having made a timely return to winning ways in the Tour Championship in Atlanta last Sunday – his first victory since 2003 and first since defying the odds to get his game back on track after career-threatening back trouble.

Yes, of course, the Americans are no longer a bunch who seemed to care very little about the Ryder Cup, having used Phil Mickelson’s public slaughtering of the captain, Tom Watson, pictured, at Gleneagles four years ago as the catalyst to create the sort of team harmony that was behind Europe triumphing in eight out of 10 contests.

The combination of all those factors is why the US are favourites heading into this eagerly-awaited clash, having been heavily fancied to come out on top since they blew the International side out of the water in the Presidents Cup 12 months ago. But there’s a good reason why there’s been a growing feeling of optimism in the European team room as the phoney war ends and the gloves come off.

The Americans have not tasted victory on this side of the Atlantic since 1993, before even Woods and Phil Mickelson first stepped on to this particular stage. Since then, Europe have won at Valderrama, The Belfry, The K Club, Celtic Manor and, of course, Gleneagles – all courses they were familiar with through regular visits for European Tour events in the build up to those encounters.

Quite possibly, the Class of 2018 know Le Golf National, a magnificent golf course and tailor-made for this event due to it being a stadium-style layout with most fairways being flanked by high banks, better than any of those previous successful sides. The French Open, after all, has been staged here for 17 years in a row and, of the 12 players in Thomas Bjorn’s team, all but Tyrrell Hatton have recorded a top-10 finish in the French Open around this very circuit.

Ian Poulter, Europe’s talisman in the event these days, having taken over that mantle from Colin Montgomerie, has not missed a cut here in 13 appearances. Tommy Fleetwood and Alex Noren are the last two French Open winners while Francesco Molinari has produced a string of solid performances in the same event.

It’s impossible to overlook just how well this European team knows the course, as is the fact it’s been set up to be exactly the same as it normally is for the French Open. In fact, it could quite possibly be the toughest-ever test for a Ryder Cup, even bearing in mind that it was played back in the day at the likes of Muirfield, Royal Lytham and Royal Birkdale.

Unlike Hazeltine, for example, there will be no standing up on every tee and opening the shoulders with a driver safe in the knowledge that a wayward shot would not necessarily be punished accordingly. This place is tight off the tee anyway, partly due to numerous water hazards scattered around the course. But add in rough that has been described as “brutal” and players such as Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Tony Finau won’t be able to use their prodigious hitting prowess to overpower their opponents. This Ryder Cup is going to be won by accuracy from the tee and, equally importantly, strong mid-iron play.

As always, how the rookies perform will be another big factor. Europe went into battle with six two years ago and were always fighting a losing battle after going down 4-0 in the opening session, which could be pivotal once more. Five newcomers are being blooded by Bjorn in this match but, with Tommy Fleetwood and Jon Rahm in particular, you are talking about players who are proven winners at the highest level in the game. Admittedly, the same can be said, of course, about Justin Thomas and Bryson DeChambeau, two of three rookies in the US line-up.

In the Ryder Cup, it’s about holding your nerve, especially in those matches that are tight. It was Woods who talked earlier in the week about how it was plain and simple – who wins the 18th hole can decide this tussle. He’s right, as, for example, two previous European triumphs illustrated.

In 2004 at Oakland Hills, 11 of the 28 matches went the distance, with the visitors claiming eight-and-a-half points from those particular games. Then, when pulling off the “Miracle at Medinah” in 2012, they claimed nine-and-half points from 12 encounters that went to the 18th.

Yes, this American team, jam-packed with superstars, will be extremely formidable opponents, but I’m taking Europe to win 15-13.

And for those writing off Bjorn’s boys before a ball has been struck in anger, then 
perhaps it is worth reflecting on this quote from Napoleon Bonaparte, a man who won his fair share of battles on French soil: “Impossible is a word found only in the dictionary of fools.”