Sitting in the Irish Barn at Whistling Straits wasn’t the only thing that made Padraig Harrington feel at home. “It looks like an Irish day out there,” he observed on a dank morning on the banks of Lake Michigan as a weather front swept in from the west, bringing a dramatic change from the glorious warm sunshine the previous day in Wisconsin. “An Irish summer’s day,” he added with one of his boyish smiles.
The European captain was speaking as he sat alongside his United States counterpart, Steve Stricker, at their first joint press conference ahead of next year’s Ryder Cup here, the pair getting together at a “Year to Go” event that marked the start of the big countdown to the 43rd edition of the transatlantic tussle.
As you’d probably expect – the gloves will not come off until late September next year – it was a friendly affair as the duo recalled personal memories from the event, the fortunes of their respective sides under different captains last time around in France, threw about some names of potential team members for 2020 and offered their views on this new venue for the event.
“I think it will be a great venue for the Ryder Cup,” opined Harrington of a course where he’s teed it up in three US PGA Championships, most recently in 2015. “It’s a dramatic golf course and we need that in the Ryder Cup. You need a dramatic golf course that lends itself to spectacular play, as well as some disastrous play. That’s what match play is about.”
He reiterated an opinion he’d previously expressed about believing the Ryder Cup maybe should have a “neutral” course set-up some time in the future, having watched the Americans win when it was a “birdie-fest” at Hazeltine in 2016 then Europe triumphing by seven points on a tight Le Golf National course in France two years ago.
But, as he gazed out on to Whistling Straits just as the flock of Scottish blackface sheep that the venue’s owner, Herb Kohler, bought to complete the theme on this stunning man-made links course crossed the 18th fairway, Harrington described it as a “much more natural golf course” than some of the others used for the event.
“I’m interested to see down the road what Steve has in store, but it doesn’t look like you can do a lot with this golf course,” observed Harrington. “As much as it was obviously designed and built there, it looks like it’s just in a natural setting all its life and even the weather could be very changeable the week of the Ryder Cup next year. In the three PGAs I played here, what I remember most is the variability of the golf course weather-wise. A change of direction of wind can just massively change how a hole plays. Moving a tee box forward can change the whole character of holes. So, in many ways, this is a golf course that is just going to test the players on its own merits.”
Before the weather turned really nasty on this particular day as a thunderstorm hit the area, Harrington spoke about his passion for this event. “There’s a really great Irish heritage in the Ryder Cup,” he said of growing up with memories of the biennial bout from visits to Royal Dublin and seeing golf bags and other memorabilia from Christy O’Connor snr’s exploits in it, then watching Christy O’Connor jnr, Eamonn Darcy and Philip Walton providing memorable moments in the match.
Reflecting on his own debut at Brookline in 1999, Harrington said: “That still goes down as probably the most electrifying week I’ve ever had on a golf course. It was just so exciting, the atmosphere, the buzz of it. On the Sunday actually, I beat Mark O’Meara, and it looked like I had won the Ryder Cup at that stage but, literally five minutes later, Justin Leonard holed that putt (at the 17th against Jose Maria Olazabal that led to the Americans raucously invading the green) and it was all taken away. The highs and lows were exceptional. You’d never see it in any other event like it, and that’s why we love Ryder Cup. I think that’s why people, not just golf fans, love the Ryder Cup. It’s dramatic, exciting – the ebbs and flows in it. Every Ryder Cup throws up something dramatic and exciting. It really is; it never ceases to keep giving.”
Stricker, from Madison, Wisconsin, who will be bidding to taste victory on his home turf said he wouldn’t be surprised to see veteran duo Tiger Woods, left, and Phil Mickelson make the home team, although he overlooked them when picking out possible “mainstays”.
“The state of Wisconsin is going to show up big time and we’re going to have the crowd on our side, so hopefully that will deter from what looks like an Irish setting out there,” said Stricker, conceding the Americans had been “outplayed” a year ago when he was one of Jim Furyk’s vice-captains. “It’s about learning from the past a little and moving forward. It’s about playing better.”