TEMPLATE. It’s been one of this week’s buzzwords. Europe have one; America don’t. Would they like one? Oh, yes. It’s been the reason why the balance of power in the Ryder Cup has shifted dramatically to this side of the Atlantic.
Tony Jacklin drew up the European template in 1985. Since then, it’s been enhanced – most of the times anyway – by his successors, of which there have been nine. Between them, they’ve chalked up nine victories in 15 matches, including seven in the last nine.
Of those European captains, only Nick Faldo probably paid too little attention to the template. He paid the price for that, though, in fairness, his opposite number, Paul Azinger, came up with a ‘pod system’ – players were split, almost forensically, into groups of four and assigned a vice-captain – that worked for him at Valhalla six years ago.
It’s a mystery why that wasn’t retained by his successor, Corey Pavin, at Celtic Manor two years later then carried into the 2012 Medinah match under Davis Love’s watch, though the latter was, it must be said, a tad unfortunate not to end up as a winning captain. Having put out some good pairings on the first two days, his side should have won in Chicago. That they didn’t still leaves those that witnessed Europe’s record-equalling last-day comeback shaking their heads in disbelief at the mere mention of it.
Heading into this Ryder Cup, the 40th one and first in Scotland since the match at Muirfield in 1973, Europe’s template has been rolled out again. The man enhancing it on this occasion, Irishman Paul McGinley, will ensure it is followed to the T. “This is not a time for Europe to have a maverick captain,” he insisted.
Interestingly, his opposite number, Tom Watson, has re-introduced that ‘pod system’ on his return as captain after a 21-year absence, the five-times Open champion, at 65, becoming the oldest person in the event’s history to hold the post on either team. Only time will tell if that can muster a win they badly need – the event as a whole, too, it could be argued – as the momentum definitely lies with Europe.
“The Americans tend to play not to lose. Europe plays to win,” observed experienced and esteemed US golf writer Doug Ferguson, of the Associated Press. “Paul McGinley speaks of a template, and I think that template is to keep it light, have fun and play to win for each other. That’s what America is lacking. Paul Azinger turned Americans into Europeans for one week in Kentucky six years ago.” Jeff Babineau, the senior writer at Golfweek, said he believes the Americans look burdened when they don Ryder Cup colours these days. “They play as if they have a ton of bricks on their collective shoulders,” he commented. “The key US players since 1997 (Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk) have been on losing sides, have pedestrian records as individuals and have built up some scar tissue.”
Bob Harig, the senior golf writer for ESPN.com, doesn’t buy into talk that a lack of American success is down to either a lack of team chemistry or shortage of desire.
“Many theories have been put forth over the years, all of which are off the mark,” he claimed. “It’s simply about being outplayed. How does team chemistry factor in having lost each of the past two Ryder Cups by the slimmest of margins (a single point)?”
It was 1993 when the Americans last won on European soil. The captain then? Tom Watson. Can he work some magic again and add a Ryder Cup triumph to the five Open Championships he claimed on Scottish soil? “I liked the choice when it was originally made because I believed Tom Watson would get away from the cronyism and break the cycle of unoriginal thinking that has been a fault of too many American captains – the biggest believing experience always trumps form,” said Scott Michaux, of the Augusta Chronicle.
“Sadly, Watson went down the same tired road with his three “safe” picks, showing no inspiration or daring to take bold chances on fiery young players like Chris Kirk (or Billy Horschel, who unfortunately showed up too late). The best US players of recent vintage have been rookies (Paul Azinger won with six of them in 2008) who bring a fresh energy and no excess baggage to the Ryder Cup.”
Mike Purkey, deputy editor at digital magazine Global Golf Post, described Watson’s appointment as “curious” but believes neither him nor McGinley will be the determining factors over the next three days. “Granted, he’s the last US captain to win on European soil, so you can see the thinking behind the choice,” he said. “Still, he doesn’t relate very well to the younger players on the team and comes across at times that he insists on things being done his way. Still, even with Paul Azinger’s successful strategy at Valhalla, the role of the captain is highly-overrated.”
At Medinah, Mickelson and Keegan Bradley, a rookie then and one of Watson’s wildcards this time, galvanised the Americans as they won three matches out of three. That partnership has been retained by Watson, but Ferguson believes that effort last time out will put them under “a lot of pressure” here. He sees Furyk, on his ninth appearance, potentially being the American “mainstay”.
Babineau also picked out Furyk as his key player and believes Jimmy Walker could be a “sleeper” in the visiting ranks. In Michaux’s eyes, Rickie Fowler, coming in here on the back of finishing in the top five in all four majors this season, could be a “five-point” player for the Americans due to him being the “perfect utility player”. Concurring, Purkey said: “This is a team lacking an inspirational leader and Fowler, even at a young age (25), could very well be that person.”
Harig is looking for Mickelson to step up to the plate in Perthshire. “This is Phil’s tenth Ryder Cup, and he has never needed a captain’s pick,” he pointed out. “It would be some story if he were to be the main man this week.”
On paper, the two teams are evenly matched. There’s little to separate them in a mean average from the world rankings. Indeed, the Americans were marginally stronger on that basis when the sides were finalised at the beginning of the month. Each team has three rookies, the home ranks, of course, including Stephen Gallacher, who lives just 37 miles from Gleneagles and knows this course like the back of his hand. More important than how those newbies perform, though, is what the established Ryder Cup men bring to the table. Lee Westwood, for example, in the European team; Mickelson and Furyk for the Americans. Then there’s Rory McIlroy and let’s not forget the ‘Ian Poulter Factor’.
Overshadowed by others two years ago, Poulter in particular, this is McIlroy’s time to shine on this stage. Show why he is the world No 1. Show why he’s now the game’s box-office star.
Poulter, of course, has nothing to prove in this event. His record of 12 points from 15 matches in four previous appearances is awesome. It wouldn’t do any harm, though, if he turned up again wearing that superhuman cape.
Medinah is a hard act to follow. Impossible probably. What lies ahead, though, over three days is a fascinating contest, another one that could quite possibly go down in the annals of a tournament that captivates people in a way no other event in golf comes close.