US Ryder Cup team has the figures but Europe has heart and soul - a gripping three days await at Whistling Straits

Padraig Harrington has used a number theme, which involves all 164 of the players to represent Europe over the years, as a motivation tool for the 43rd Ryder Cup, but he could just as easily have borrowed a line from a hit song from the 1970s.

The Ryder Cup trophy perched on the first tee during practice rounds prior to the 43rd Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

“The bigger they are, the harder they fall” sang Jamaican reggae and soul artist Jimmy Cliff and the European players can definitely bear that in mind over the next three days against Steve Stricker’s side at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin.

After all, they are taking on the strongest side ever assembled for the biennial contest, with the hosts having nine of the world’s top-11 ranked players in their line up while Scottie Scheffler is the lowest of the 12 at 21st and, let’s face it, that’s not exactly shabby.

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The average world ranking of the American team is a mind-boggling 8.92 - the best since the Official World Golf Rankings were introduced in 1987 and the first time that number has ever been below 10.

Europeans, from left, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, captain Padraig Harrington, Rory McIlroy and Paul Casey pose with foam cheese hats during a practice round prior to the 43rd Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

In comparison, Europe’s average is 30.8 and, for the first time since 2004, they have just one player inside the top 10 in top-ranked Jon Rahm. Their lowest-ranked team member is Austrian Bernd Wiesberger at 63rd.

Based on those statistics, it should be a one-sided contest and the bookmakers have the Americans as strong favourites at 1-2 while Europe, apparently friendless in the market, are 2-1 shots.

Add in the fact this particular contest is being played in front of a predominantly US crowd due to few European fans being able to make the journey because of ongoing travel restrictions across the Atlantic, the odds are heavily-stacked against Harrington’s men.

But the one thing we should all have learned over the past 20 years is that you should never write off Europe when it comes to this contest and, having watched the women overcome a lack of support to win the Solheim Cup in Toledo earlier in the month, the men can certainly do likewise.

Rory McIlroy, Paul Casey and Ian Poulter share a laugh. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

It was a masterstroke by Harrington and Ryder Cup Europe earlier in the week for the visitors to wear the colours of the Green Bay Packers and toss foam cheeseheads to fans in one of the practice rounds in a nod to the local NFL team.

Bernhard Langer got his players to put on a similar charm offensive for the 2004 match at Oakland Hills in Detroit and, in front of a respectful crowd, the Europeans chalked up a record win on US soil.

Yes, of course, the loud Americans will be whooping, hollering, shouting and bawling in favour of Stricker’s side on the banks of Lake Michigan, but, at the same time, Harrington and his players have made friends in the build up rather than enemies.

Rory McIlroy throws a cheese head hat into the crowd as the European team embark on a charm offensive (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

No event in golf, though the Solheim Cup is getting close, gets pulses racing like the Ryder Cup and, partly because it was delayed by 12 months due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this encounter is particularly fascinating.

Will experience be the key factor? If so, Europe will come out on top for a tenth time in 13 matches as Harrington is holding the reins of the most experienced side since 1995 while, in comparison, this is the least experienced American team since 1997.

Will new blood be America’s recipe for success? With six rookies, Stricker will be hoping so but, even taking into account some fantastic individual wins recorded by the likes of Collin Morikawa, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay, only time will tell if they can deliver in an event that Tiger Woods, for example, never really managed to perform at his best.

Will Whistling Straits favour Europe? It shouldn’t purely based on the fact it’s on US soil, but it’s certainly not your typical PGA Tour-style course. Indeed, having a links feel to it, Harrington probably couldn’t have wished for a better venue as he bids to join Tony Jacklin, Bernard Gallacher, Langer and Jose Maria Olazabal as a winning captain on the other side of the Atlantic under the European flag.

Can Stricker get the best out of feuding duo Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau? The pair have certainly been saying all the right things so far this week, but Koepka’s dislike of DeChambeau is deep, so let’s not kid ourselves that the Americans are sitting around a fire at night singing Kumbaya!

Do Europe need to get off to a fast start? Not exactly. They never really recovered from a 4-0 whitewash in the opening session at Hazeltine in 2016 and definitely wouldn’t want a repeat of that on Friday morning. However, they have been the event’s dominant force despite having not led after the first session since 2006 and, as an example of how the panic button should never be pressed, they recovered from being 3-1 down in Paris in 2018 to win by seven points.

With six picks at his disposal, Stricker plumped for Schauffele, Daniel Berger, Harris English, Tony Finau, Scottie Scheffler and Jordan Spieth, mainly because he felt they were the right “fit” for Whistling Straits. By that, he probably meant most of them are big-hitters.

But, in leaving out ‘Captain America’ Patrick Reed in particular but also WGC Match Play champion Billy Horschel and in-form Kevin Na, the knives will be out if Stricker doesn’t come up with a winning recipe in his home state.

Harrrigton’s big call was omitting Justin Rose from his three wildcard selections, but, in picking Ian Poulter, Sergio Garcia and Shane Lowry, he believes the Europeans have a “nice, strong, balanced team” and feels comfortable about his proposed pairings for both formats.

Strong US teams on paper have fallen flat on their faces before. On the five occasions the world ranking average of Uncle Sam’s boys has been better than 15, they’ve lost four times.

Reputations go out of the window in this event. It’s heart and soul that matters most and, with Poulter and Garcia in particular but also Rahm, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood all having that in abundance, I’m going for a European win on Sunday.

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