Ryder Cup: Jose Maria Olazabal has emotional edge as battle looms

FOUR American rookies will feel immense pressure they have never experienced before.

You look for tell-tale signs. Four years ago in Valhalla, for instance, Nick Faldo set the alarm bells ringing early. First, he made a fool of himself by trying to fob off a pairings sheet captured by a photographer as the sandwich list. Then, at the opening ceremony, he botched the introduction of some of his team members. In the match itself, Paul Azinger’s meticulous preparation, including his pod system, proved a cut above and the Americans emerged with a deserved victory.

The two captains here, Davis Love III and Jose Maria Olazabal, look to be more evenly balanced in terms of what they can offer their respective players over the next three days. They have mutual respect for each other, share a strong passion for the Ryder Cup and will be sending players into battle who would try to run through a brick wall for them.

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Yet, in the build-up to the 39th Ryder Cup, an event that has caught the imagination of the sporting public more than ever on the back of a memorable Olympic Games in London and Andy Murray winning the US Open, there has been the odd sign, nothing major but enough to catch this correspondent’s eye, that suggests Olazbal is just going to have the edge.

For instance, Love starting to well up in one of his press conferences this week. Sure, it’s an emotional event. To captain your country (continent in the case of Olazabal) in such a huge sporting event is a massive honour and there’s no danger of Love taking that lightly. But, if he is shedding tears before the gun goes off, then what is he going to be like if he needs to deliver an inspiring team talk heading into the singles on Sunday?

They argue differently, but I also still wonder if the Americans realise this is a team event. Yesterday, for example, Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley were out practising on their own. Okay, they are likely to be one of Love’s key pairings this week, but, for me anyway, that sent out the wrong signal in terms of them being part of a group of 12 players taking part in this event.

Four of them – Bradley, Jason Dufner, Webb Simpson and Brandt Snedeker – are rookies, whereas Nicolas Colsaerts, the big-hitting Belgian, is the only player on the European team getting his first taste of this unique event. In my book, that makes the European favourites, even though the bookmakers have it the other way around.

Europe won last time, at Celtic Manor in Wales, but it was close and they had six rookies in Colin Montgomerie’s team. But these American new boys are good players, I hear you say. Correct. Bradley and Simpson have both won majors in the last year or so, Dufner chalked up two victories on the PGA Tour to help seal his place in the team and Snedeker is riding on the crest of a wave after scoring a double-whammy in the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup.

But this is the Ryder Cup. It’s different to anything they’ve experienced before in their career. Chris Riley was one of the American rookies at Oakland Hills in Detroit eight years ago. On the second day, Riley partnered Tiger Woods to a comfortable morning victory over Darren Clarke and Ian Poulter. Yet, such was the draining effect of that effort, he asked to sit out the afternoon session.

They may have majors and pots of money in the bank, but it’s impossible to say how valuable those four rookies are going to be for Love until they step on to that first tee today. They will be helped by the fact that the stands around it are nowhere near as intimidating as Wales were two years ago. But, with 40,000 fans lining the length of the fairway, the noise will be turned up to the same volume.

Much has been said this week about the Medinah No 3 course, which was originally designed by Tom Bendelow, who hailed from Aberdeen, but has twice been tweaked over the years. That is not surprising given that there is no rough of any note. David Inglis, the former Walker Cup player from Glencorse who is now the assistant golf coach at Northwestern University in Chicago, said he reckons it is playing a lot easier this week than it does for the members.

It is down to Love. For starters, he is not a fan of rough. He also wants on-course spectators and a massive armchair audience to watch players making eagles and birdies over the next few days instead of chopping balls back into play. He doesn’t want his big-hitters to feel restricted on the tee, yet the last time a Ryder Cup course was set up like this – at The Belfry in 2002 – a European team with Sam Torrance at the helm came out on top. It could, therefore, backfire on Love.

The course itself looks as though it will be perfect for a matchplay event like this. There are three short holes over water – the second, the 13th and the 17th. The latter, in particular, is a cracking little hole and, with a bank at the back of the green, it’s going to be one of the noisiest corners of the property.

The 15th, which has been re-designed especially for this event, has the makings of a great Ryder Cup hole. It is similar to the tenth at The Belfry in as much as it is a driveable par-4 if the tee is brought forward, as it was for the final practice session yesterday.

Then there’s the 16th, where Sergio Garcia, a fresh-faced youngster at the time, took his life into his own hands by playing a shot around a tree on his way to finishing second in the 1999 USPGA Championship. That tree is no longer there, but the giant one on the other side provides a real challenge from the tee.

That USPGA Chanmpionship 13 years ago was won by Tiger Woods, who claimed the same title here in 2006. Chicago, in fact, has been a lucky city for Woods and, with just one win from seven previous Ryder Cup appearances, he will be hoping that streak continues this week.

Not surprisingly, much of the talk in the build-up to the event has centred on Rory McIlroy, the world No 1 and golf’s man of the moment. The Americans, in particular, are licking their lips at the prospect of a McIlroy-Woods showdown in the singles on Sunday.

Both players have key roles to play for their teams, of that there is no doubt. However, neither can win the event single-handed. Success in a Ryder Cup stems from most members of the team contributing. Europe have fared better in that respect in recent years, hence their fact they have won six of the last eight encounters.

A good start is normally vital, though not always imperative. Europe lost that session in Wales – as they did at Valhalla – but still managed to win. The weather interfered on that occasion, but shouldn’t be a factor here. It has been lovely all week in the “Windy City” and the forecast is good for the next three days.

With Paul Lawrie in the team – it is the first time a Scot has been involved in a playing role since The K Club six years ago – the Saltire was raised at yesterday’s opening ceremony and will be waved around the course by fans who have travelled here this week. Whether they will be able to make their voices heard, however, remains to be seen.

Even on the practice days, the Americans have been in full cry. That was to be expected. Chicago, after all, is one of those true sporting cities and the atmosphere here was always going to be raucous. The challenge for the Europeans will be to quieten them as quickly as they can by getting blue up on the scoreboards early on.

It has the makings of a great spectacle. In baseball parlance, Europe, the team with the better recent record, are the White Sox while the Americans are the struggling Cubs. It looks as though it will be tight, perhaps even ending in a draw, which would see Europe hang on to the trophy.

But, based on those little tell-tale signs and the rookie factor, I’m going for Olazabal to come out on top and, in doing so, deliver the best possible memorial for Seve Ballesteros, his close friend and Ryder Cup compadre.