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Fair course setup gives Americans edge in mind games
Until the Europeans arrived in 1979 as reinforcements for the Great Britain and Ireland squad, America's dominance in this biennial competition was projected on both shores. Beginning in 1987 at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, which, like Valhalla, is a creation of Jack Nicklaus, the Europeans started asserting their might in the New World with regularity, adding conquests at Oak Hill and Oakland Hills, venerable American golfing fortresses.
The architectural veneer of Valhalla, which Nicklaus renovated in the last two years, offers vintage touches of the Golden Bear's design philosophy with its generous fairways and relatively small greens featuring strong movement and fortified by bunkers and mounds on their periphery. It is, intrinsically, an aerial test and a second-shot golf course -- modern and very American at its core even if its natural setting evinces a dichotomous personality with a links-like outward nine contrasting the parkland pitch of the inward holes.
In addition, Nicklaus, allowing for the evolutionary forces in the modern power game that he himself initiated, injected Valhalla with an additional 399 yards to bring the par-71 layout to 7,496 yards.
Under the direction of U.S. captain Paul Azinger, Valhalla, which previously hosted the 1996 and 2000 PGA Championships, has been set up in a way that could be construed to favor American interests, given the generous landing areas beyond 300 yards off the tee. But the Europeans have a middle batting order stocked with its own power hitters. Only the raw pugilism of Kentuckian J.B. Holmes, whose local knowledge of Valhalla runs almost as long as his drives travel, tilts the scale in America's favor.
Therefore, the copious amounts of driving room offer solace to both squads, as does the 3½-inch rough, which shouldn't prevent competitors from advancing the ball, though it will make keeping the ball on the firm greens more difficult and leading to tricky recoveries either from shaved chipping areas or the same 3-plus inch mix of Kentucky bluegrass and bermudagrass rough
The all-carry shot values like those at Valhalla long ago ceased to be an impediment to scoring for the Europeans, who compete increasingly in America. It is worth noting that England's Paul Casey is the only player among the 24 present to make the cut in all four major championships the last two years. Countryman Ian Poulter would have joined him were it not for an injury that compelled his withdrawal from this year's U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. The current PGA champion is Ireland's Padraig Harrington, who ended a European drought stretching back to 1930.
Let us also note that when the Europeans arrived Monday from their trans-Atlantic flight, only seven players disembarked with captain Nick Faldo. His remaining five charges simply journeyed from their U.S. dwellings.
Thus, the only seeming legitimate advantage for the home team when its members begin the task of reclaiming a piece of golfing honor and will be secured via exhortations from the fervent pro-American crowd. They will assist U.S. players immeasurably, but it won't be enough.
That is not to suggest that Europe will win on American soil again. There is simply no getting around the fact that U.S. players have to perform better, or "man up" as Jim Furyk asserted. They will have to make birdies and they will have to convert clutch putts.
The setup facilitates opportunities for that to occur.
"He (Azinger) wants to set it up where aggressive play is rewarded," said U.S. veteran and Ryder Cup rookie Steve Stricker. "I think that's what's going to happen."
"There will be eagles and birdies and all sorts of stuff flying around," Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell said in concurrence.
In essence, what Azinger has done is to give his players a show of faith by providing a level playing field. The Yanks will not be handcuffed like we have seen at Valderrama, Spain, in 1997 and at The Belfry in 2002, or even at Oakland Hills in '04 when the U.S. Open-like setup inhibited their freewheeling proclivities.
"I like the way we hit irons; what would be the worst thing I could do with a team that plays great iron shots is handcuff them out of the rough. That's my philosophy," Azinger explained on Wednesday. "The rough is not short or anything because we have a power advantage. I think equally, we're equally yoked in power, both teams. So I'm looking to let our guys play golf, that's it.
"My belief is that I want everybody to have a chance to play," Azinger added. "And the best players will win in the end."
This is an important assertion, for its underlying tone suggests that he believes his players will be the best. By presenting a setup that favors neither contingent, Azinger has, on a subliminal level, injected his team with a psychological edge.
"I know you can beat them, so go out and do it."
This is a powerful message. This is the power game with which the Americans can win.