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Ryder Cup rookies feel new pressure, bring new energy
When the 37th Ryder Cup Matches begin on Friday at Valhalla Golf Club, no competitor for either the United States and for Europe will be immune from feeling pressure like no other in golf. But it's the rookies who will feel it the most, who will recognize the nervousness but won't be familiar with its intensity.
It's largely for this reason that newcomers to the Ryder Cup fray aren't expected to contribute tremendously to the fortunes of their teams. It is the man with experience and moxie who thrives, who can handle the heat, the headaches, the heartaches and the hectic, hair-on-fire schedule.
But while experience can be helpful, and being on form doesn't hurt either, these factors aren't necessarily indicators of success in the Ryder Cup.
"I think experience is overrated," said U.S. captain Paul Azinger, who went 3-1-0 in his debut in 1989 at The Belfry in Sutton Coldfield, England. "My best Ryder Cup was my first Ryder Cup. I played great the whole week. I played. I didn't even play great in '93 at the Ryder Cup (as the reigning PGA champion). I played better than my record, but it was nothing special there."
It's no wonder then, that Azinger was not afraid to use three of his four captain's picks on first-time competitors -- J.B. Holmes, Steve Stricker and Hunter Mahan. They join fellow rookies and automatic qualifiers Anthony Kim, Ben Curtis and Boo Weekley on a U.S. team that features the most newcomers since eight Americans debuted for the 1979 team that went on to a 17-11 triumph.
Europe, which has won five of the last six meetings, counters with four rookies: Soren Hansen, Graeme McDowell, Justin Rose and Oliver Wilson. Its highest population of rookies appeared on the 1999 team that dominated for two days before the Americans staged their historic rally from six points down at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.
It's important to note that in the history of these matches that started in 1927, there have been 27 first-time American players who have gone undefeated who played at least two matches, including Larry Nelson, who posted a 5-0-0 mark in 1979. The Great Britain-Europe teams have four, led by Nick Faldo, who went 3-0-0 in his '77 debut.
Eighteen Americans have scored at least three points in their debut while Europe has had seven rookies score at least that many, including Sergio Garcia.
"I think the fact that we have six newcomers is a good thing," said Jim Furyk, who is playing for the U.S. for the sixth time. "I think Paul is actually very happy about that. He said it before, I heard him say it at his press conference, 'I don't know if experience is all that important because those guys have experience in losing.'"
"Here we are with a fresh team. To have players that are new that haven't felt the sting of defeat, it's a good thing," Stewart Cink added.
Phil Mickelson chimed in with similar sentiments, but he added that the selection process that was based on a one-year performance cycle initiated the growth of the rookie class. The younger guys played better in 2008.
"I think for the U.S. side, our new points system has helped get the players playing best this year because it's been a one year process," said Mickelson, who went 3-0-0 in the first of his six Ryder Cup appearances in 1995. "Just because some guys have not played in this particular event doesn't mean that they are not ready and equipped and have their games ready to play.
"Also, not being a part of the last few U.S. teams is not necessarily a bad thing," Lefty added. "So the guys who haven't played, they have never lost this event."
And two so-called rookies actually can hang their hats on contributing to a winning team. The fact is that two U.S. Ryder Cup rookies aren't pure rookies. They are new to the Ryder Cup, sure, but Stricker and Mahan competed for the victorious U.S. squad in last year's Presidents Cup, and they teamed up to twice win foursomes matches. Stricker also competed on the winning '96 Presidents Cup squad.
Nevertheless, to circle back to the beginning, nothing correlates to the Ryder Cup in terms of pressure, and Stricker, for one, seemed to understand that.
"The Presidents Cup team, I played on in '96 and then last year, and even the difference between those two years have been a great deal," Stricker said. "Some guys are telling me that it's getting closer to this event as far as impact, the type of crowds, the atmosphere and everything else.
"But they're telling me here, this is another level of anxiety, I guess, but to have fun with it," Stricker added. "That's the bottom line that they're telling us. You're going to be nervous; first tee is a tough one. But I always figured if you prepare well and you feel good about your game, all those things tend to be a little bit easier."