John Byrwa: Team USA has right mix to succeed

At Medinah, Phil Mickelson will set a new record with his ninth Ryder Cup start.

Byrwa: Team USA has right mix to succeed

A battle-hardened European team will provide an epic challenge at Medinah. But, John Byrwa says, Team USA appears to have the right mix of youthful exuberance and veteran leadership.

By John L. Byrwa, Managing Editor

NEW YORK – To the casual observer – and even to some expert ones -- Team Europe could be considered a favorite to claim the 39th Ryder Cup later this month. And rightly so, at least on paper.

Especially when one gives serious weight to overall Ryder Cup experience.

To wit: Led by Ryder Cup stalwarts Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter and Luke Donald – and with but one rookie, Belgium’s Nicolas Colsaerts, on its 12-man roster -- Team Europe and Captain José Maria Olázábal will bring a seasoned and battle-hardened squad to Medinah Country Club outside Chicago.

Combined, Westwood, Garcia, Poulter and Donald have competed in 79 career Ryder Cup matches, amassing an impressive 51 ½ of Team Europe’s 69 total career match points won over that period. Seven other members all have at least one appearance in golf’s most pressure-packed and prestigious event, including Rory McIlroy, currently the hottest player on the planet after his PGA Championship win in August and his come-from-behind victory at the Deutsche Bank Championship.

Former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland has two Ryder Cups under his belt, including a hero’s role in Europe’s thrilling 14 ½-13 ½ victory at Celtic Manor in Wales two years ago. Former Open Champion Paul Lawrie, the resurgent Scot, has played in only one Ryder Cup but his 3-1-1 record in five career matches is impressive. Likewise for England’s Justin Rose, also making his second appearance for Team Europe, who went 3-1-0 in his four matches at the 2008 Ryder Cup at Valhalla.

Team USA, on the other hand, will feature four rookies – Keegan Bradley, Jason Dufner, Webb Simpson and captain’s pick Brandt Snedeker -- and three other players who have but one Ryder Cup on their respective résumés – Dustin Johnson, another captain’s pick, Matt Kuchar and Bubba Watson.

At first glance not exactly a roster that should instill fear in its opponents, especially when one considers that the Americans have lost six of the last eight Ryder Cups, three of the last four in embarrassingly lopsided fashion.

However, all the statistics aside, the people who matter most know that the Ryder Cup is played on pristine grass not perishable paper. And the fact that the Americans have combined to win 12 tournaments this year, including two majors (Webb the U.S. Open and Watson the Masters) and a World Golf Championship, gives Captain Davis Love III optimism. 

“I'm not a statistical nut,” said Love, who completed his team on Tuesday with captain’s picks Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker, Dustin Johnson and Snedeker. “You have to remember, I've been talking to (sports psychologist) Bob Rotella since 1985, so we try to stay away from analyzing the stats. Just get into the process, not the result.

“Guys playing good right now are who we want. Like Jim Furyk said, he's not looking at the stats, either. He's thinking how are we going to go win this Ryder Cup? Who am I going to play with to win my match this year? I think that's really all that matters.”

What also really matters to Love is having comfort in knowing that countering his youth movement is a cast of Ryder Cup veterans who have already experienced the sweaty palms, racing heartbeat and dry mouth one experiences when the golfing fate of a country, not one’s bank account, hangs in the balance.

Every successful Ryder Cup team requires a careful blend of youthful exuberance and veteran experience, and Team USA appears to have the right mix. Again, on paper.

Helping the American rookies find their footing in what is sure to be the most pressure-packed environment they’ve ever experienced will be five names familiar to even the most casual of golf fans: Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Zach Johnson, Furyk and Stricker.

And while to date the above quintet might not have posted the type of individual (or team) Ryder Cup records they would have liked – combined they’ve earned a less-than-inspiring 45 out of a possible 104 points over 25 career appearances – each of the five brings valued experience and loads of potential.

-- Mickelson, as streaky a player as there is on the PGA Tour, has played in every Ryder Cup since 1995, and when he hits his first tee shot at Medinah will break the all-time record for most Ryder Cup appearances with nine.

-- Furyk, the only member of Team USA without a win this season, nearly won the U.S. Open and will be making his eighth straight appearance in the Ryder Cup.

-- Woods will be making his seventh appearance, while Stricker and Zach Johnson their third each.

But despite all of their impressive experience, the fact remains that their respective Ryder Cup records leave much to be desired, especially in the team portion of the competition; in foursomes (alternate shot) the Americans are a combined 12-22-8 (42.0 point percentage) and in fourballs they are 14-26-6 (36.9 point percentage).

The Europeans, on the other hand, are a combined 27-9-7 (70.9 percent) in foursomes and 21-9-10 in fourballs.

“Well, one theory is that the European Team is always strong, like us, and it's always pretty close,” Love said of Team USA’s troubling record in fourballs and foursomes. “When you go back and look at records, you can pull out names of Hall of Fame guys and you think, well, these guys must have had an unbelievable Ryder Cup record and you look at them and you go, wow, they have a terrible Ryder Cup record. You never know. Pairing guys up is tough but playing The Ryder Cup is tough.

“You never know; you can analyze it, analyze it to death on the numbers. But you know, we have guys that pair up very well this time. That was something crucial that Paul (Azinger, the 2008 Team USA captain) was telling me is you've got to make sure when you're picking guys, you're picking pairings and who is going to sit out, things like that.” 

Still, Love likes what he sees in his lineup.

“I'm not a statistical nut,” said Love, himself a veteran of six Ryder Cups as a player. “You have to remember, I've been talking to (sports psychologist) Bob Rotella since 1985 so we try to stay away from analyzing the stats, just get into the process, not the result.

“If you go and say, well, I can't pick this guy because in these two Ryder Cups he didn't win any matches. Well, guys playing good right now is who we want. Like Jim Furyk said, he's not looking at the stats, either. He's thinking, how are we going to go win this Ryder Cup, who am I going to play with to win my match this year and I think that's really all that matters.

“Past history, I know the other side's not looking at our record; well, what has Dustin Johnson or what has Tiger Woods, what's their record,” Love added. “They know at Medinah they are going to be up against long hitters that are perfect on that golf course and that's really what matters.”