Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose were having lunch at the BMW Championship in Denver in 2014, a few weeks before the 40th Ryder Cup was to be played in Scotland. Rose’s longtime caddie, Mark Fulcher, got the attention of the players and popped a novel idea: Hey, why don’t you two play together at Gleneagles?
It made sense. Stenson is Swedish, Rose is English, but the two not only were friends familiar with one another’s games, they were also neighbors at the Lake Nona Club in Orlando, Fla. Their wives and children knew each other. Stenson had played in two previous Cup matches, but never had a steady partner; Rose had played alongside fellow Englishman Ian Poulter in 2012, but Poulter was injured this time around. They played a lot alike. Strong, powerful ball strikers.
“I thought about it and said, ‘I could see us being a good team,’ ” Stenson said. “So we sent a message to (Captain Paul) McGinley to let him know.”
Sure enough, McGinley sent the two out in the first pairing on the first day, on a brisk, four-layer Friday morning in Scotland. They took on Webb Simpson and Bubba Watson in foursomes and won, 5 and 4. They went out in Europe’s second slot in afternoon four-balls, and defeated Hunter Mahan and Zach Johnson, 3 and 2. The next morning, again McGinley sent Stenson and Rose off first, and they returned another four-balls triumph, this time beating Watson and Matt Kuchar, 3 and 2.
Three matches, three points. How are we doing, Captain? Stenson and Rose had Europe off and running. Team Europe eventually would win rather handily, 16.5-11.5.
When added to this year’s European squad as one of Thomas Bjorn’s four wild-card selections, Stenson was asked if his partnership with Rose at Le Golf National might be revisited. (The two had a record of 1-2-0 together two years ago at Hazeltine.)
“I don’t think anything is written in stone at this time,” Stenson said. With a wry smile, he added, “But I wouldn’t be surprised if we get a game together.”
Partnerships can be a tricky business for a captain. Sometimes there are pairings that seem special right away, such as the U.S. joining fiery Texans Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed as rookies at Gleneagles four years ago. They have played six Ryder Cup matches together, and are 4-1-1. Arnold Palmer and Gardner Dickinson played five matches together for the U.S. and went a perfect 5-0. Larry Nelson and Lanny Wadkins are the only partnership to win four team matches at a Ryder Cup, accomplishing the feat in 1979, at The Greenbrier.
Europe has formed some legendary pairings over the past 40 years, the most famous being Spaniards Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal. They paired in 15 matches, finishing 11-2-2. Darren Clarke-Lee Westwood (6-2) made a formidable pair, as did Bernhard Langer-Colin Montgomerie (5-1-1).
One big ingredient in a successful pairing: Trust.
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“Guys you’ve played more with, or spent time with, you know how they react, who they are, when you can needle them, and when you need to back off a little and let them cool down,” said Rickie Fowler, who will playing in his fourth Ryder Cup. “There’s definitely guys that I’ve played a lot with – Phil (Mickelson), from practice rounds to a handful of matches together, and JT (Justin Thomas). I’ve spent a lot of time with him in practice rounds.
“For me, I feel that I can go and play with anyone. … I’m a little bit of a rover.”
Fowler said there are plusses and minuses to being so versatile. It’s good that he can jump in and mesh with anyone and any style game, but Captain Jim Furyk also has talked to him about narrowing his sights on potential partners, making it easier in shaping all the pairings.
What helps to make for a good partnership? Englishman Ian Poulter, a longtime European standout, said it’s "the ability to know when to say the right thing, know when to say nothing, and to be able to assist your partner when he needs it.”
Justin Thomas said he wants to know his partner’s game so well that he could choose clubs for him if he were asked, "to have that conversation like a caddie would."
As for the role of trust?
“That’s a big part of it,” Thomas said. “I think all of us are on our team are so close, and know each other so well, we all could play with anybody.”
Reed and Spieth don’t necessarily spend a lot of time together off the golf course, but they display similar personalities when they compete. Both are fighters, with plenty of fire. Stenson and Rose have clicked because they have very similar games.
“We know each other well, through many years, and we have a lot of trust in each other,” Stenson said. “I think especially in foursomes, the hard thing is, you hit a bad shot and you get down on yourself. And then you kind of feel ‘sorry,’ and you can’t really go like that. It’s no regrets, really. No 'Sorries.' You’ve just got to get on with it.”
Stenson and Rose have learned to “get on with it” better than most. If asked to rekindle their spark in Paris, neither will be surprised.