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Ryder Cup Preview

If you're a golf fan, the next three days are (1) Christmas, (2) your birthday, and (3) fantasy draft day. They're the three best days of the whole year, because the quest for the Ryder Cup begins Friday morning at 7:20 a.m. CDT, with foursomes (alternate-shot play). Here are a few things to watch as this year's matches unfold.
Rough? What rough?
There was plenty of talk in the weeks leading up to the matches about how US captain Davis Love III would try to set up the Medinah course to give a competitive advantage to his side. He denied that he would do so, or even that it was possible to do so. But the most commonly projected change, that of cutting the rough down very low, has indeed come to pass: by current accounts, the rough is more like "fairway lite," barely longer than the flat stuff. This gives an advantage to the long bombers, who can launch away without fear of getting a punitive lie in the rough.
You might think that this factor helps the American side, which features long hitters Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson (and, to a lesser degree, Phil Mickelson, Keegan Bradley, and Tiger Woods). But the European side has its share of long knockers, too: Rory McIlroy and Nicolas Colsaerts surrender nothing to Johnson and Watson in length, and Lee Westwood's average drive on the European Tour this year was just under 300 yards.
The only way to factor this into the matches is after the pairings are announced. It will be particularly important in Sunday's singles matches, where a short hitter might find himself at a significant disadvantage to one of the big knockers, who can hit a bold driver from the tee without fear of a bad lie for his approach. That advantage could be decisive on an über-long course like Medinah's current setup (7,658 yards).
Pairings by Lady Justice
Are you looking forward eagerly to a head-to-head match between Rory and Tiger? How about seeing Brandt Snedeker's brilliant short game against Luke Donald's all-around mastery? Maybe a match for the older set, pairing 43-year-old Paul Lawrie against 45-year-old Steve Stricker? Well, good luck with that. Unlike the Presidents' Cup, in which one captain at a time can create favorable (or even dream) matchups, in Ryder Cup play, the captains each put their pairings into an envelope, and the two envelopes are opened simultaneously. They may as well draw the pairings while blindfolded.
For this reason, the announcement of the pairings for Sunday's singles is one of the most suspenseful non-golf moments of the entire process. Each pairing will be instantly regarded as either a mismatch, or a dream match, or a complete mystery. One thing to watch for: Look for each captain to load his best players (probably as defined by who's hot on Friday and Saturday) into the first two and the last two singles matches. In 2010, European captain Colin Montgomerie selected reigning US Open champ Graeme McDowell to play the last match; it was, as we know now, a good choice.
Note that there have been other strategies. In 1999 at Brookline, US captain Ben Crenshaw, facing an enormous uphill climb (down 10-6 going into Sunday), front-loaded his lineup with six of his best players to start Sunday's singles. Tom Lehman, Hal Sutton, Mickelson, Love, Woods, and David Duval each won to spark a dramatic surge to a narrow US victory.
The dark-horse factor
For US audiences, some of the European players in past Ryder Cup competitions have been nearly anonymous. We see them only during majors and World Golf Championships, and even then, the television cameras rarely focus on them unless they're in the running for a championship. But as the PGA Tour advertises about its own players, these guys can play. This year, there are probably only two or three players on the Euro side who will be unfamiliar to American audiences, owing to the European players' greater willingness to enter several events on this side of the pond.
Of those, the one most likely to inspire a "who's that?" response is Peter Hanson, a 33-year-old Swede. This year alone, Hanson has six top-5 finishes on the European Tour, and in his last event, earlier this month, he won the KLM Open. He finished T3 at The Masters, T7 at the PGA Championship, and (importantly) T5 at the WGC Match Play. His driving accuracy suffered a bit this year, but as noted above, that isn't going to hurt him at Medinah. In contrast, he had his best-ever year on the greens, and with Ryder Cup pressure, a steady hand with the putter will be enormously valuable. Hanson will beat some more-familiar American players this weekend.
The home-course advantage
Here I'm not referring to Medinah's rough, but to the galleries. Ryder Cup competitions are the one place where it's acceptable to root against a golfer (though not to the point of abuse, something that unfortunately happens from time to time). We all know how a home-field advantage works in sports, and this year will be no different; while some European fans will have made the trip, this weekend's galleries will be unashamedly red-white-and-blue.
Ironically, several of the European players now live in the United States, making their homes in golf-friendly places such as Florida, where they can play golf year-round. One player who's unlikely to suffer from the rooting factor is the Euros' Donald. While he's unquestionably an Englishman, he attended college at Northwestern, just a few miles away from Medinah; he married a Chicago girl and lives in Evanston (although he winters in Florida). Expect US fans from Chicago to give him a little more of a pass than they will for, say, Ian Poulter.