Matt Cooper takes a close look at the delayed match at Whistling Straits which sees American captain Steve Stricker pitted against Europe’s Padraig Harrington.
Is there any one detail that better reveals the extraordinary transformation of the Ryder Cup over the last four decades than the fact that, ahead of the 1981 match, the top sponsorship package on offer was $175,000 Greenshield stamps?
Spin forward 40 years and the Cup is widely bracketed alongside the World Cup and the Olympics as sport’s most-watched events. There may be many doubts about the validity of those claims, but the fact they can be made with a straight face – albeit a marketing man’s straight face – demonstrates the match has been completely revolutionized.
That 1981 edition was the 24th Ryder Cup and America had won 20 of them. Two years later Europe was again defeated, but its valiant performance, fueled by the brilliance of Seve Ballesteros, prompted a sea change and they have now won 11 of the last 18 tussles and seven of nine in the 21st century. Europeans thrive on being terrier-like underdogs with the match representing a rare opportunity to inflict damage on opponents who they perceive look down on them.
When provoked – as during the War on the Shore in 1991, at 1999’s Battle of Brookline, and when skippered by the fiercely patriotic Paul Azinger in 2008 – the Americans have claimed wins motivated by their own righteousness. But more often than not, they would like to win and the Europeans need to win. It’s why the world rankings and major victories – numbers which emphasise the on-paper superiority of Team USA – little matter in this feverish and frenzied week. And yet …
And yet I’m torn this week. Three years ago I was quite certain that Europe could topple the visitors and they duly did so. This time around I’m not so sure. I’d argue the odds are wrong and Europe should not be above +180, but doubts prevent me pressing the button.
On the one hand, there’s the reality that victory away from home is an exceptionally difficult task in the modern Ryder Cup. Nine of the last 11 winners were on home soil. One of the exceptions was the Miracle of Medinah (the clue is in the moniker) and the other witnessed an almost equally miraculous coincidence of two captains of vastly different quality: the perfectionist Bernhard Langer (arguably the finest captain in match history) and the bungling Hal Sutton (not necessarily the worst captain in the match’s history but undoubtedly guilty of one of the worst decisions when pairing together Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson).
There is also the matter of the host course, Whistling Straits, which looks like an Irish linksland layout yet plays like a typical American track. Already this week Jordan Spieth has said of it: “You’re not bouncing any shots short and rolling them on to the green. It’s still an air game course.” It demands more of the same from the tee box, with Tony Finau on record as saying that a 300-yard carry with driver provides a significant advantage – one far more Americans boast in their arsenal than do the Europeans.
— Ryder Cup USA (@RyderCupUSA) September 21, 2021
I’m also wary of Europe’s line-up. The core is hugely experienced, but what if this is one match too far? Matthew Fitzpatrick and Bernd Wiesberger have one major championship top 10 between them in 54 starts which has to be a worry, as does the form of Tyrrell Hatton and Lee Westwood.
All of that said, I have no great faith in the American capacity to avoid screwing it up either, so I prefer to steer clear of the outright market. Instead, let’s take a look at the top points scorer markets.
Rory McIlroy to top score for Europe: +500
When you’re playing in this heat you need first to identify a golfer who will play at least four matches, ideally five. Step forward McIlroy who has never missed a Ryder Cup session in his five starts. He frequently gets big name partners and has delivered away from home, bagging three points in both his visits to America. He’s also up there as one of Europe’s best fits for the course and not just on paper: he was T17th at the 2010 PGA Championship and third five years later.
Patrick Cantlay to top score for USA: +700
He’s a debutant, but back in 2019 Cantlay won three points in his first Presidents Cup start and formed a strong partnership with his good friend Xander Schauffele. That combination might be revived this week, but whoever gets Cantlay will be content because he’s on fire at the moment. Moreover, when defeating Bryson DeChambeau in the BMW Championship, he delivered a final round and extra hole performance that bodes exceptionally well for the rigours of match play.
Tyrrell Hatton to score 0 points: +900
Some poor soul will contribute nothing this week and this price might be a little wrong about the Englishman’s chances of being that sap. He won one point in three in 2018, he’s also lacking form (no top 10 since mid-June) and his stats aren’t great (particularly, poor ball-striking). Harrington believes this test favours good ball-strikers so he could easily limit Hatton’s starts and cross his fingers when he does get a hit.