Europe undaunted by underdog status as they embrace tough challenge

Formidable USA favourites but Harrington’s men capable of upsetting the odds

The calm before the storm?

Let's hope so; for, so far, the whole preamble has been one of courtesy and etiquette and niceties which are all well and good and to be applauded in the real world but, in this Ryder Cup bubble, where such purity of mind and body are traditionally alien traits, the time for friction will surely arrive with the first meaningful tee shots of this 43rd edition of the match.

It’s time for an edge to manifest itself on this piece of real estate, hard by Lake Michigan, created to imitate none other than Ballybunion’s Old Course. Time, perhaps, for Ian Poulter’s bulging eyes to appear, or for Sergio Garcia’s provocative fist-pumping to punch the air, or for Rory McIlroy to show exuberance.

And, if we’re honest, time too for the American crowds, softened by a charm offensive in the practice days with gifts of merchandise and golf balls, to instil some cordite pungency into the air as the USA – statistically the strongest team ever, with an average world ranking of 8.9 compared to Europe’s average of 30 – seek to deliver on overwhelming favouritism.


"I feel like on paper, from head to toe, the world ranking, I would say we're a stronger team," conceded US captain Steve Stricker, his team stacked with eight players tucked inside the world's top-10.

Yet, that’s the thing.

Europe have been here before, many times, cast as underdogs. Revelling in it; turning perceived wisdom into a motivational tool and, time and time again, defying the odds.

When it comes to the Ryder Cup, the number-crunching doesn’t always add up. After all, Europe have won four of the last five, nine of the 11 matches played in the 2000s. You listen to the European players and their message of unity and belief is consistent.

As Paul Casey, one of four 40-somethings in their ranks put it: “I don’t like to compare teams and say one, this team is better than another team I’ve played on. But this team as a unified team is so strong. I mean, it’s broad in its age range, the experience.

“Paddy [Harrington] has been a major role in that because you can have brilliant teams and maybe be slightly rudderless. But I’ve been utterly impressed with his captaincy. His communication skills have been top-notch, there’s a relaxed air to everything we do but a serious approach at the same time . . . . this is my fifth, it gets better and better every single time.”

For sure, there is a weight of expectation on Steve Stricker – on home Wisconsin turf – to steer the USA to only a second win in six Ryder Cups. His is a team of young guns, of new blood. For the first time since 1995 there is no Mickelson or no Woods on the US team sheet.

For many of them, there is no baggage of losing. His is a team of six rookies and the messaging from Stricker has been to advocate how the statistics back up the strong records of players on their debuts.

And, yet, it is European voices that have sounded the more assured through the practice days.

Very unique

You listen to Shane Lowry, a rookie in name only.

“I think we all believe so much in ourselves and we all believe so much in each other that we’re here playing for each other and we’re here fighting for every last point and every last putt we can get. We’re fighting not only for ourselves this week but for each other,” said Lowry.

And Jon Rahm, the only European inside the world's top-10 but importantly at the top of the pile as number one, who observed of the dynamics in the European team: "When Lee Westwood played the Ryder Cup for the first time, I wasn't even three years old. And to see these great people that have accomplished so many things come together with a smile that only a team event like the Ryder Cup can bring you, a juvenile excitement that you don't usually expect a 48-year-old to have, it's very unique . . . . a week like this can definitely give you that youth back in that sense, mentally."

Of course, it doesn’t just come down to that ability to defy the ageing process. It’s about shot execution, it’s about the mind games that are played out in matchplay.

And, this time, it’s also about the fact that the course chosen by the PGA of America – “In my lifetime, I’ve never seen anything like this. Any place. Period” is how the late Pete Dye described first setting eyes on the land where he would create Whistling Straits – is like one plucked from the coasts of Ireland or Scotland.

"It's definitely a different test," said Matt Fitzpatrick, when asked to compare it to Hazeltine where he made his debut in 2016. "You've got the lake down most holes and you're got random bushes in bunkers and bunkers that you didn't even know existed . . . . the golf course is much better than I thought it was going to be, for myself."

All of which has been echoed by his 11 team-mates.

Europe may be the underdogs but, once again, are capable of upsetting the odds. It’s what they do.

Friday foursomes (Irish time)
1.05pm: Justin Thomas/Jordan Spieth v Jon Rahm/Sergio Garcia
1.21pm: Dustin Johnson/Collin Morikawa v Paul Casey/Viktor Hovland
1.37pm: Brooks Koepka/Daniel Berger v Lee Westwood/Matt Fitzpatrick
1.53pm: Patrick Cantlay/Xander Schauffele v Rory McIlroy/Ian Poulter

Philip Reid's Ryder Cup lowdown

Purse: None, it's all (ahem!) for the honour and the glory.

Where: Kohler, Wisconsin, USA.

The course: Whistling Straits – 7,390 yards Par 71 – is a contrived links style course located hard on the shores of Lake Michigan. "I want it to look like Ballybunion" is how designer Pete Dye recollected his initial conversation with owner Herb Kohler. Dye, who passed away last year, transformed the flat site with the use of heavy machinery into the dramatic sand hills and dune-like landscape that houses the course which has played host previously to three US PGA Championships.

Quote-Unquote: "I basically drank my body weight in beer . . . my waistline has not looked good since," Tyrrell Hatton (tongue in cheek) on his celebrations following his wedding to wife Emily in North Carolina earlier this year. Hatton is making his second Ryder Cup appearance for Europe.

The field: Two teams of 12 players. USA: Daniel Berger, Patrick Cantlay, Bryson DeChambeau, Harris English, Tony Finau, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Collin Morikawa, Xander Schauffele, Scottie Scheffler, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas. Europe: Paul Casey, Matt Fitzpatrick, Tommy Fleetwood, Sergio Garcia, Tyrrell Hatton, Viktor Hovland, Shane Lowry, Rory McIlroy, Ian Poulter, Jon Rahm, Lee Westwood, Bernd Wiesberger.

The format: English businessman and golf promoter Samuel Ryder devised the biennial matchplay contest in 1927. Originally played between Great Britain and the United States, players from continental Europe joined Irish golfers, who had always competed in the event, in 1979. Since that date Europe have won 11 of the 20 matches played, the US eight with one tied.
There are 28 matches played between Friday and Sunday, comprising foursomes, fourballs and singles matchplay. Four foursomes (starting at 1.05pm) are played on Friday and Saturday with two golfers from Europe against a pairing from the US, with team members alternating between shots and each team using one ball.
The four fourball (6.10pm) matches each afternoon for the first two days sees two golfers from each team competing, but with each player using his own ball and the lowest score from each pair counting for the score for their side. On the final day every member from the US team plays against a European opponent in head-to-head singles contest (5.05pm).
The winner of each match gets a point, with half points for drawn games and a total of 28 points up for grabs. As the defending champions Europe need just 14 points to retain the trophy, while the US need 14 and a half to win it back.

Betting: USA are overwhelming favourites, with odds of just 1/2 to regain the trophy. Europe are priced at 9/4. In terms of leading points scorer across the two teams, world number one Jon Rahm tops the market at 7/1 while Justin Thomas is ranked an 8/1 shot. Rory McIlroy looks set to play all five sessions and is decently priced at 11/1 while Shane Lowry is 20/1 to finish his rookie Ryder Cup as the top points scorer.

On TV: Live coverage on Sky Sports tees off at 1pm and will stay on air until the last ball drops. Build-up coverage starts from 11am.

Weather eye: A dry day with zero prospects of any thunderstorms, temperatures will average 23 degrees Celsius (75 degrees Fahrenheit) for the first day's play. Winds will average 12 miles per hour (gusting to 17 mph).

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times