Ryder Cup focus turns quickly to the speed of the greens
Familiar feeling for Bjorn’s team as all have played Le Golf National in French Open
Europe’s Thorbjorn Olesen checking out the 15th green at Le Golf National in Paris prior to the Ryder Cup. Photograph: David Davies/PA Wire
Of all of the statistics about the course set-up, one stands out above all else. It is the speed of the greens. Where players on the PGA Tour are accustomed to dealing with slick greens of up to 14 on the stimpmetre, the greens – a mix of meadow and bent grass – at Le Golf National are set at just over 10.
Okay, to be exact, they’re running at 10 feet two inches.
Thomas Bjorn had the face of a man with a poker hand in front of him when the question of the course setup was raised. He could have had a royal flush or five duds for all we knew, because he kept a straight face. You know, one of those innocent – “Who? Me? – looks. Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, sort of thing. But you suspected he was holding a winning hand. You suspected he had been an influencer.
The greens – they were close to 14 on the stimp when the USA won in a birdie fest at Hazeltine two years ago – are, in truth, slow at 10, but also about as fast as can be risked on this course. Anything faster, should the wind whip up, would lead to oscillating golf balls. So it is what it is even if that kind of suits the Europeans quite a lot.
“It’s a completely different golf course [to Hazeltine]. It’s tight. Hazeltine was wide. It was a long golf course. There’s a lot of rough [here]. There was no rough in Hazeltine. All the differences you can come up with, they are here,” said Bjorn of the chalk-and cheese-contrast.
“This is a tough golf course to start with. I like the idea of a golf course that is set up like a championship golf course. You’ve got to identify guys that are hitting the golf ball well, identify guys that are playing good golf during the week...but when you’ve got a venue like this, and a course like this, you can only do so much.
“It’s difficult to grow water. It’s difficult to make big changes. The golf course is very similar to what we are used to when we come here [for the French Open] and that’s probably the thing that I like. There’s guys on the team that’s played a lot of French Open, and I don’t want them to show up and it is a completely different golf course to what they are used to.”
On that point the European players should have an edge. Familiarity is a powerful tool. All 12 of Bjorn’s team have at one stage played in the French Open on this course, and most have been multiple participants.
“Two of them, Tommy Fleetwood and Alex Noren, have won that tournament, while Tyrrell Hatton is alone in not managing a top-10 finish at some point. Rory McIlroy, Francesco Molinari, Thorbjorn Olesen, Ian Poulter, Jon Rahm and Justin Rose all have multiple top-10s on the course.
“I think it’s definitely a help for us, to be sure,” said Ian Poulter. “As much golf as we’ve played, I think it’s probably the most played venue as a Ryder Cup venue for all of the European players that we’ve played. We’ve got a mixed wind this week. In the practice rounds it’s [coming] from one direction and it switches on Friday. We could have experienced that in all the rounds we’ve played here. We have an understanding of how this golf course can play.”
For the Americans it is in the main a new learning experience, and one where the driver will be taken out of the hands on the majority of tee shots before they ever get to the slower greens.
USA captain Jim Furyk said: “I still think it’s a great golf course. I don’t think there’s a guy from either side that would not say this is a great golf course. The better iron players, the better putters, the better thinkers are going to have an advantage around her.
“It does limit some of their length and the advantage that they have, but the best players on either side of the pond are going to find a way to play any course.”
Mickelson agreed with Furyk’s take on the set-up. “At Hazeltine you saw a lot of birdies. You saw a lot of aggressive play, and you’ll see less aggressiveness, more conservative tee-to-green, but once you get on the greens, they are a little flatter and you can make putts. You can be aggressive from 20 to 40 feet.”
It will, as ever, come down to putting. On slow greens. Bjorn’s poker face might yet break out into a smile.