It was a chilly autumn Friday and the Ryder Cup was underway. The American team had arrived laden down with superstars, a team so strong they could afford to leave four Major champions behind. In preparation for their arrival, the home team had made a few adjustments to the course.
Planning began months in advance – the fairways and greens were dried out and hardened up and the rough behind the greens was deliberately made lush and thick. When play began, the home side made sure to be short rather than long with their approaches. Meanwhile, their opponents found themselves chopping out from bad lies having bounced through the greens. It ended in a stunning American collapse in the singles and shock defeat overall.
What year are we talking here? Paris 2018 maybe? Gleneagles 2014? Maybe one of the Belfry ones back in the day? Nope, all wrong. This was 1957 in Lindrick, near Sheffield. The GB&I captain Dai Rees knew the Yorkshire course well and made it his business to exploit every inch of its potential for catching the visitors cold. His reward was the sole victory over America between 1933 and 1985.
So there’s nothing new under the Ryder Cup sun. The ability of the home captain to trick about with the terrain to better suit his own team has always been there. But nothing predicts a Ryder Cup these days better than home advantage so it is obviously coming into play now more than ever. The edges are being squeezed like never before.
Since the K Club in 2006, only one of the past seven Ryder Cups has been won on foreign soil. If it wasn’t for the Miracle At Medinah in 2012 – one of the most bizarre turnarounds in the history of the event – you’d be looking at seven in a row for the respective home teams.
Not alone that, most of them haven’t been close. Europe won by seven in France, five in Scotland and nine at the K Club. America won by eight at Hazeltine in 2016 and five at Valhalla in 2008. An event that owes its modern popularity to the drama brought about the by the wafer-thin margins of 1980s and ’90s has now seen just two close finishes in 20 years.
In broad brush terms, it has come down to two things – driving and putting. European captains have generally aimed to nobble the Americans’ distance off the tee and to get them putting on slower greens than they’re used to on the PGA Tour. And the same goes vice-versa when the matches are in the US.
You only need to run your finger over the last two editions to see how it goes. In Paris, Thomas Bjorn made sure Le Golf National had tight fairways bordered by ankle deep rough. The PGA Tour driving stats told him that not only had he the most accurate driver of the ball on tour in Henrik Stenson, five of his team were inside the top 50.
By contrast, Rickie Fowler was the leading American in 53rd place and he was one of only four of the Americans who stood inside the top 100. In fact, three of the four most accurate drivers in the US set-up in 2018 were Jim Furyk (10th on tour), Zach Johnson (63rd) and Matt Kuchar (76th). Sadly for them, all three were in buggies that week – Johnson and Kuchar were vice-captains under Furyk.
There was a pivotal match on the Friday afternoon in Paris that bore all of this out in spades. Europe were trailing 3-1 after a bonanza morning for the US. Stenson and Justin Rose were out in the afternoon foursomes against Fowler and Dustin Johnson and if ever Bjorn's emphasis on the worth of accurate driving needed to pay off, now was the time.
Stenson and Rose played the front nine in even par and it was good enough to be three up. It was perfectly boring golf – middle of the fairway, middle of the green, roll your putts. Johnson and Fowler regularly outdrove them by 25-40 yards but found themselves having to hack out of the rough with their second shots rather than go for the green. The pattern was repeated all across the course, allowing Europe to complete their first ever sweep of a foursomes session. They never looked back after that.
The contrast between the tight fairways and deep rough of Le Golf National and what the teams are going to face at Whistling Straits next week couldn't be more pronounced. Eight of the 12 US players are in the top 50 of the driving distance stats on the PGA Tour this year. Of the European team, only Rory McIlroy, John Rahm and Paul Casey are in that top 50. So it only stands to reason that Steve Stricker will set the course up to suit his players.
Whistling Straits will be the longest Ryder Cup course in history. It will reward distance rather than accuracy off the tee. When the PGA Championship was last played there in 2015, Kevin Streelman was the most accurate driver all week and only finished 54th. Dustin Johnson was the longest driver and finished tied for seventh, despite having a thoroughly mediocre week around the greens. It is unabashedly a bombers' course – Jason Day won that week and led the field in strokes gained driving.
Stricker has played at being coy about what lies in store for these matches but we can take it there will be no surprises. The course will be set up for birdies. The fairways will be wide, the rough will be thin and the pins will not be testing.
When the Europeans complained after Hazeltine at the dolly pin placements on Sunday – Justin Rose described them as being more suited to a pro-am – all it did was confirm for the Americans the best way to load the dice. Easy pins reward distance off the tee over accuracy and reduce everything to a putting competition to see who can make the most birdies.
Ten of the US team are in the top 60 for total birdies this season on the PGA Tour. Only Rahm, McIlroy and Viktor Hovland are in that company for Europe. If Stricker hasn't set up the course to take advantage, it will be a serious dereliction of duty.
Chances are, it could all end up in a blow-out win for the US, thus continuing the pattern of the past few matches. Whether that’s good for competition is another matter. Indeed, if the Ryder Cup keeps alternating between handy wins for Europe in Europe and the Yanks in the States, it would be no big surprise if they eventually took course set-up out of the captains’ hands altogether, as is the case in the Solheim Cup.
Too late for the coming week, obviously. That die has been cast already.