Ross Biddiscombe at Hazeltine
Sunday, October 2 - 12 final thoughts about Ryder Cup 2106
There seemed to have never been a Ryder Cup singles match to equal Reed vs McIlroy and it was perhaps the best match ever until Mickelson vs Garcia with their 19 combined birdies finished an hour or so later. And Phil’s 18th green jump was reminiscent of his first Masters win – this guy had all his best moves on show. Here’s an early prediction for 2018 - Reed will play McIlroy in the opening singles in Paris.
The raging emotion of Reed-McIlory caused the crowd noise to equal any world championship boxing contest. It was like the rollercoaster of a Wimbledon men’s five-set tennis final, the finest of shots under the steepest of pressure.
Why is team golf not played every week? The electricity of this match at Hazeltine with its stunning quality and remarkable changes in momentum matched anything that a football, rugby or cricket match could offer. To be inside the ropes on the 18th green to watch the climax of this contest was a privilege. If team golf can generate such emotions, where is it the rest of the year?
It's a young man’s game now. OK, so there are few exceptions (Phil and Henrik, of course), but look at an athlete like Rafa Cabrera-Bello and tell me that golf is not about muscle and stamina and length off the tee. Oh, and putting – the scars suffered by older players missing tiddlers (Lee Westwood’s miss on Saturday night, for example) are too deep.
Thomas Pieters was a joyful surprise for Team Europe – all his promise was fulfilled. Sure, he was nervous on the opening morning and again as he teed off for his singles match, but he’s the next golf superstar. For the USA, this was a 12-man victory just like they had planned; every man starred during the three days.
After just over two hours of play, with match No 12 having completed the first hole, the projected, if-it-ended-now scores were USA 13½ Europe 14½. So, it was possible. But an hour later with the first match on the 14th and the last on one the 6th, the forecast was for a 15½ 13½ result in favour of the US. After that, it was never really close enough for the home team to feel Medinah-type pressure.
Golf was supposed to be boring with the decline and/or absence of Tiger Woods – how wrong is that view of this incredible sport.
Slow play was an issue all week, yet the Reed-McIlroy match was totally compelling and fast – they were two holes clear of slow-coach Justin Spieth in the group behind. Keeping players on the clock early in the contest was a great idea.
Last comment on the crowds – they were warned on Sunday morning of a zero tolerance policy on verbally abusing the players and were then generally much fairer in their cheering. But it’s amazing how many thousands come to these events and see such little live golf, wandering around the outskirts of the course or camping out in a hospitality area. Maybe there are just too many fans at Ryder Cups.
So, it’s around 730 days before the 42nd match in Paris – the Ryder Cup is still the most anticipated event in golf and one of the most compelling in all of sport. Bring it on.
European post-match press conference note: Justin Rose thought the course was not tough enough, set up for a pro-am rather than to challenge the best players in the world. Don’t expect that set-up in two years time.
US post-match press conference note: Davis Love talked about the American team as a family with everyone having each other’s support with egos left outside. It’s not rocket science, but maybe the US team has finally found their version of the special sauce.
Saturday, October 1 - Day 2
Morning foursomes notes
The Saturday morning papers were full of Hecklegate stories – poor Danny Willett seemed to attract plenty of abuse, some of it good fun and some of it a little OTT. But without some needle between the teams or the fans and the players, the Ryder Cup wouldn’t be so compelling. However, after his day one ironic bow to the crowd, Rory McIlroy attracted most of the early abuse.
Sergio Garcia’s early holing-out was mega once again which prompted the why-hasn’t-he-won-a-major question – and then he missed a tiddler on the 10th and we had our answer.
Matt Fitzpatrick’s got that baby-faced assassin thing going – the youngest man here has one of the deadliest games and toothiest grins. His shot into the water on the 16th was a huge factor in his loss, but he’ll learn from that.
Watch out on the regular tour for the emergence of these Phil-inspired big pieces of paper containing all the info about the greens – thanks, guys, for adding another reason for slower play.
A rival for Patrick Reed as the most excitable American was Brandt Snedeker after he holed one particular monster putt. Meanwhile, Thomas Pieters managed a Reed-style shush.
The halved match this morning was the first in three sessions and the lead was cut to one. It was breathless stuff.
Afternoon fourball notes
Hecklegate continued and it began to affect the Europeans. Several beer-filled members of the crowd were removed and some of their language made Pete Willett’s tasteless comments earlier in the week seem mild by comparison. Such a shame.
In the battle of the bombers that opened the session (surely the fourball that every golf fan wished for) Rory managed one drive of 383 yards on his way to victory. The rash of birdies in this group was astonishing - 19 in 17 holes.
Hard to pick one single moment from six hours of spectacular golf, but the shimmy-shimmy shoulder shake - aka dad dancing by Mickelson and Kuchar – or Lefty’s half-curtsey after holing a long put were joint prize winners. Kooch even described Phil as “my big brother” in the after-match presser.
The fatigue factor was well illustrated by Ryan Moore again – partner JB Holmes came in on 14 of the 18 holes – and Jordan Spieth whose shot into water on 17 said it all.
At 5.10 local time, Europe were level at 6½ points each. Just over an hour later, the US team was taking a three-point lead into the singles. That short period is likely to be where this match was decided.
It feels like it’s two years too early for this European team. Even comedian Bill Murray commiserating with Danny Willett on the practice range after this session was unlikely to be enough to inspire the Masters champion and his colleagues to another Medinah moment. Meanwhile, almost all the decisions of the US task force have been good ones.
Europe’s best hope – the fact that Martin Kaymer is listed No 11 here just like he was in 2012. That’s no coincidence from Captain Clarke and why wouldn’t he think that maybe he’ll deliver ‘The Horror at Hazeltine’ to the Americans and bring off a remarkable victory.
Friday, September 30 - Day 1
Day 1 – The Morning Session Notes
After attending 32 press conference interviews in four days, the golf started promptly at 7.35am, not much more than an hour after dawn. These build-ups are too long.
Special cheers on the 1st tee for Bubba Watson, chief US cheerleader, while the two-sided grandstand meant the atmosphere for the opening drive was not quite as fierce as at Gleneagles two years ago. However, the local fans made up for it later after a few Bud Lites.
It took until the 11th hole to see the first European fist pump – it came from Andy Sullivan. Yes, it was that kind of morning for the European team that started off like a Ferrari with two punctures.
It took three hours to complete the first 12 foursome holes of the opening match. We could still be here on Tuesday at this pace. Golf really needs to sort out this issue of slow play. Thankfully, the referees put the first group on the clock to speed them up early on sending a clear message to everyone else.
There were a surprisingly large number of shocking shots – Phil, Sergio and Lee were among the culprits – so even experience doesn’t guarantee avoiding a clunker or two. And no blaming mud balls, Mr D Johnson.
The 4-0 lead was soo being interpreted in all kinds of ways, but take note: the last time a team managed a 4-0 session day one win (it was Europe in 1989), the match finished in a 14-14 tie.
Day 1 – Afternoon Session Notes
When Jordan Spieth three-putted the 4th green, I felt the heavens shake and then when he shanked it on the 6th, the world momentarily stopped spinning. He’s usually so good, but that was the start of his pair’s decline.
Rory McIlroy had his game face on all afternoon – he does not like to lose at this event. Quite a change from his original attitude that this was all just a glorified exhibition.
It took exactly 9 hours and 2 minutes from the start of play for Europe to gain their first point of the day. Phew, finally!
Henrik Stenson’s near hole-in-one on the 8th was the highlight of the best individual performance of the afternoon. And he’s such a lovely guy. Europe is hoping his dodgy knee holds up and he plays all five sessions.
Even with a day one lead, every pundit says the most pressure is on the US team trying to avoid a fourth defeat rather than for the Europeans going of a historic fourth consecutive win. If Europe can hang on or even close the deficit after day two, it becomes what Sir Alex Ferguson called “squeaky bum” time for the USA.
As always, the chirpy Darren Clarke outshone the more dour Davis Love in the battle of the post-session press conferences. Darren perfectly explained what every player here is going through: “It’s like playing the 18th hole of a major championship over and over again.”
Thursday, September 29 – What I know
Ten things I now know about the Ryder Cup after four solid days of phony-war build-up before a ball has been struck in anger:
- None of the Team USA has dared to ask assistant captain Tiger Woods to get them a turkey sandwich or a cup of coffee. An icon of the sport undertaking menial tasks? Jack, Arnie, Seve, Faldo – none of these golfing icons were ever assistants, but maybe having Lieutenant Tiger is a piece of American genius.
- The biggest controversy of the week up to Thursday was why the Euros don’t wear caps during press interviews while the Americans are fully kitted out even in the headgear department. Forget Danny’s brother and Phil’s slamming of Hal Sutton – this is the question that needs answering.
- Dustin Johnson’s interviews are the dullest of all 24 players, although he can be self-deprecating (joking that he has no memory at all), but Thomas Pieters ran him close with a couple of one-word answers.
- “Phil is just Phil” was one of the most common phrases used during the build-up along with “just trying to have some fun”.
- Darren shaded the battle of the captain’s speeches with the reference to how proud his late wife would have been of her sons. Worst moment of the opening ceremony? It could have been boos for Danny Willett from the US fans, but that never happened, so then it has to go to European Tour CEO Keith Pelley who needs to calm down and employ another speech writer.
- Who would be in my dream Ryder Cup 2016 fourball? Justin Rose because he’s so thoughtful and intelligent, Phil Mickelson to make sure there’s not a moment of silence as we walk along the fairways and Ryan Moore because he’s so drained that I’d let him team up with Phil so that me and Justin could take their money. Oh, and I’d have Tiger as my caddie since he seems more at home without a golf club in his hand.
- Despite Pete Willett’s anti-American comments, the people of the US mid-west are genuinely the nicest of all in this country. Lucky that the controversial feature was not published at Bethpage in New York (where the Ryder Cup will be in 2024) because those New Yorkers would’ve eaten Danny alive.
- The epic size of everything at the Ryder Cup is put in perspective by the fact that the just various buildings constructed on the course for this event (grandstands, hospitality units etc) cover 1.5 million square feet – that’s about 30 football fields.
- The man who’s been smiling the most at Hazeltine is Rafa Cabrera Bello – and if happiness equals points then he’s going to win a few for Europe.
- Best moment from the build-up? US fan Dave Johnson was heckling some of the Euros about a putt that they kept missing during practice yesterday and, to his surprise, the North Dakota native was brought onto the green to try the 15-footer. He holed it and won himself $100 and a place in Ryder Cup history! Great celebration, too.
Wednesday, September 28 - Fans flock to see fired up Phil
It was another grey day in Minnesota with fallout of the Clinton/Trump TV debate sharing the front pages of the local morning newspapers with the latest pictures of Ryder Cup fans dressed in their stars and stripes dungarees, crazy hats and even a few onesies.
This is a state of the union that rarely receives international attention for sports. The American football Vikings have never won a Super Bowl, the baseball Twins were last World Series winners in 1991 and the last golfing major here (also at Hazeltine) was in 2009 when YE Yang beat off Tiger Woods.
So, it’s no wonder that almost all of the fans and the thousands of volunteers are all happy to be at the Ryder Cup, even on a practice day. There will be no autographs signed by the players from Friday onwards – they’re just too darned nervous to hold a pen and write legibly – so there was a bit of a carnival atmosphere with two days to go.
And then these fans became the news. A scathing article (albeit it supposedly humorous) by Danny Willett’s brother emerged that called American fans “brainless”, “pudgy” and a whole lot worse. Pete Willett made everyone laugh with his Masters comments on Twitter, but there was no laughing from Darren Clarke this time; he was visibly angry when asked – repeatedly – about it in the media centre. He’s leaving Danny to sort it out, so good luck with that, Dan, and you can look forward to your press conference on Thursday lunchtime. The American press are sharpening their knives.
Back to the golf and there have already been some results. The Junior Ryder Cup stayed with the Americans - a fifth win in a row – while the celebrity match was a bit of a damp squib with Bill Murray and his teammates winning every fourball.
Better news for Europe from the Tuesday evening team meeting in which street magician Dynamo provided some bafflement, while former British Lions rugby captain Paul O’Connell delivered inspiration. “Be accountable” was his message and “make your team better for future generations”.
But the real star of Wednesday was Phil Mickelson. Both in the press room and on the golf course, Lefty drew the most eyeballs and there’s no one more fired up about the 2016 match than Phil. He’s even all smiles about assistant captain as Tiger Woods.
On the European side, being fired up is a much more subtle affair. Matt Fitzpatrick was struggling through Q School less than two years ago and this arena will test him, maybe even make or break him in terms of his future potential as a major winner.
But you cannot deny his wonderfully naïve personality. He doesn’t mind being kidded about being the youngest member on either team and he was even happy to share proud stories of how he’s managed to obtain the autographs of all his teammates already.
Matthew’s cutest story was how he got Sergio Garcia to sign a golf ball for him after they played together in Dubai earlier this year. “He was giving one out to a little kid and I was like, I’ll have one of those if you’ve got one to spare.”
He sounds like every mother’s favourite son. Maybe if he plays against Phil, he should ask the American to sign a golf ball for him on the 1st tee – now that would be more baffling than a piece of Dynamo magic.
Tuesday, September 27 - Tiger makes his first appearance
Words and pictures were top stories of the day on Tuesday with actual Ryder Cup action still a couple of days away.
Early morning team photo opportunities were endured by both sets of players as the cold wind blew again. Each session lasted longer than most wedding picture shoots with the bank of snappers wanting players with bags and without bags; with wet weather gear jackets on followed by them wearing navy blue sweaters. Then they brought in the assistant captains and even the physiotherapists. At least the Europeans provided a giggle – their caddies decided it was fun to push each other over rather than stay still kneeling in front of their players for the cameras.
The biggest dramas were getting players to cover up items not supplied by match sponsors - like non-Omega watches - and making sure Euro assistant captain Sam Torrance hid his non-regulation shoes behind his golf bag.
The biggest insight today? The Europeans have a dartboard in their team room and Andy Sullivan fancies himself as the best player, while Ian Poulter’s caddie Terry Mundy may be his biggest challenger. Yes, the media questions have reached this level of mundanity on day two! Meanwhile, Sully has picked up a necessary tip about 1st tee nerves – remember to breathe. You see, playing your very first shot in a Ryder Cup is that nerve wracking.
Also it was the first time for both teams to practice on the course and that meant time more media speculation. Rory and Sergio with Sully and Woody – is that significant for pairings this week? And why are the two American rookies out in the same fourball with only the relatively inexperienced Brandt Snedeker and JB Holmes?
Plus there were the first Tiger sightings as assistant captain – he stood around watching US team members putt, hands in pockets chatting merrily, looking just like a coach. Apparently, his team listened avidly on Monday night to him and Phil Mickelson tell Ryder Cup stories (not many about winning, of course!). As a two-time runner-up at Hazeltine, Tiger has all kinds of knowledge of this golf course and, surprisingly, looks pretty happy not being the centre of attention for a change. Maybe his backseat role will work after all.
The crowds were allowed into Hazeltine for the first time as well, but this was not a day for cheering and hollering at the teams; things were mostly quiet from the fans – the odd yell of encouragement but no sense of the atmosphere that will develop on Friday morning.
That was until the arrival of Bill Murray for the last of the four celebrity matches. This man, one of America’s kings of comedy, played the crowd on the 1st tee like a master and if Davis Love really wants his team to have fun (and he keeps repeating that phrase), then he should have made Murray a last-minute assistant captain, not Bubba. Maybe it’ll happen in 2016.
Monday, September 26 - 'Win it for Arnie'
Monday in Minnesota at the Ryder Cup is already producing surprises. The death of Arnold Palmer yesterday means that the two teams here in Hazeltine are of secondary importance within the golfing world as everyone absorbs the loss of The King.
Of course, as the media and volunteers arrive at the course today to prepare for the week ahead (there are no fans here yet), the chatter is about how the death of this country’s golfing icon may motivate his team. With or without any words from US skipper Davis Love III, there will almost certainly be an expectation of ‘Win it for Arnie’.
It’s not a macabre thought, more of a question of the anticipated emotion that will spill over into everyone’s conversations here. When Seve Ballesteros died the year before the 2012 match and when Darren Clarke’s first wife Heather passed away just weeks before the 2006 contest, both sad events were treated with class and honour.
Yet, it was impossible to separate these Ryder Cups from the two deaths and the emotional lift that the European team received on both occasions was totally apparent and acceptable.
Will the loss of Palmer galvanise a US victory in his memory? Well, Arnie – the only sportsman to have a drink named after him, iced tea mixed with lemonade, if you didn’t already know – has not had a Ryder Cup connection for many years. He played on seven winning and was the last-ever playing captain in 1963 as well as being a non-playing skipper in 1975.
This generation of players would always call him Mr Palmer, so it’s unclear how emotional they will feel and how that might translate to their play on the course. But be prepared for mentions of Arnie all week long and it’s likely the US players will wear some kind of badge on their outfits as a mark of respect – news on that later.
The other talk here in Minnesota is the 20mph westerly winds that would make it a very difficult day for golf. A local volunteer told me this particular wind is so strong because there’s nothing to block it between here and California except a couple of barbed wire fences. It’s good to know that the Minnesotans have a sense of humour.
The forecast is for much lighter winds by the time battle commences on Friday. Before then, the finishing touches will be made to the many bright, red structures that litter the course – the many stands and jumbo TVs, the hospitality areas, the merchandising tent and the rest.
But one thing still to be done is to paste a giant action photo of Ryan Moore in Ryder Cup gear on the entrance way along with the 23 other players – right now, his allocated board is blank. When a captain names his final wildcard just days before the match starts, the organisers tear their hair out.
But, come tomorrow, Ryan should be in place – I just hope he doesn’t see the blank board himself...
Ross Biddiscombe has been a sportswriter for more than 30 years and produced a body of work about golf and the Ryder Cup that is unique. To produce his most acclaimed book, Ryder Cup Revealed: Tales of the Unexpected, he spoke one-on-one to more than 100 players past and present, match captains, administrators and other key people in the event’s history.
He has written golf features for magazines such as Golf Monthly, newspapers including The Daily Telegraph in the UK and appeared as a pundit on TV channels from CNN to Supersport. Ross has written a total of 12 sports books including four on golf and, during his career in journalism, he has interviewed sporting greats from Gary Player to Muhammed Ali and from George Best to Seve Ballesteros.
His books are available on www.amazon.com and you can follow him on Twitter @Golf_onthe_Edge.