Rory McIlroy should be ideally suited to the host course for the Ryder Cup. The world number one is the best driver in the game so can give his side an advantage with the opening shot on every hole. The current USPGA and Open champion will be a leader and inspiration over the three most intense days of golf in the sport.
Jack Nicklaus designed the Gleneagles course that will host this year’s Ryder Cup. However, that in no way means the United States will feel like they are playing at home. The Scottish area of moorland has hints of where the designer was born but Paul McGinley has added facets that will suit the Europeans.
Geography and location means it has been easier for captain McGinley to see the course in Ayrshire than his US counterpart, Tom Watson. McGinley has visited the layout 25 times since he was appointed and during his recomasaince he has requested feature that will favour his players.
The course has been set up to be slightly harder than venues for regular European Tour events. There will be a premium on accuracy over distance. Even so the fairways are relatively generous, there are a number of large man-made bunkers and the greens are equipped with under soil heating. The greens read about 11 on the stimp rather than the 13 that American golfers find at home.
The weather at any time can be unpredictable in Scotland and if it starts to rain it could not stop for all three days of the matches. The front nine is not the most difficult and the complete layout will not be the sternest for pros. However, the atmosphere and the spectators will make this a course tailor made for epic shot-making.
The PGA Centenary Course at Gleneagles is Scotland’s longest inland course. More than 50,000 tonnes of earth have been excavated to alter the original design of the 18th hole. In the last Ryder Cup 11 of the 12 singles matches were decided on the last hole. The par-five finish in the Ryder Cup will provide a dramatic setting where several matches are sure to finish.
Watson believes his players are well equipped for the course designed by his great rival. He and Nicklaus duelled famously in the last round of the British Open at Turnberry in1977. Watson outscored Nicklaus by one shot in the fourth round to win the second of his five Opens. Nicklaus won his third and last at St Andrews a year later. The Golden Bear never won the Open in England and four of Watson’s five Claret Jugs were won in the country that is still part of the United Kingdom.
The Open is always played on one of the fine links courses in England and Scotland. European players have more experience of this type of golf but the Ryder Cup was last by the seaside in Great Britain at Muirfield in 1973. Gleneagles is in the heart of Scotland and away from the coast. The visiting team may have felt relatively at home here so McGinley has tampered with the layout to make it more playable for his men.
McIlroy is currently the best player in the world and after Hoylake is now proven in links golf. He will most likely play a full quota of five matches and will be a player the Americans might wish to avoid. He has won two Ryder Cups and never lost the overall contest. His has won four of his nine matches, tied two and lost the other three. The Centenary Course will be right up McIlroy’s street and that is not a coincidence.
In 2008 Padraig Harington arrived for the Ryder Cup at Valhalla as the Open and PGA champion. He played in four matches but only contributed one half point to the European’s total. Europe lost that Ryder Cup but have won every other played this century. Harrington was at his best as the underdog while McIlroy relishes the role of favourite. McGinley recognises a different attitude and personality.
One key issue facing each captain is whether to give all 12 players a game on the first day. There is a clear downside to missing out but also McGinley and Watson must send out their out their best players and combinations. McIlroy is one player who will play in the morning and afternoon next Friday. In the past results have been mixed when everybody gets to play on day one so form in practice will be a key factor.
Another conundrum for the captains is maximising the input of their best players. McIlroy will start favourite in any singles match and any combination in four balls and foursomes. Tiredness then becomes an issue but a golfer in form never feels exhausted. Davis Love rested Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley on the Saturday afternoon two years ago and on reflection that was a decision that made the Miracle of Medinah possible. One extra half point would have made the Americans’ lead insurmountable.
Lee Westwood is another player who could play in all five sessions. However, fatigue could be more of a problem for a man in his forties. It’s a balancing act between getting the most out of a player who has won the Ryder Cup six times to preserving his appetite from both a physical and mental point of view. Westwood has won 18 of 37 matches in the Ryder and tied six. Any player with a losing strike rate of less than 50% is ahead of the game statistically.
The perfect partner for Westwood is Sergio Garcia and McGinley is likely to pair them in this year’s match. The partnership was first established in 2002 at the Belfry which brought them three wins out of four. Westwood’s influence on the young players could be crucial at Gleneagles. He has been around for what seems like decades and he appears to be likeable. Even so McIlroy will be the main man in the Scottish part of the United Kingdom when the best golfers from the United States visit.