Seven players in this year’s European Ryder Cup team played at Medinah two years ago and seven Americans represented their county in 2012. With more than half the 24 players competing this week reappearing there is plenty of scope for pairing players who played alongside each other in the last Ryder Cup.
The most productive and iconic partnership in Ryder Cup history was Severiano Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal. More than once American players complained that they had an unfair advantage because they communicated in Spanish which seems bizarre as both players were from Spain.
In practice before the 1987 Ryder Cup at Muirfield Village European captain Tony Jacklin matched Bernhard Langer and Ken Brown against the Spanish pairing of Ballesteros and Olazabal. It was the first time the compatriots had played foursome together. Jacklin suggested they play for money which meant it was serious for Seve.
He competed so intensely with his younger colleague form the country of his birth that Brown felt it was better for the team if he Langer did not beat them. Ollie holed from 20 feet for a birdie to halve the match. One day later when it really mattered Olazabal holed a five feet putt on the 18th green to beat Larry Nelson and Payne Stewart.
By the time Ballesteros and Olazabal had played together in the Ryder Cup for the last time at the Belfry in 1993 they had put together a record of 11-2-2. They first played together in a charity event when Olazabal was seven and Ballesteros was nine years older. Seve never forgot that event and virtually decided himself that he would play with Olazabal in the Ryder Cup.
There is a similar relationship in this year’s European Ryder Cup team involving Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell. However, in the case of this pairing of the two players from Northern Ireland it is the younger McIlroy who is the senior partner. The current world number one has won four majors while G-Mac has won just one.
Throughout the summer Paul McGinley, the European team captain, has said they will play together at some stage over the first two days of the Ryder Cup. However, McIlroy and McDowell have baggage away from the course. Their relationship suffered owing to a management dispute between McIlroy and the company that looks after McDowell’s affairs.
Both players have made the point several times that they are friends again and McDowell even suggested that they now have a greater bond. In recent weeks both players have said they would like the opportunity to be paired again. However, despite the obvious empathy McGinley has looked at their playing history together in the Ryder Cup and takes a different view.
McGinley said: “Three or four months ago I had a strong view they would play together but the more I look at their statistics I’m thinking there may be value in not doing it. They’ve played six Ryder Cup matches together and won two. If I don’t decide to pair them it would only be for tactical reasons.”
Conversly the last thing McGinley wants is a distraction and the speculation on the eve of the match means he and his players could lose some focus. The first practice session on Tuesday provided some clues as to how the European captain would handle this issue as he to had to play his hand publicly.
In fact McGinley sent his players out in threes which seems an odd preparation for fourballs and foursomes. The thinking was that they could play quicker rather than get embroiled in rounds that lasted more than six hours. Another factor is each player’s workload as McIlroy will probably play in all four team sessions with or without McDowell.
That player concurs with his captain that despite the connection pairing himself with McIlroy might not be best for the team. McDowell found it difficult playing with McIlroy in fourballs two years ago at Medinah. The younger player likes to hit of the first and McDowell felt under pressure to match his length from the tee.
McDowell holed the crucial putt in the 2010 Ryder Cup and the first shot two years later. He has experienced winning and losing in America so has been through plenty of highs and lows when playing for Europe. His team have won seven of the last nine Ryder Cups and are favourites ahead of this year’s renewal. The McIlroy-McDowell debate has become an unwelcome diversion.
An interesting compromise for McGinley could be to send them out in foursomes. McDowell pointed out that it’s hard to complain about playing the second shot after a 350-yard drive. It is surprising to hear someone so tough under pressure as McDowell hinting at an inferiority complex as he does about McIlroy. All will be revealed at about 7.30 on Friday morning.
The banker pairing for Tom Watson will be Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley. However, Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson will have more help than most if they play together. They both have great religious faith and go to bible study together. Even Ballesteros and Olazabal would find it tough beating God.
Watson is depending on the Mickelson and Bradley axis to provide some points over the first two days. Two years ago they won three of three matches as the Americans holed everything. Davis Love then rested them from the fourth session on the Saturday afternoon which seemed a strange decision at the time. Even if the two Americans had tied their match the extra half point would have made their overnight lead insurmountable.
Apparently Bradley has hardly slept in the last two years and redemption is a word often in his mind. He played his part in the Miracle of Medinah by losing to McIlroy in the singles despite his opponent getting his tee time wrong and starting the match without any time to warm up. Bradley could not take advantage and in losing the match handed the initiative back to Europe.
Bradley has probably never forgiven himself and is one of the subplots of the Ryder Cup but not as big as the G-Mac and Rory story.