The old adage about ‘horses for courses’ gets thrown out a lot in golf, but never so much as in a Ryder Cup. This year is no different. Even though the Twenty Ten Course at Celtic Manor looks like the TPC of Wales (spectator mounding, Doral-type bunkers, and water on nine of 18 holes), those who know the place think the European squad will have a decided advantage.
“I think it's going to be a great tournament, but I think the golf course suits European golf, for sure,” said U.S. Open winner and Northern Ireland native Graeme McDowell. “It is very difficult to be specific when it comes to a European game versus an American game, but driving of the golf ball is the key around this golf course, I really believe that. I think the Europeans are better drivers of the ball than the U.S. (The Americans) play a lot more wide-open resort-type golf courses than we do. I really do think that tee-to-green, we are a better team than them, and so I think driving is key.”
Jim McKenzie, the director of golf course management and the man responsible for the golf course condition and setup for the Ryder Cup agreed, but with a couple of caveats.
“There are loads of rough here, so there’s a premium on hitting the ball straight,” McKenzie said. “But the current Europeans play so much in America and the Americans come over for more than just the Open Championship now, so I’m not sure that there is such a thing as a European or American style of play now. Certainly some of the shots required around the greens here will be more links style than some of the players are accustomed to seeing, especially with the bumps and swales, and there is no way we can have the green speeds in Wales in October anywhere close to what you had at Valhalla in September (of 2008).”
Slow greens could be a problem for the Americans, as could the dodgy Wales weather, but as Phil Mickelson aptly pointed out, “It’s always been a challenge playing in Europe. I don’t know how Wales would be more difficult than any of the other places we’ve played, whether it’s the K Club or Valderrama or the Belfry. In fact, of the seven teams I’ve been on, I’ve never won a Ryder Cup over there. This is my eighth team and fourth opportunity, and I think it would very cool if we were able to do it. But saying that and accomplishing it are different things. We’re going to be the underdog; we’re playing a very good European team, but the U.S. players are going to be sharp and at least make it a good match.”
Mickelson smiled at that last part. The Americans loved being the underdogs at Valhalla two years ago, and they seem to be playing up their status again this year.
Still, one overarching problem exists: Not only has no player on the American team played the Twenty Ten Course, not a one of them has ever been to Wales. Dustin Johnson didn’t even know the name of the place. When asked what he thought of the Twenty Ten Course, Johnson said, “Where’s that?” When informed that this was the course where he would be making his Ryder Cup debut, Johnson said, “I don’t know. I’ll let you know after I see it.”
Familiarity might play a bigger role than design, or weather, or even the speeds of the greens. The Twenty Ten Course has hosted the Wales Open since it opened, and prior to that, nine of the current holes were part of the old Trent Jones course that hosted the championship as far back as 2000. “Those original holes, six through fourteen from the old course, are very Floridian looking,” McKenzie said. “Over the years we’ve soften that up, and done a lot of planting with reeds and natural grasses, but if there is an advantage it is that the European players know the course.”
If there is one thing working to the American’s advantage it is that, apparently, Colin Montgomerie did very little to set up the course to his team’s advantage. Sam Torrence brilliantly set up The Belfry so that the fairways narrowed to the width of bowling lanes at the 300-yard mark, which took away the American length advantage, and Paul Azinger widened the fairways at Valhalla at the 330-yard mark because he had the only guys who could hit it there. But, according to McKenzie, “One of the great admirations I have for Colin is that he made it very clear that he’s not going to get involved in games or trickery. He believes that this is a golf course that you cannot covertly trick up to favor one team or another. There’s nothing hidden around the corner or over the bunker. Colin set the golf course up pretty much as it has been for the last three Wales Opens. Effectively, the team that plays best over the three days will be the ones that go home happy.
That’s fine with McDowell who won the Wales Open earlier this year.
“In the past the Americans have been longer than us,” McDowell said. “I don't think that is the case anymore. I just think we are better drivers of the ball than they are. You look at Rory (McIlroy), Westwood; it's guys like that who are really good, top drivers of the golf ball.”
Dustin Johnson, Jeff Overton, Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Rickie Fowler will be surprised to learn that McDowell thinks the Euros can outdrive them. And as long as the Americans can keep it reasonably straight, their bombers might have an edge.
“It would favor someone of prodigious length as long as it is also straight,” McKenzie said. “The second hole in particular is very narrow indeed. But there is no question that if you can hit it big and have two or three clubs less than your opponent, you have a big advantage.”
If the Americans can find the fairways, it should negate any local knowledge the Europeans might have. But if the long-hitters start spraying it, the week could be a very happy one for the home team.