Just like the U.S. team at the “Battle of Brookline” in 1999, the Europeans are staring at a 10-6 deficit. But because they hold the cup, they need only eight points to retain it, instead of the 8 1/2 the Americans carved out of the dozen singles matches on the final day.
Like U.S. captain Ben Crenshaw then, both Olazabal and U.S. captain Davis Love III have decided to front-load their lineups with their four hottest players in what should be a fascinating fight to claim the momentum right from the start. In 1999, the Americans won the first six matches and surged into the lead.
Bubba Watson, who might have started a Ryder Cup tradition by inviting the crowd in the grandstands surrounding the first hole to scream while he hits his opening tee shot, goes off first on this Sunday against England’s Luke Donald.
They’re followed by U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson facing Ian Poulter, Europe’s hero on Saturday. In what could be the day’s marquee match, Keegan Bradley, the breakout U.S. star of this cup, is pitted against world No. 1 Rory McIlroy, with Phil Mickelson in the cleanup spot against Justin Rose.
Olazabal filled the next seven places with three players who haven’t won a point yet, two of whom _ Peter Hanson and Martin Kaymer _ have only played a single match. Love employed a similar philosophy in the middle of his lineup, going with guys whose performances were uneven, though he said it had more to do with timing.
“We just felt like there was a group of guys that like to play pretty fast, and there’s a group of guys that are more comfortable playing later in the day,” Love said..
The biggest strategic difference between the two captains was in the 12th and final spot. Love saved Tiger Woods for last, apparently giving more weight to his 4-1-1 career mark than his failure to contribute a point in this cup so far. Olazabal went with Francesco Molinari, the relatively untested Italian whom Woods beat in singles in Wales two years ago.
“Tiger is used to teeing off at one or two in the afternoon,” Love said, apparently trying to defuse any criticism. “That’s kind of his usual time on weekends.”
Olazabal also borrowed the “clothes-make-the-man” motivational ploy that Crenshaw used at Brookline. The Americans came out that Sunday in shirts emblazoned with team pictures of all the past winning U.S. sides. Olazabal decided to outfit his team in the navy slacks and sweater and white polo shirt that became the trademark of the late Seve Ballesteros, Olazabal’s mentor and Europe’s greatest and most beloved Ryder Cup player.
Ballesteros’ silhouette will adorn the shirts. But Olazabal won’t lack for inspirational material of his own, either.
“There are three moments that I remember very vividly,” Olazabal said about 1999. “The start the U.S. team had … the 17th green with Justin (Leonard) and all the players after the matches were over in the locker room crying all together there, including me.”
It was Leonard’s unlikely 45-foot birdie putt at Brookline that brought a pack of his U.S. teammates and supporters pouring onto the green even before Olazabal had a chance to putt. Once order was restored, Olazabal missed a 25-footer and the Americans’ improbable comeback was complete.
Love also played in the 1999 matches, and he, too, is stealing a page from Crenshaw’s book. He won’t show his team videos featuring golf aficionados Pamela Anderson and the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders pleading with the lads for a win. But he’s invited back as a speaker former president George W. Bush, who was a candidate at the time and read William Barret Travis’ letter from a besieged Alamo with the powerful kicker: “victory or death.”
The Ryder Cup has never reached that same feverish pitch since, which is probably a good thing. The U.S. invasion of the 17th green is still considered by many to be the nadir of sportsmanship in the history of the event.
“Expect a crazy day,” Zach Johnson said. “A good crazy day, a fun crazy day.”
By Elaine Donnelly
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