CHASKA, Minn. — For those U.S. golf fans imagining what it’s like to have the Ryder Cup residing in America again, there were always going to be three words of caution:
Davis Love III.
When the U.S. captain sat down to fill out his lineup for Sunday’s 12 singles match, he had a healthy — and rare — 9 1/2-6 1/2 lead. On paper at least, Love also had a considerably more talented group of individuals. Consider: The average American player would be ranked 16th in the world; his European counterpart, 28th. The Americans have only two rookies; European captain Darren Clarke is saddled with six.
But it’s worth remembering that the numbers were only slightly different heading into the final day the last time Love was in charge of a U.S. squad. That was in 2012 at Medinah, the biggest difference being that his team was leading 10-6. What happened next made golf history:
European captain Jose Maria Olazabal front-loaded his best players, while Love took a too-cautious approach. He saved several of his best players for the last few matches, including Tiger Woods as the anchor. The Europeans won the first five matches and the day, 8 1/2-3 1/2, stealing a win and matching the largest comeback ever in the bargain.
Love may have learned his lesson. This time around, he’s got it right.
“No secret that they were going to load the boat,” he said.
And indeed, Clarke did just that, deciding to stash four of his rookies in the last five slots.
Anticipating that, and needing only five points to win, Love’s lineup looks balanced and very much based on an idea put forth by Jack Nicklaus, the greatest player ever but a more modest 1-1 as a Ryder Cup captain.
Nicklaus argued against stacking your best players at either the front or the back. Instead, he came up with a compromise: Two of your best players to start, two more in the middle and the last two at the end. He felt that gave his team a chance to build momentum, but also to slow the other team’s, not to mention some “insurance” if the result turned on the final matches. ‘
Love put Patrick Reed, an absolute bulldog at Hazeltine, off first, where he’ll face Rory McIlroy, Europe’s hottest player and its emotional leader thus far. Jordan Spieth is at No. 2, drawing British Open champion and Olympic silver medalist Henrik Stenson.
From there, the U.S. looks less formidable — J.B. Holmes, Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker are Nos. 3, 4 and 5, respectively — but so does Europe, with Clarke forced to start salting in some of his newbies. Rookie Thomas Pieters goes third, followed by Justin Rose and then another rookie, Rafa Cabrera Bello.
Phil Mickelson (5-5) and Sergio Garcia (3-4-1) clash at No. 6. Both are veterans with less than distinguished records in singles. But the longer the competition goes, the better the Americans’ odds look.
U.S. rookie Ryan Moore gets Lee Westwood, 0-3 and mired in his worst Ryder Cup performance, at No. 7. Brandt Snedeker goes next against Andy Sullivan, who’s appeared only once and has been locked in Europe’s team room ever since.
In fact, the only match in the final four that looks close — again, on paper — pits U.S. rookie Brooks Koepka against Masters champion Danny Willett at No. 10.
It’s worth noting that Love was on both sides of the historic comebacks in singles. He played for the U.S. squad that first pulled off an 8 1/2-3 1/2 stunner. That came at Brookline in 1999, when Ben Crenshaw was his captain.
Crenshaw handed in his front-loaded line-up and left the interview room Saturday night down by a 10-6 deficit — but not before wagging his finger at reporters and saying, “I’ve got a good feeling about this.”
In the team room later that evening, future President George W. Bush read the “Death or Victory” speech given by Col. William Barrett Travis at the Alamo. Thus primed, the Americans piled up wins in the first seven matches and the Ryder Cup enjoyed a rare stay in the United States.
Love was asked what might be discussed in his team room Saturday night, including whether what happened at Medinah four years ago would come up.
“Me bringing it up? In the team room?” he asked.
“No,” Love answered his own question a moment later. “We keep looking forward.”