Gossip from the grounds: What insiders are talking about at Whistling Straits
HAVEN, Wis. — The Ryder Cup preparations are nearly through their third day and inklings of insight are dripping out from all sides. A mix of speculation, fact and fiction, each one helps paint the early outlines of how this year’s contest could look by week’s end.
Here’s a few things we’re hearing from the site of the 2021 Ryder Cup.
First, from Luke:
Europe’s Charm Offensive
The European Team weren’t sporting blue and gold uniforms on Wednesday, but rather green and gold — the colors of the state’s beloved Green Bay Packers. On the 1st tee and 18th fairway, players donned cheese head hats and posed for pictures before heaving them into the cheering crowd.
It was all part of an intentional charm-offensive from the European team to endear themselves to a crowd Captain Padraig Harrington says he expects to be 90-10 in America’s favor, given the difficulty of European golf fans coming abroad. Another mooted benefit? Taking the edge off a U.S. crowd which, at times, boiled-over into unruliness the last time the Ryder Cup was contested on U.S. soil.
“It is a nod to Wisconsin and obviously to Green Bay,” Harrington said. “the players are pretty stoked out there that they’re doing something to show their respect for the local state we’re in.”
Rory already won a match
Starting on the 10th tee, Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter paired up for an alternate shot match against their playing partners, Lee Westwood and Paul Casey, on Wednesday.
The highlight of the day came on the 529-yard par-5 16th hole, when Rory smashed a drive down the middle, Poulter nudged a mid-iron greenside, and Rory chipped in. Swing-wise, morale is high in Rory world.
“He looked like a javelin thrower at the top [of his backswing],” Stenson said (which I was assured is a high compliment).
When victory was confirmed via a lip-in seven-footer from Poulter on 18th, Rory let out a fist-pump and celebrated by getting some lunch.
All signs from the ground point to Rory McIlroy playing with a combination of Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter this week, likely for fourballs and foursomes, respectively.
The feeling is that while Rory is capable of playing with a younger player, he’s at his best when paired with a high-energy, emotional leader of the European Team. That’s the role captain’s picks Poulter and Sergio could be there to play.
“Rory’s the kind of player who feeds off the energy of somebody else, rather than bringing somebody else up to his level,” Paul McGinley told the UK broadcast, Sky Sports. “I’d be surprised if he was pared with a rookie. That was tried in the past and didn’t work.”
The Europeans playing alternate shot did so in earnest: No practice shots, except around the greens.
When Dustin Johnson and Collin Morikawa (playing as partners) and Bryson DeChambeau and Harris English (also partners) played alternate shot, they opted for “double” alternate shot: Each would hit shots off every tee, then proceed to play each other’s ball for each subsequent shot, so every player hit approximately the same number of shots as a typical round.
Does it help to groove the stop-start rhythm of alternate shot by practicing not hitting golf shots, like the Europeans do? We’ll have to wait and see.
Bryson plays well with others?
There seems to be a feeling among U.S. fans that Bryson is better suited for fourballs than alternate shot, but Bryson disagrees — and so might the U.S. team. He played alternate shot with Harris English on Wednesday, which suggests a potential future pairing between the two.
“I feel like I’m a player that can adapt to anything if I have to,” he said, “and I feel like there are certain players on our team that can mesh really, really well with my game.”
There’s one coach in all black
This week’s Ryder Cup forces upon coaches some unusual clothing identities: GOLF Top 100 Teacher Jeff Smith, the born-and-bred American coach to Viktor Hovland, is decked out in all European gear. Fellow Top 100 Teacher, Northern Irishman Justin Parsons, is head-to-toe in red, white and blue as part of Harris English’s support team.
There’s only one exception to the rule: Legendary coach Pete Cowen, who’s dressed in his signature black. Why? Because he’s helping players on multiple teams: Brooks Koepka on the U.S., along with Rory McIlory and Ian Poulter on the European side.
A course an Irishman could love
Coming into the contest, there was plenty about the course itself being heavily weighted in the longer-hitting U.S. team’s favor. Upon actually seeing the site for the first time, media, fans, and even players are wondering if that was perhaps overstated. There’s a distinctly linksy feel to the place.
“I’m pretty happy with the conditions here to be honest,” Shane Lowry said, “I’m pretty happy with the golf course and that cold wind. It feels very much like a summer’s day in Ireland when you’re out there.”
Rahm’s settled stomach
European golf fans’ hearts collectively stopped last week when Rahm missed the cut and struggled with stomach issues. The word from Rahm’s camp is that he’s back to feeling totally fine, and that the momentary stomach trouble was the result of the overly rich food (and drink) in Napa County that Rahm normally avoids.
We’ve heard of just one table-tennis result thus far: DeChambeau over Berger on Night 1.
“Yeah, I lost in ping-pong, which kind of stinks, to Daniel,” DeChambeau said. “He beat me. There are obviously excuses I could make, but I won’t. I’m pretty sour about it. I’m going to get him back.”
What’s Whistling Straits like? When the wind is up, it begins to resemble another Pete Dye course known for hosting big-time events.
“It kind of has a Kiawah-ish feel off the tee,” Xander Schauffele said. “A lot of blind spots where you’re kind of aiming at a gorse bush or aiming kind of left center of a bunker.”
Because of Covid-19, the player welcome dinner — golf’s greatest semiannual red carpet event — was called off this year. But a few photos were still posted from each respective team dress-up dinner:
More to come, I’m sure…
Chip on his Poulter
Guess who’s looking to build up the Europeans-as-underdogs narrative? That’s right, it’s perennial underdog — and overachiever — Ian Poulter!
“Course setup is obviously this week heavily weighed to the U.S. as opposed to how we set things up back in Europe, so I guess everything is stacked against us,” he said. “When you have that, when you can go in as underdogs, when you can turn the tide and actually come out victorious, it means a little bit more.”
We’ll see how the strategy plays out.
Back pin, corner pocket
The wildest hole location of the week could come at the short par-3 No. 12, where there’s an eensie sliver of green in the back right that hangs over the edge of Lake Michigan and can’t be more than about 8-10 paces across. The word is there will be a pin back there, and we sure hope so.
Padraig Harrington acknowledged that he would, in fact, get a tattoo if his side wins — and it didn’t sound like he took much convincing.
“Maybe they didn’t ask. Maybe I offered, and they felt that was enough. But definitely, yeah, it’s a given now in Europe. Captain has to get a tattoo. And I don’t have any other tattoos at this stage, so it would be a new experience for me,” Harrington said. He didn’t specify where the tattoo would be. We won’t press him on that.
Bryson vs. Brooks?
While golf fans were understandably skeptical of the Bryson-Brooks reunion video released by the Team USA, the two teams were mingling, if awkwardly, on the range on Tuesday.
But Henrik Stenson stole the show when he busted in with a hilarious interlude to break any remaining tension.
Barring some in-game changes or slight of hand from Captain Stricker, the pairings have become fairly clear on Team USA:
Xander Schauffele will play with Patrick Cantlay.
Jordan Spieth will play with Justin Thomas.
Dustin Johnson will play with Collin Morikawa.
Bryson DeChambeau will play with Harris English or Scottie Scheffler.
Brooks Koepka will play with Tony Finau and Daniel Berger.
Tony Finau may play with Harris English, too.
On the European side, it’s far murkier, but here are the groups who played on Tuesday:
And here are six pairs who played on Wednesday:
Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter
Jon Rahm and Sergio Garcia
Tyrrell Hatton and Shane Lowry
Paul Casey and Lee Westwood
Bernd Wiesberger and Tommy Fleetwood
Viktor Hovland and Matthew Fitzpatrick
You can connect the dots as well as I can, but I’m most excited at the idea of Tommy Fleetwood with Shane Lowry, Rory McIlroy with Ian Poulter and, if it’s actually happening, Sergio Garcia with Jon Rahm. Paul Casey has apparently been striping it, too.
On Thursday we’ll learn more — and we may end up knowing less than ever. Can’t wait!