From Friday, Europe take on the United States in the Ryder Cup at Le Golf National seeking to reclaim the trophy they lost in America two years ago.
Are this American side set to break their Europe hoodoo?
The last time the US travelled across the Atlantic they were soundly beaten. A 16.5-11.5 defeat at Gleneagles consigned them to an eighth loss from 10 attempts. It even sparked a task force. But that crack unit appeared then to have cracked the conundrum: at Hazeltine 2016, the US blitzed to an even greater victory, winning by six. The cup was back in their hands. Now, though, if they want to hang on to it they have to do something they haven’t managed in 25 years: win on European soil.
“We’re reminded of it quite often,” captain Jim Furyk said on Monday, describing a streak that stretches all the way back to the Belfry in 1993 as a “thorn in their side”. That said, and even though Furyk sought to downplay it, it should provide extra motivation. It helps, as well, that counterpart Thomas Bjorn labelled this US crop “one of the strongest American teams of all-time”. They have collected 31 majors titles, to Europe’s eight, and hold an average world ranking of 11.2, to Europe’s 19.1. Nevertheless, doing it in outside their own back yard represents the ultimate acid test.
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Can Tiger Woods turn around his poor Ryder record?
What a way to announce your comeback. Woods won the final event of the PGA Tour season on Sunday, rising above the racket at East Lake to claim the Tour Championship and register a first victory in five years. Not a bad way, then, to make the transition to Le Golf National. Now, having seemingly laid to past the ghosts of injury and ignominy, the 80-time PGA Tour winner must go about exorcising some substantial Ryder Cup demons. Questions regarding Woods’ enthusiasm for the event may have subsided – he was a committed vice-captain two years ago and was all set for that role again before his play made certain a wildcard pick – but his ropey playing record remains: in 31 matches, the American has taken only 14.5 points, losing 17 times. Yet this is Woods 2.0, a former lone wolf who has embraced the collective. His game this season has been superb. The scenes on Sunday that greeted his return to the winner's circle were incredible. Yet as always, and ever more because of his current form, the spotlight will burn bright this week. Woods must respond.
Will Sergio Garcia justify his captain’s faith?
It was some endorsement. “Sergio is my Seve,” claimed Thomas Bjorn, Europe’s captain, earlier this month upon confirming Garcia as one of his four wildcards. There can be little argument, too, that the Spaniard constitutes the “heartbeat of the team”, since few rival Garcia in passion for the Ryder Cup (Ian Poulter, perhaps, aside). But Garcia’s talismanic influence - compared to that of celebrated compatriot Seve Ballesteros - runs in contrast to his play this past year. After finally landing a first major at last year’s Masters, he missed the cut in all four premier events this season. Until Sunday, he had one top-10 finish, although crucially that came at the French Open, the same venue that hosts this week. But Sunday sealed a welcome return to form. Garcia finished tied-seventh in Portugal. He fired a final-round 65. A veteran of eight Ryder Cups, he boasts an impressive 19-11-7 record. What is more, he excels in partnerships, losing only six of 23 foursomes and fourball matches. Criticised for including Garcia, Bjorn will hope his pick's sudden rude health, following a month off competitively, bleeds into this week.
Will rookies rise to the occasion or succumb to nerves?
The number of novices on Team Europe tallies five. The US have three. Some boast incredible individual careers already, such as Justin Thomas, a major winner at 24, or Jon Rahm, who reached world No 2 after a solitary full season as a professional. Also, Bryson DeChambeau concluded this year with two huge victories, while Tommy Fleetwood is the reigning European No 1. Alex Noren, meanwhile, won earlier this year at Le Golf National. But, as is well documented, the Ryder Cup constitutes a different beast. So, then, how will the pressure of competing for your continent sit on rookie shoulders? For that, Bjorn leaned heavily on experience when choosing his wildcards. In 2010, Europe prevailed despite having six debutants – a record then. At Hazeltine, Europe again had six and although the team lost, Thomas Pieters finished as the event’s leading points-scorer, taking four from a possible five. Rafa Cabrera Bello shone, too, as did Brooks Koepka. The notoriously demanding closing stretch at Le Golf National is dominated by water. Fresh to the Ryder Cup, newbies this week will either ride the wave of excitement or struggle to stay afloat.
Can home advantage prove decisive?
It measures as both a tangible and an intangible. Course conditions can be complementary to the home team, while the support from the stands can serve as spur to propel hosts across the line. At Hazeltine, the US played on that patriotism, the crowd loud, the noise partisan. Patrick Reed, in particular, thrived on it. Rory McIlroy had a fan ejected. In France, expect the most vociferous voices to be cheering for the boys in blue. The gargantuan grandstand on the first tee, the largest in Ryder Cup history boasting a 6,500 capacity - Hazeltine had 1,668 - provides a real amphitheatre feel, adding to an event that seems to only swell in significance with every iteration. The course, too, should play into Europe’s hands. Narrow fairways and thicker rough is designed to counter the US’ apparent length advantage. It promotes strategy over strength. Only three Americans have logged competitive rounds at the venue, two of which missed the cut. Noren and Fleetwood have won there the past two years. “Does it favour our guys more than theirs?” mused Europe vice-captain Graeme McDowell. “We think it does."