x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

It's Europe for me I'm afraid

The Americans are better prepared this time under Azinger but the visitors will win

When it comes to outright skill and ability, Anthony Kim, left, can reach the same level as Phil Mickelson on his day and if those two hit it off, that could be a scary combination from the rival European point of view.
When it comes to outright skill and ability, Anthony Kim, left, can reach the same level as Phil Mickelson on his day and if those two hit it off, that could be a scary combination from the rival European point of view.

Paul Azinger knows he has a huge job on his hands to break Europe's stranglehold on the Ryder Cup, but the American captain has already won a key battle before play begins. By transforming the selection process used on his side of the Atlantic, he has given the US their best chance of landing the trophy for years, although it may still not be enough.

When he was first invited to lead the American challenge, Zinger knew he had to eliminate the mistakes of the past. The biggest error, in his mind, was to pick 10 out of 12 players on the strength of their performances over a two-year period. In recent times, it has often meant the US lined up with two or three players who might have been playing very well the year before, but who were completely out of sorts by the time the event came around.

Azinger was determined that wouldn't happen at Valhalla. So he said he would only accept the captaincy if the automatic places went to players based on their performances over the previous 12 months, with the exception of the previous year's four majors. He also made it four instead of two captain's picks, which means that, in addition to having the top eight, he was also able to bring in four players currently at the top of their game. For a change, the US are going into the Ryder Cup with 12 players actually in form.

Another thing Zinger guarantees is the Americans will be fired up and ready for anything come tomorrow morning, not relaxed and laid back, as US teams have been in the past. He's rammed it home to them just how nerve-racking the Ryder Cup is, and exactly how tense, even sick, they'll be feeling when they get to the first tee. Two years ago, when Tom Lehman was captain, the American players were all saying in the build-up how relaxed they were, and what a great time they were having. When they turned up on the first tee, they weren't in the right fram-e of mind.

That was a big mistake by Lehman, and Zinger won't let it happen this time. He'll make sure his players will know exactly what they're up against. As we are neighbours in Bradenton, Florida, I've had quite a few discussions with Paul about his Ryder Cup philosophy, and basically he wants to do things his way. I asked him if he felt that there would have been a different outcome in the two previous instances - when Europe had record winning margins - if his selection system had been used.

He couldn't say that the results would have been any different, but he firmly believes the US team who go into action will be the best that could be picked, and that America have their best chance of winning for some time. His fear is that the Europeans will reproduce the standard of golf that took them to record wins at the K Club in Ireland two years ago and at Oakland Hills in 2004. Without doubt, the level of golf produced by the Europeans was incredibly high, and it'll be interesting to see whether they can maintain that level at Valhalla.

Paul has had so much on his plate, and I think it's only recently that he has started to realise just how big the event is. He's played in it many times, but he hadn't been exposed to the huge amount of work that goes on behind the scenes. For the Europeans, it's bigger than any major, and he knows he's up against a very strong team who will be playing with a massive amount of passion. On the positive side, since he's started to finalise his pairings for the opening matches, he's begun to see that he has a strong team as well.

One pairing he likes is Jim Furyk with Ben Curtis. Another is Phil Mickelson with Anthony Kim. When it comes to outright skill and ability, Kim is the one who can reach the same level as Mickelson on his day, and if those two hit it off, that could be a scary combination. Also watch out for Stuart Cink playing with Justin Leonard, but not necessarily the two Kentucky guys, Kenny Perry and JB Holmes. That pairing would definitely get the local crowd going, but Zinger is expecting the crowd to go crazy anyway, because that's what they're like with sport in Kentucky.

He wants them to be rowdy, and really get behind the team so that they can gain some momentum, which is crucial in the Ryder Cup. But at the same time he doesn't want the crowd to be unfair or say or do anything derogatory, and he's confident they'll behave themselves. He's been making good use of his three vice captains, Olin Brown, who was at the last couple of tournaments keeping a close eye on players, and Ray Floyd and Dave Stockton, two of the most ferociously competitive players of their generation. By contrast, Nick Faldo leads Europe into the Ryder Cup with only one vice-captain, although José María Olazábal will be a huge asset to him.

Originally, Faldo had two vice captains, but then Paul McGinley dropped out to try to qualify for the team. It's meant that Olazabal has taken a big load on his shoulders. Faldo has always had his management team to help him, and I don't think he knew how much work was involved. Jose Maria should at least have had someone to help. But in saying that, Faldo couldn't have a better deputy. All the players have tremendous respect for Jose Maria. Faldo isn't close to the players but he has a vice captain who is.

Jose Maria can relate to players incredibly well, and they know they can always approach him. He has a tremendous feel for the Ryder Cup, especially for pairings, and will be very influential when it comes to deciding which players play together. For the first time, Europe have 12 players who were all in the top 50 in the world rankings when team were chosen. There is not a single weak link. Some will probably look at Oliver Wilson as a possible weakness, because he is not as well known as the rest. But the Americans may get a surprise, because he generally hits the driver very straight and is a good iron player and a very good putter.

Added to that, he's so deliberate, and if Faldo puts him together with Padraig Harrington they'll drive the Americans crazy. In the past, Europe had Bernhard Langer to frustrate the Americans, and a Harrington-Wilson combination would put them to sleep. But Harrington has won the last two majors, and with his confidence so high he can play with anyone. No one is playing better than Sergio Garcia at the moment, and if Faldo puts him together with Lee Westwood, that's about as strong a pairing as you can get. I imagine we'll see the two Swedes, Henrik Stenson and Robert Karlsson, paired together, as well as best buddies Justin Rose and Ian Poulter.

Whichever way you look at it, the European team are incredibly strong. That's emphasised by the fact that Darren Clarke and Colin Montgomerie didn't get a look in. The Americans are much stronger this time and I believe the result will be a lot closer than in recent years. But I just can't see Faldo's men losing. It's Europe for me. sports@thenational.ae