Result at Medinah will depend on ability of Jose Maria Olazabal to inspire versus Davis Love III's contribution to conditions, writes John McAuley.
Ryder Cup captains must lead by example
"People ask me if captains matter at the Ryder Cup," said Lee Westwood, a European golfer with seven previous appearances in the biennial battle with the United States, this week.
"I always say a captain can't get it right, but they can get it wrong."
The Englishman should know. In 2008, when Europe last ventured across the Atlantic, then captain Nick Faldo inexplicably chose the Friday fourballs at Valhalla to inform Westwood he would not be needed the following morning.
Westwood, reeling from the news, almost lost his match.
Faldo had earlier proved captains can indeed get it very wrong. His speech at Thursday's opening ceremony was littered with gaffes, including renaming Soren Hansen, the Dane, Soren "Stenson". Padraig Harrington, coming off a whirlwind 18 months that yielded three major titles, was described as the man who hit more golf balls than potatoes grown in Ireland, his homeland.
The United States, with the military-inspired Paul Azinger more colonel than captain, were effectively one point up before teeing off on Friday.
Azinger was innovative, but not revolutionary. American captains have a history of ramping up their compatriots' rampant patriotism: at Valderrama in 1997, Tom Kite decorated the team room with a banner exclaiming: "Losing is worse than death. You have to live with losing", while two years later Ben Crenshaw entrusted George W Bush to galvanise his troops with an address from the Battle of the Alamo.
That year's duel was named the "Battle of Brookline" and represents a nadir in transatlantic relations between two golfing continents. The present captains, both involved at Massachusetts, will be careful not to encourage a repeat.
That is not to say fires will not be stoked. Jose Maria Olazabal, fresh from navigating his way through today's opening oration - "that's the part I feel most uncomfortable with" - is sure to inspire.
Having formed with Seve Ballesteros the most prolific partnership in Ryder Cup history, Olazabal's zeal for the competition is indisputable. Martin Kaymer, who made his debut at Celtic Manor two years ago, told The National recently how he "will remember for the rest of my life" a stirring speech Olazabal gave as vice-captain in Wales.
"When Ollie speaks, everyone listens," said Colin Montgomerie, the captain of that victorious side.
Yet it is not only his words that need to resonate; actions must speak volumes, too. Olazabal has already proved his captain's credentials by entrusting Thomas Bjorn, Darren Clarke, Paul McGinley and Miguel Angel Jimenez - four men of indubitable cup pedigree - to act as his lieutenants at Medinah. He also enjoys the comfort of patent partnerships in Westwood-Luke Donald, Graeme McDowell-Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter-Justin Rose. Arguably, no one understands the team ethic more than Olazabal.
The 46 year old, a two-time Masters champions, is also well liked among American galleries, which will be crucial in this lion's den.
His counterpart, Davis Love III, has spent the build-up reinforcing the Chicago crowd's penchant to "fire things up".
Having turned professional at the same time as Olazabal, he is an old sparring partner and familiar cup foe.
Love's contribution to conditions this week should have an influence. The 1997 US PGA champion has ordered wider fairways and lighter rough to utilise his side's big hitters, while rapid greens should favour a collection of steely putters.
Meanwhile, Michael Jordan, the Chicago Bulls icon and perhaps the world's most recognisable athlete before Tiger Woods, has been drafted as lead cheerleader.
Love, a combatant of six Ryder Cups, understands the significance of retrieving the trophy, especially on home soil. Yet he has mimicked the approach of Fred Couples to last year's President's Cup, trying to keep things loose among his charges.
That is a double-edged sword, though. A captain can be pally, but as a contemporary on tour he may find it difficult to bench the experienced trio of Woods, Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk, all of whom have questionable Ryder records. With the margins so fine this week - 24 of the world's top 35 golfers take to the tee tomorrow - it could come down to who best leads their team. For Westwood, it is Europe who hold the ace.
"Ollie could be the X factor for our team," he said.
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