MEDINAH, Ill. — Davis Love knows that saying the right thing at the right time can carry plenty of weight this week, when he captains the US Ryder Cup team against Europe at Medinah Country Club.
To illustrate his point, Love recalled watching the live feed of Ben Crenshaw’s Saturday night press conference at The Country Club during the 1999 Ryder Cup, when he boldly said, “I have a good feeling about this,” despite his team trailing by 4 points heading into singles play, a deficit that had never been overcome. Love, who was on that US squad, began asking his teammates if they’d also heard Crenshaw’s defiant declaration.
A day later, the US won the first seven singles matches (including Love’s), and eight of 12 overall, to author the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history.
A captain’s message, it seems, can sometimes make a big difference, especially when the situation might be dire, or at least a bit muddied.
Love isn’t there — not yet, and he might not get there — but he has taken a proactive approach with an issue that could go a long way toward deciding the outcome of the 39th Ryder Cup. When asked about the sticky process of deciding who must sit out the first four sessions, Love says he’s viewing it as a good problem to have, for one very important reason.
“They’re all playing well,” Love said. “How do you sit somebody? They are all playing great.”
Practice-round days at Ryder Cups are typically an opportunity for a captain and his assistants to send out possible pairings to see which players might complement each other. Over the first two days at Medinah, if the three US practice foursomes are any indication, Love might be leaning toward specific twosomes, because six pairs have become evident:
Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley.
Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson.
Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson.
Brandt Snedeker and Jim Furyk.
Matt Kuchar and Dustin Johnson.
Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker.
Love won’t have to turn in his Friday morning foursomes lineup until Thursday afternoon, so he has a few more hours to decide. But with foursomes and four-balls accounting for 16 of the 28 available points, getting it right goes a long way.
Some partnerships have clicked: The Spanish Armada duo of Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal went 11-2-2, while Sergio Garcia and Luke Donald are 4-0, and will likely be paired again this week. Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, friends from Northern Ireland who played together three times two years ago, are almost certain to be reunited.
Olazabal, now Europe’s captain, wasn’t giving anything away based on his practice-round pairings.
“I do have a pretty good idea of what I want on Friday morning. I do have a few ideas in mind,” Olazabal said. “They are confirming that the possibilities are there.”
One possibility on the US side that probably won’t be repeated is the failed experiment of pairing Woods and Mickelson, as Hal Sutton did in 2004, when they were the two best players in the world. Sutton hoped to make an early statement, but it backfired, the duo losing both their matches in what turned out to be a European rout.
For some, like Woods, finding the right partner is not easy. In 23 Ryder Cup matches with a playing partner, Woods has had 12 different teammates. It takes a special wingman to head out with Woods, and Love thinks he has one in Stricker. Combining the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup, Woods and Stricker have played eight matches together, and gone 6-2.
“Steve Stricker has found his way into that pairing because he can handle everything that’s going on around Tiger,” Love said. “You have to have a special guy to be able to handle that. We’ve got a few on our team that can definitely handle it.”
Love said he’s relied on his Ryder Cup veterans — Woods, Mickelson, Stricker, Furyk — to give honest assessments and sensible requests. If someone thinks a certain player would make a good partner, Love will consider it, and chances are you’ll see it.
That doesn’t mean Love’s rookies are keeping quiet. Bradley has made no secret whom he’d like as a partner.
“It would be a dream of mine to partner up with Phil,” said Bradley, who almost always plays practice rounds with Mickelson at PGA Tour events. “I’ve told Davis, I’m happy to partner with anybody on this team, but me and Phil have a great relationship, and the great part about Phil is he’s there for advice but will also listen to me and take me seriously. I think that’s what could make us a good partnership.”
With a mix of youth and experience, Love’s dilemma of which players to sit might be helped by some who will be better off with a little built-in rest, taking a session off here or there and going out to root for teammates. If nothing else, Love has sensed a closeness with this team that he hopes will pay off come Sunday. But it also won’t hurt Friday or Saturday, when he has to tell four of his players they won’t be sent out.
“If we threw the names in a hat and drew them out, our guys are all happy with each other, they’re comfortable, they’re all playing great,” said Love. “It’s not like you can make a bad pairing.
“The way they’re talking to me the last month to six weeks, I don’t think I can make them mad. They might not play well, they might go out and lose a match, but I can’t make them unhappy or mad because they’d all be happy to play with each other.
“I’m finding them easy to pair and hard to sit.”
They might be easy to pair, but how good will they play? Building a lead going into singles is almost a must. The last team to win the Ryder Cup without taking a lead into the singles matches? The ’99 US dozen in Brookline.