Jim Furyk shook things up a bit by splitting up the Spieth-Reed combo, while European captain Thomas Bjorn was savvy with his selections.
SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – As America’s Ryder Cup golfers walked up to the stage here Thursday, decked out in blue blazers and light pants, they were all wearing sunglasses except for Patrick Reed, who always wants his opponents to see his eyes as he drinks their blood. Reed knew what most had come to assume, based on the practice rounds: He will be paired with Tiger Woods in Friday morning’s four-ball matches. Reed might be just a bit excited for that one.
The Ryder Cup tends to overdose on pageantry before the matches begin. There is the gala early in the week; the posed photos from another era of Golfers And Their Wives, which mostly generate snark these days; and then the opening ceremony on the eve of the actual golf. U.S. captain Jim Furyk dropped merci beaucoup, magnifique and vive de golf in his speech, each pronunciation proving that Furyk could teach a course in sportsmanship, but not in French. European captain Thomas Bjorn declared that his pride in European golf “is shared by millions of European” golf fans, almost six of whom live in France.
But what they said at the ceremony didn’t really matter. America’s 12 best golfers are here to defend whatever part of our honor can be defended by hitting a ball with a stick to within reasonable proximity of another stick, and dammit, this is going to be fun.
We will get to the Friday morning fourball pairings in a moment, but first, let’s note who isn’t playing. Bjorn chose to sit his two Ryder Cup legends, Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter. This may be both obviously smart (both players have struggled, albeit at different times, since the last Ryder Cup) and sneaky smart. They can support the rookies in the morning, then potentially ride a wave of European momentum in the afternoon.
Less understandable: Bjorn is sitting Henrik Stenson, perhaps the best ball-striker on his team. Bjorn said Stenson won’t complain: “He just goes, ‘I’ll go with that.’ He’s a brilliant guy to have in that room. He just does what’s best for those 12.”
You can be sure Stenson will play in the afternoon foursomes. In the meantime, Bjorn placed a rookie in every morning match. He is relying mostly on the chemistry between each pair, which is usually a good move at the Ryder Cup.
Furyk decided to sit Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, Bryson DeChambeau and Webb Simpson in the morning. Furyk wouldn’t promise they will play in the afternoon, but if they do, you can expect pairings of Mickelson-DeChambeau and Watson-Simpson.
Brooks Koepka and Tony Finau vs. Justin Rose and Jon Rahm
Rahm may be the most important player on the European team for not just this weekend, but this generation. The 23-year-old is extremely emotional and extremely talented. Can he handle the Fiery-Ryder Cup-Loving Spaniard role as well as Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal and Sergio Garcia?
Bjorn laughed off the possibility that Rahm might be too amped up for this: “He's not too excited. He's excited, but he's not too excited.” He was wise to pair Rahm with Rose, perhaps the surest player on either roster, in a fire-at-the-pins fourball match. And Bjorn was smart to put them in the leadoff spot. America is favored, and Europe’s first task is to make the Americans realize this is not going to be easy.
As for Finau and Koepka…well, nothing seems to bother Koepka, and not much bothers Finau. Furyk said “They made a beeline for me,” during Thursday’s practice to emphasize how much they wanted to play together in the first match. Their demeanors will be an interesting contrast with Rahm, especially if this is a typical raucous Ryder Cup atmosphere.
“We love the chemistry there,” Furyk said of Koepka and Finau. “Both are explosive, without a doubt. There is a lot of firepower in that group.”
Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler vs. Rory McIlroy and Thorbjorn Olesen
What an exhausting year for McIlroy. Patrick Reed stomped him on Sunday at the Masters. He disappeared at the U.S. Open—first from the leaderboard, and then from the media. He finished tied for second at the British. He was reduced to an extra in the Tiger Woods Comeback Story last week. And now he faces DJ and Fowler in his opening match of the Ryder Cup.
Johnson and McIlroy are probably the two best drivers of the golf ball in the world—nobody else combines distance and accuracy like they do when they’re playing well. Fowler can pound it, too—he hit a 458-yard drive at the Scottish Open earlier this year. But Le Golf National is not set up for that. It’s shorter, with narrow fairways. McIlroy has hit some awful wedge shots this year, often struggling with distance control; if he is dialed in from inside 120 yards, that changes the dynamics of the Ryder Cup. The fourball format allows Johnson and Fowler to be aggressive, which should be good for both of them.
Furyk said he first mentioned this pairing to Johnson and Fowler “weeks and weeks and weeks ago,” so they should be prepared for this. They are capable of going birdie for birdie with anybody.
Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas vs. Paul Casey and Tyrell Hatton
I would have gone with Thomas and Fowler, who are best buds, but it’s hard to argue with Thomas and Spieth, who are longtime buds. They have been playing together in major competitions for almost as long as they can remember —they competed in France in the summer of 2007, when both were mid-teenagers. Neither one really seems to get nervous, but both can get excited, especially Thomas.
“I think the closeness, in the number of rounds they have played together, will help,” Furyk said.
Putting Spieth and Thomas together is a good way for them to settle down, and since they have different playing styles, fourball is a good choice for them. Thomas faces the same question at Le Golf National that Johnson does: Can his bomb-and-pitch style work here? Thomas did finish eighth at this summer’s French Open here, so that’s encouraging.
Hatton is a Ryder Cup rookie with limited big-stage experience. Casey is a veteran who won this year’s Valspar Championship but hasn’t done much of note lately. Yes, Spieth has struggled, but Thomas and Spieth are probably the heaviest favorites of any twosome in the morning sessions. It would not be at all surprising if Furyk breaks them up in the afternoon. Furyk basically admitted Thursday that he likes having the option of pairing Spieth with his old Ryder Cup partner, Reed, and Thomas with his frequent practice partner, Woods: “I’m not really trying to get six twosomes out there. I’m looking for options. Putting those four players together there gives us options.”
And speaking of Reed and Woods …
Patrick Reed and Tiger Woods vs. Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood
Reed seems like he could play with anybody (because he revels in the hysteria of this event) and nobody (because he is such an odd personality.) Furyk said “Tiger knowing Patrick’s game helped a significant amount.” This will be a great test of Woods’s newfound accuracy off the tee. If he can maintain it, maybe playing him 36 holes is not crazy.
Remember this, though: Molinari is just about the last guy on the European team who will be intimidated by Tiger Woods. They were paired together at this year’s British Open, and Molinari went out and won it with a solid-as-can-be round, even after Tiger briefly held the lead. They played each other in singles in 2012 at Medinah and they halved the match. And Fleetwood could easily emerge as the star of this Ryder Cup.
The subtext of all of this inevitable golf drama is the two captains’ personalities. Furyk said he is not “rah-rah,” as if there was any confusion, but he is steady and smart. Bjorn is more magnetic, and he views the Ryder Cup as the pinnacle of the sport. He said Thursday that the majors determine great golfers, but the Ryder Cup determines legends.
Well, that’s his view. We do know that the U.S. has more great golfers. Can they become Ryder Cup legends?