Answering four big questions ahead of the 2018 Ryder Cup at Le Golf National in France.
Ah, the Ryder Cup—there's just nothing like it in golf.
The 42nd biannual competition between Team USA and Team Europe will begin on Friday and conclude on Sunday, but there is sure to be hordes of drama in-between. That's what you get when you take 24 of the world's best golfers and have them compete in awesome, unique formats they don't get to play in elsewhere. Sprinkle in some patriotism and continentalism (is that a word?) and you've got a golf event unlike any other.
Ahead of the first tee shot of Friday's morning fourball session—which will be struck in front of a grandstand of 6,000 fans serenading the European with praise and the Americans with...something—let's answer four key questions, including everyone's favorite: Who will win the darn thing?
How should captain Jim Furyk use Tiger Woods?
We now know that Woods will play the Friday morning fourball session alongside Patrick Reed, a guy who relishes this competition perhaps more than any other on the American side. Prior to this week, most expected Reed to play alongside Jordan Spieth (who will play Friday morning alongside Justin Thomas), as those two have teamed up to go 4-1-2 over the past two Ryder Cups. But for whatever reason—maybe Spieth preferred to play with Thomas over Reed, the latter of whom isn't the world's most popular player among fans or his peers, or maybe Tiger made a special request—that duo has been split up.
It's not surprising to see Tiger being trotted out in the first session given how well he's been playing recently. Not sure if you heard, but Tiger picked up his first win in five years at last week's Tour Championship, but that wasn't an isolated hot week. He finished T-6 in his previous start at the BMW and would have won there if he had any sort of bunker game that week, and he would have won multiple times this year had he putted like he used to. With the Scotty Cameron back in the bag, Tiger looks to have figured it out and feels confident and aggressive on the greens once again.
Also, don't underestimate the intimidation factor Tiger still brings, especially given last week's spectacle. He's got his swagger back and, as the absolute mayhem coming up 18 last week showed, he still transcends the game. Whoever he plays against will feel they're playing against Tiger Woods, and they'll know the European fans are there to see Tiger just as much as they are to root on Team Europe.
All that goes to say, the answer to this question changed significantly given the events of the past week. The conventional wisdom pre-Atlanta was that Tiger would probably play two of the four team sessions to avoid putting too much stress on his back. (That, and Tiger historically does not play well in the alternate-shot foursomes format.) It's all different now—he is arguably the U.S.' hottest player and he remains the team's biggest asset when you combine current form and mere presence.
The most important thing, of course, is keeping Tiger healthy and fresh for Sunday's singles. There's been a lot of discussion as to whether Woods is capable of playing two sessions in one day, but I think a lot of that is overblown. Match play isn't the same grind as stroke play. In fourball, when you're out of a hole you can pick up your ball, so you don't have to grind to save bogey as you do in regular tour events. In foursomes, by definition you only have to hit half the shots. If Tiger is up for it, I don't see any reason he shouldn't play at least three of the four team sessions and I wouldn't be absolutely shocked if he plays all four. If he's earned a perfect three points after Saturday morning's session and tells Furyk he feels great physically, how can Furyk not send him out for basically nine more holes of golf?
Does Le Golf National favor one type of player, or one team?
Full disclosure: I'm writing this from SI's New York offices, so any knowledge I have of the course is second-hand in nature. But I can assure you that I watched hours of this year's French Open, which was played at Le Golf National, talked with industry colleagues on site and listened intently to what players have said about the course.
Justin Thomas likened Le National to TPC Sawgrass, and this feels like a pretty telling comparison. Sawgrass is a track that makes players strategize, particularly off the tee. Trouble lurks around every corner and you have to play to the fat part of the fairways, which often means hitting less than driver. Expect more of the same this week—a bunch of irons and fairway woods off tees. You have to plot your way around and play for position, and you absolutely have to find the short grass if you're to make birdies, the currency of match play.
It's no coincidence the Europeans picked a track like this. The Americans' strength is their length, and both sides know that. That's why Hazeltine in 2016 was a big ol' cow pasture, with every hole maxed out for distance and with the rough shaved down to the length of Spieth's hair. The U.S. strategy was grip it and rip it, and this played big time into the hands of the Brooks Koepkas and Dustin Johnsons of the world. Not so much this time around. Le Golf National will, to an extent, nullify the Americans' length edge and play into the Europeans' hands. The average PGA Tour driving accuracy rank of the European team is 78th, while the Americans' is 133rd. Team USA has no players ranked in the top 50 in driving accuracy, while the Europeans have three, including No. 1 Henrik Stenson. Advantage: Europe.
One other place the Europeans hold the advantage at Le Golf National is experience. They've played the course and the Americans haven't. The European team has played a combined 233 competitive rounds at Le Golf National, while the U.S. team has played eight. Somewhat surprisingly, Justin Thomas was the only American to make the trip and play the French Open this year, a tournament won by Europe's own Alex Noren. Moreover, according to Golf Channel's Will Gray, only six of the 12 American team members had played the course prior to this week. That means six players—Dustin Johnson, Tiger Woods, Webb Simpson, Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed and Rickie Fowler—spent the first couple days this week familiarizing themselves with the layout. Not ideal.
Who are European players to keep an eye on?
If you think the U.S. captain's picks were controversial, they pale in comparison to the ones made by European captain Thomas Bjorn. He selected Henrik Stenson, Paul Casey, Segio Garcia and Ian Poulter, and the pick that drew the most blowback was Garcia. He has seen a significant drop in form since winning the 2017 Masters and his play of late hasn't suggested much of a turnaround. While he did finish T-7 at last week's Portugal Masters—a European Tour event with a subpar field—Garcia has missed seven of his last 13 cuts and missed the cut at all four majors this season. Garcia was picked over Rafa Cabrera-Bello and Matt Wallace, the latter of whom won three times on the European Tour this year.
To be fair to Garcia, he is a Ryder Cup legend. He's 19-11-7 in the eight Ryder Cups he's played in, and his numbers in the fourball (7-4-3) and foursomes (9-3-3) are even more impressive. Plus, one of his few top 10s this season did come at the French Open, which was played at...Le Golf National. It wouldn't be surprising at all if Sergio puts it all together this week and adds to his Ryder Cup lore, but should he struggle, that'll be the pick people point to as a mistake.
On the other end of the spectrum, two guys who I think could be key to the Europeans' success this week are Tommy Fleetwood and Francesco Molinari. Fleetwood has blossomed into a world class player this year, and casual American fans were introduced to him when he shot a final-round 63 at a comically difficult Shinnecock course in the U.S. Open. Fleetwood seems to relish the big moment, and though he's a Ryder Cup rookie, he appears to have the makeup of a match-play star.
Molinari has Ryder Cup experience—he and Tiger halved the final singles match at Medinah in 2012, though Europe's comeback had already been complete by that point—and this will be his third time representing Europe. Winner of this year's British Open, there has been no better player on European soil this year than the Italian. He leads the Race to Dubai (the European Tour equivalent of the FedEx Cup), and in addition to his win at Carnoustie, Molinari won the BMW PGA Championship and finished second at the Italian Open. From a more technical standpoint, Molinari is a fairway-green machine who would pair well with one of Europe's more aggressive players in fourball, and he's the type of guy you can count on in foursomes. A potential difference maker for Europe.
Which team will win the Ryder Cup?
There seems to be this conventional wisdom that the U.S. is a not-insignificant favorite. I'm not buying it—these teams are really evenly matched (average world rank of the U.S. team is around 11, for Europe it's around 17) and Europe has a course and fan advantage.
That doesn't mean I'm not picking the Americans. Of course I am. I'll go with 16-12 overall, though I think the U.S. will only old a 9-7 advantage heading into singles. The Europeans have tended to fare better in foursomes, and I think that will once again be the case this year. The U.S. individual (very slight) supremacy will prove the difference, and it'll be a closer contest than the score might suggest.