Ryder Cup preview: Tiger vs. Rory, Phil peaks, Brandt Snedeker’s magic putter

Ross Kinnaird - Getty Images

Tiger Woods versus Rory McIlroy is what (almost) everyone wants to see in Sunday's singles finale to the 2012 Ryder Cup.

Finally, with Brandt Snedeker out-dueling Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, and everybody else for the $10 million FedEx Cup jackpot, the golf world can turn away from Steve Sands deciphering skull-imploding points totals on an erasable white board and concentrate on one simple number: 28.

That’s how many matches there are in the Ryder Cup, the 2012 edition of which kicks off on Friday at Medinah Country Club outside Chicago. The goal is pretty simple: The Americans need 14.5 points to bring the Cup back to the U.S., while a 14-14 tie means the honor stays with Europe, the current champs.

Played every other year, the Ryder Cup is a match-play contest between two 12-man teams comprised of the best golfers from the U.S. and Europe. With the venue alternating between courses on either side of the pond, this year’s three-day tilt will take place on home soil on Sept. 28-30.

What began as an exhibition match in 1926 between a squad of American professionals and their British counterparts morphed into a for-real competition the following year at Massachusetts’ Worcester Country Club. The results were relatively even at the start, although the U.S. gained the repeated upper hand leading up to and following World War II. Such dominance led to the addition of Europeans to the unit from Great Britain and Ireland starting in 1979.

Since that time, Europe has kissed the cup nine times (including one tie, which helped the Continentals retain it), while the Americans have seven wins. Most recently, however, the Euros have held a distinct advantage, winning six of the last eight Cups.

The format of the three-day tourney involves eight foursome contests, eight four-balls, and 12 singles competitions. The winner of each match earns a point for his team, with one-half point awarded for each tie after 18 holes.

Here’s the CliffsNotes version on how each competition works:

  • Foursome -- Two golfers on the same team compete against their counterparts on the other squad. Using the same ball, each twosome takes alternate shots until they hole out, with the winners accruing the lower score
  • Four-Ball -- Each golfer on two two-player teams plays his own ball, with the teammates tallying the lowest score per hole and the unit with the fewest strokes emerging victorious.
  • Singles -- In this conventional match-play format between two players going head-to-head, the golfer with the fewest strokes on each hole wins that hole until one contestant is ahead by more holes than there are left to play.

In its storied history, several Ryder Cup events stand out.

Golf historians regard the 1969 matches at Royal Birkdale as one of the most competitive. With 18 of the 32 events ending on the last green and the overall tourney decided in the final match, U.S. captain Sam Snead proclaimed it, “the greatest golf match you have ever seen in England.”

The 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island featured Seve Ballesteros and Paul Azinger, who had accused each other of cheating during the matches at The Belfry two years earlier. With tensions rising, the match earned the sobriquet, “The War on the Shore.”

An incredible comeback by the Americans sparked a celebration at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., that indelibly marked the 1999 event as one of the most controversial in recent memory. Behind 10 to 6 entering the final day, the U.S. went 8-3-1 in singles to emerge victorious by a 14.5-13.5 margin.

The fireworks ignited on the 17th hole of a match between Justin Leonard of the U.S. and Jose Maria Olazabal (this year’s European captain). All square by the time they reached the 17th green, Leonard -- who needed to capture at least a half-point by winning one of the remaining two holes or finishing at all square -- faced a 45-foot birdie putt. When he drained the improbable shot, teammates, wives, and some fans rejoiced wildly on the putting surface -- even though Olazabal still had a 22-footer to extend the match. When the Spaniard, who had to refocus himself after the brouhaha on the green, missed, another, albeit slightly more reserved, celebration ensued.

Though observers disagree about whether any celebrant actually stepped on Olazabal’s line, the Euros were appalled by what they considered the Americans’ bad sportsmanship and bad blood spilled over into subsequent years. Much of the fervent nationalism has since settled into all-out competition between the best of the best, and this year should be no different.

The burgeoning “bromance” and friendly rivalry that have sprung up between Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods highlights the 2012 matches. The world’s first- and second-ranked golfers have gone head-to-head several times during the season, and the on-course battles and off-course banter have served to revive Woods’ game and elevate McIlroy’s to another -- some would say, Tiger-esque -- level.

While any member of each superstar’s supporting cast could turn out to be the hero of the 2012 Ryder Cup, what golf fan (aside from 2010 Euro chieftain and all-around bellyacher, Colin Montgomerie) would not want to see the 23-year-old from Northern Ireland, who owns two major championships, tee it up in Sunday’s singles finale with his boyhood idol, the new and improved 36-year-old winner of 14 majors?

In addition to the buildup to an eagerly anticipated Tiger v. Rory drama, there are a slew of other story lines to follow in this year’s edition of the U.S. Takes On The World:

Rory -- McIlroy has the opportunity to close out a stellar, Player of the Year season by leading his team to victory on foreign turf. Can the world’s top-ranked golfer lift his outfit of all-stars onto his brawny shoulders the way Woods has never been able to do?

Tiger -- On the flip side, can Woods continue his recent winning ways -- both on tour, where he won three times this year, and in the Ryder Cup, in which he sports a 6-3-0 record in his last two starts?

Despite his overall 13-14-2 Ryder Cup record, a new-found competition with McIlroy -- as well as everything he’s been through in the past three years -- seem to have mellowed and revived Tiger, who may approach these contests with a refreshed appreciation for teamwork. With just one team win in his six Cup starts, Woods’ overall Cup performance could use some sprucing up, and Medinah -- where he won two majors (the 1999 and 2006 PGA Championships) -- may be just the venue he needs to burnish his international credentials and prove to the doubters that he’s not quite done yet.

Home cookin’ -- With McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, and Luke Donald (practically a native of Chicago, despite his English roots) so universally liked and respected -- not to mention card-carrying members of the PGA Tour -- will U.S. fans root as fervently against the Euros as in years past? Of course; the flags will wave and chants of “USA! USA!” will reverberate across the 7,658 yards of Medinah as they always do when our guys don the red, white, and blue.

Advantage, U.S.? -- Perhaps the wise guys know something the rest of the world doesn’t -- otherwise, why would the odds favor the U.S. to overturn Europe’s recent Ryder Cup domination? With U.S. players competing in an international contest annually, thanks to the other biennial tourney, the Presidents Cup, does winning the Ryder Cup lose some of its former urgency? Certainly not for the Euros, who keenly anticipate the team sport every two years.

This time around, the crews appear relatively balanced, with the Associated Press’ Doug Ferguson pointing out that, for the first time Ryder Cup history, all 24 players rank among golf’s top 35. The aforementioned home field has also proved to be something of an advantage, with the natives prevailing on their own greensward in six of the past seven events.

The young guns -- Ryder Cup glory often results from the play of unsung team members (see: Justin Leonard, Brookline, 1999) and this year’s version offers a variety of potential heroes from the freshman class. Snedeker showed Sunday why he is the best putter on tour, and match play is all about rolling the ball. Keegan Bradley’s endless enthusiasm could incite the spectators and, perhaps, galvanize his mates, while Jason Dufner’s placid demeanor should serve him well in the cauldron of intense competition that marks the Ryder Cup. On the visitor’s bench, Ryder Cup rookie Nicolas Colsaerts from Belgium is a big-hitting (he averages almost 318 yards off the tee), two-time European Tour winner with 10 top-10 finishes in 2012.

Phil Mickelson -- The popular southpaw seems to have pulled his game back from the brink of irrelevancy just in time to finish in a tie for 15th at the FedEx Cup and tee it up in his ninth Ryder Cup. Mickelson has proven to be an invaluable resource as Bradley’s mentor and may also help tutor the other newbies, Snedeker, Dufner, and Webb Simpson. Just don’t expect captain Davis Love III to pair Lefty with Tiger in any of the matches -- the two superstars are complete flops (0-2 in Cup play) as teammates.

Let the games begin.

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