European captain Jose Maria Olazabal hopes to make a strong statement by sending out his best player -- and the world’s top-ranked golfer -- in the opening foursome match of the 39th Ryder Cup. Rory McIlroy will team with Northern Irish countryman Graeme McDowell against veteran Jim Furyk and debutant Brandt Snedeker of the U.S. when the Ryder Cup tees off at 8:20 a.m. ET.
On the European side, there was nothing mysterious about Olazabal’s strategy.
“We are not hiding anything,” Olazabal said Thursday night after announcing his morning pairings. “We are not second‑guessing here. We are just going out and try to win points, period, that's it. That's the only way I see we might have a chance of winning this event. We have to go for it. I know we are playing away. The crowds are going to be on their side. They set up the course to their liking.
“You have to make a bunch of birdies out there to win points,” Olazabal added. “So just send the best players out there and see if they can perform well, and manage to win those points.”
Olazabal’s counterpart, Davis Love III, chose to anchor his team’s morning matches by holding Tiger Woods and his favorite partner, Steve Stricker, for the final of four morning foursome contests.
“Strick and I are very comfortable together," Woods said. "We've had some pretty good success over the years, and we both have been playing well. Our captain said that would be a good fit, and he wanted us out there to anchor.”
Many observers -- including McIlroy -- were somewhat taken aback that Love would lead off with an untested first-timer like Snedeker.
“To be honest, they are not the opponents we were expecting,” said McIlroy, the winner of three of his last five starts. “We know that their team is so strong all the way through but it was a little surprise to see a rookie in their first group.”
Snedeker, however, makes his Ryder Cup debut immediately after winning the FedEx Cup on Sunday and is right up there with McIlroy among the players in the game who enter the tourney on a roll.
“These guys are not really rookies,” Love said. “Brandt Snedeker has been playing as well as anybody since the Open Championship, and he's hot.”
Finally, the braggadocio will be over and the guys will let their sticks do the talking. Here’s a preview of Friday’s starting foursome matches, in which the players take alternate shots:
Match 1: McIlroy/McDowell (Europe) vs. Furyk/Snedeker (U.S.)
It’s critical for the Euros to get off to a good start if they have any hope of neutralizing what’s expected to be a particularly boisterous crowd.
“I wanted to have my strongest foursome pairings tomorrow for the first session,” said Olazabal. “I know that the matches are going to be tough. The U.S. Team is playing great. We do have very strong pairings on the U.S. side, and the European players are going to have to play really, really well in order to win points. That's the way this Ryder Cup is going to be.”
On the U.S. side, look for Furyk to exert a calming influence on Snedeker, who’s anxious to hit his knee-knocking first shot.
If the Americans are right that the road to the cup goes through McIlroy, a loss for the Europeans out of the gate could prove devastating to their hopes of retaining the trophy.
Prediction: Down to the wire, though even Snedeker’s superb putting stroke won’t be enough to overcome the Euros. McIlroy/McDowell by an eyelash.
Match 2: Luke Donald/Sergio Garcia (Europe) vs. Phil Mickelson/Keegan Bradley (U.S.)
Donald and Garcia offer a brawny test for rookie Bradley and his mentor. Donald went to Northwestern and makes his home in Chicago so he may actually hear a few cheers rolling down the fairways of Medinah on Friday. He and his partner are also perfect in foursomes (6-0-0 for Donald, 8-0-1 for Garcia).
An upset for the U.S. would be huge for the home team. Mickelson has taken the 2011 PGA champ under his wing and Bradley will look to Lefty for counsel and encouragement. He is also huge on the greens in big events, and Mickelson’s new claw grip has his confidence soaring.
Prediction: Alas, for Keegan and Phil, Donald/Garcia will prove too much for the Americans.
Match 3: Lee Westwood/Francesco Molinari (Europe) vs. Zach Johnson/Jason Dufner (U.S.)
This may be Dufner’s first turn in the Ryder Cup, but he is as unflappable as they get.
“[Dufner] might be borderline dead,” Johnson said about his cool, calm, and collected partner, “but I think it’s a good thing.”
On the other side of the fairway, Molinari is a three-time Euro Tour winner this season, and Westwood has a 7-2-4 record in foursomes. Neither European is the best putter in the world, but Olazabal took issue with a reporter who wondered why Molinari had a morning tee time.
“Do you think that was a surprise?” a somewhat touchy Olazabal asked. “You don’t think Francesco is a steady player?”
Perhaps the captain has some questions of his own, which could account for his seemingly overly sensitive reaction to questions about his selection.
Prediction: Americans take this one.
Match 4: Ian Poulter/Justin Rose (Europe) vs. Stricker/Woods (U.S.)
With Woods looking to spruce up his lackluster Ryder Cup record (13-14-2) and Poulter out to “kill” his “good mates” in the biennial tilt, this match could offer some opening-day fireworks.
Stricker and Woods own a 1-1 record in Ryder Cup foursome play but went 4-0 in the same alternate-shot format at the Presidents Cup three years ago. Woods is also undefeated as a professional at Medinah, winning the 1999 and 2006 PGA Championships on the track, and has three tour wins this year. He may have struggled on the weekends during big events in 2012 but he’s been spot-on in the early going.
Poulter and Rose are equally as comfortable with each other as Stricker and Woods and have a winning foursome record (2-1-0 for Poulter, 2-1-1 for Rose).
Prediction: Assuming Woods hits no more spectators (he knocked out a fan with an errant tee shot during a Thursday practice round), put this one in the W column for the Yanks.