The surprises came early at the 42nd Ryder Cup on Thursday. Before a ball had been struck, the two captains came up with line-ups that caused plenty of head-scratching in the confines of Le Golf National. The fun has begun.
Who would have expected Ian Poulter to sit out the opening series at a Ryder Cup for the first time since his debut in 2004? Or Rory McIlroy to spend two days practising alongside Jon Rahm and then be handed another rookie, Thorbjorn Olesen?
Not one of the eight pairings on show this morning has been seen at a Ryder Cup before, which must be a first in the competition’s history for an opening series.
Ian Poulter is one of the players to miss out on the Friday morning fourballs session in Paris
On the American side, nobody a week ago was speculating on any of the four pairings who will play this morning. It’s very rare for an American captain not to play each member of his team on the first day, but for that to happen this time, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson would have to be chosen for afternoon foursomes, which is hardly their forte.
No Bryson DeChambeau either, despite the fact he has won two of his last four starts.
Having spent the wildcard selection day passionately defending his picks, Europe skipper Thomas Bjorn spent last evening explaining why he had left three of the four on the sidelines. ‘I believe in these 12 guys as a team and Tyrrell Hatton, Thorbjorn Olesen and Jon Rahm are desperate to get on the course,’ he explained.
Captains Jim Furyk (left) and Thomas Bjorn (right) were joined on stage by host David Ginola
Justin Rose (right) and Jon Rahm will team up for Europe in Friday’s first fourballs match
So, Europe’s fate in the first series lies very much in the hands of the exciting band of rookies at Bjorn’s disposal. He’s shown enormous faith in placing a debutant in each of the four groups — the other is Tommy Fleetwood — and now we will see if they can deliver.
Fourballs is definitely the best format to introduce a rookie and Olesen, Hatton and Rahm are all adventurous players more suited to it than foursomes.
But it is a surprise to use so many in the all-important first series and represents a huge gamble. Europe lost 4-0 at Hazeltine last time and there was no way back. They cannot afford it to go pear-shaped once more.
Once the head-scratching had subsided, the excitement began to swell. All the intrigue adds to the fascination, of course. After two Ryder Cups where the result was all but known halfway through the singles, we’re due a humdinger that pulls at the gut and isn’t determined until one of the final putts on Sunday afternoon.
Rory McIlroy (right) and Thorbjorn Olesen shook hands after being paired up for Europe
It was that way the last time the competition was held in mainland Europe, at Valderrama in 1997, when captain Seve Ballesteros told a certain debutant with the surname Bjorn to stay calm. ‘I am calm! I am calm!’ Bjorn screamed back at him. Now it’s the eloquent, edgy Dane’s turn to be the skipper and this time Europe really do need him to keep calm.
We shouldn’t forget the Ryder Cup doesn’t just create legends, as the marketing blurb states. It destroys careers, too. Every contest leaves at least one player so mentally drained they’re never the same again. Think Martin Kaymer after Hazeltine, or the American fall guy at Celtic Manor in 2010, Hunter Mahan. You don’t have to be on the losing side either. Stephen Gallacher put so much into getting to Gleneagles in 2014, he’s looked like a man struggling for a purpose since then.
There’s the enigmatic Frenchman Victor Dubuisson, another of that team who we all thought would be a superstar by the time the Ryder Cup reached his home soil. Think about the men who holed the winning putts at the last two Ryder Cups — Jamie Donaldson, who’s a summariser for Radio 5 Live this week and Ryan Moore, who never came close to making this American team after mustering precisely one top-three finish since his Hazeltine glory moment.
The American side lapped up applause from the fans as their partners stood behind them
What we’re about to witness, therefore, is sport with everything on the line. Where some players will thrive on the adrenaline and the occasion and go on to win majors, as Patrick Reed did, others will succumb to withdrawal symptoms so severe they’ll barely be heard from again.
Who’s going to win? A huge amount depends on how the European rookies play this morning. If they prove a revelation, Bjorn will be a relieved man and the crowd will be buoyant. An American side mentally exhausted by their heavy schedule will start to feel that fatigue and captain Jim Furyk will find his curious pairings placed under a harsh spotlight.
The head says a USA victory and the fall of the last bastion denied them in recent years as their gifted golfers have won everything bar an away Ryder Cup. But what is this event if not a passion play ruled as much by the heart as what’s going on between the ears? Come on, Europe.
Team Europe were introduced to the crowd at Le Golf National on the eve of the tournament