With the 43rd Ryder Cup days away, we pick out five questions for European captain Padraig Harrington
On paper, attempting to win the Ryder Cup on away soil is somewhat of a fool’s errand. Since the contest became the best of America against the best of Europe in 1979, the visiting party has journeyed home with the fabled gold trophy just six times, with one of those being heralded a ‘miracle’.
However, that is the task at hand for Ireland’s Padraig Harrington as he and his 12 charges look to get the better of an incredibly strong American line-up, led by captain Steve Stricker.
While there arguably aren’t many characters in the game better suited to such a mission, the odds aren’t exactly stacked in Harrington’s favour.
Here, we ask five questions of the European captain ahead of the 43rd biennial match.
5 Questions For Padraig Harrington Ahead Of The 2021 Ryder Cup
1. How will he and his team handle the lack of European fans?
The Ryder Cup, particularly in America, is a rowdy affair at the best of times. They are a passionate bunch, as are the Europeans, but that passion can sometimes descend into scenes best described as unsavoury.
Colin Montgomerie took the brunt of it for the team when he was in his pomp, but these days, nobody is really off limits. It’s something Team Europe will be well prepared for but that doesn’t mean it’ll be easy. Especially as the comforting chants of “Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole” will be absent due to the ongoing travel implications of Covid-19.
That will be one of the biggest challenges. Luckily, for a clinic in how to silence a hostile crowd, Harrington and his team can look to the example set by their female counterparts just two weeks ago.
Catriona Matthew led her side to Solheim Cup glory at the Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, despite facing galleries bereft of support. Come Sunday, it became apparent that American captain Pat Hurst had told her players to gee up the fans whenever possible, such was their ineffectiveness.
As always, momentum will ebb and flow throughout the three days, but establishing some early European ascendancy will be particularly vital at this year’s coronavirus-impacted Ryder Cup.
2. Can Harrington’s team negate the home advantage?
Home advantage goes way beyond having the lion’s share of spectators on side. The biggest benefit of hosting in the modern era has become the prerogative of the captain to set up the course to suit his team.
In the USA that usually results in iconic layouts getting transformed into a “bombers paradise”, while in Europe, players are rewarded for accuracy above all else. And what that has meant of late is a Ryder Cup that tends to be quite processional come the Sunday singles.
Barring the aforementioned ‘Miracle at Medinah’, the previous seven editions of this event have all gone the way of the home side – most by a dominant margin.
At Valhalla in 2008, Medinah in 2012 and Hazeltine in 2016, the rough was down (way down), meaning people like Phil Mickelson, JB Holmes, Dustin Johnson, Tiger Woods and Brooks Koepka could all smash their way round the course with little punishment.
Pin positions located in the centre of most greens also put a premium on hitting the big stick so as to approach from as close as possible. It was the same for both teams, of course, but playing predominantly on the PGA Tour every week meant this was a style the Americans were far more accustomed to.
In the same breath, with narrow fairways and long rough, Le Golf National was set up entirely to thwart Team USA, which it did, to the tune of a 17½-10½ victory.
This year, while Whistling Straits might not be as easy to water down given its links-style nature, you can bet the methods adopted by past American captains will be on full display. Fairways will be wide, rough will be short (especially in the hitting areas of Stricker’s team), and hole locations will promote a birdie slugfest. Oh, and it’ll play long for Bryson DeChambeau and co.
Without going into stats, it’s clear the hosts have the edge here. But, shots still need to be executed and it’s not like Europe has nobody capable of benefiting from ‘soft’ set-up conditions.
3. What has he learned from the European Solheim Cup team?
As mentioned, for a textbook display of leadership, look no further than Catriona Matthew’s Solheim Cup heroics. It’s one thing captaining a side to victory in your home country, but to defend on away soil is something else entirely.
Matthew’s understated and calm demeanour masked a will to win, as well as a cunning adaptability that was perhaps decisive in the outcome. In particular, spotting a Solheim Cup natural in the form of rookie Leona Maguire was one of the keys to success.
Rather than rest Maguire, Beany opted to put her complete confidence in Ireland’s latest golfing superstar, and the 26-year-old debutant rewarded her skipper by going unbeaten in five matches, securing 4½ points as Europe edged out the US side 15-13.
In contrasting fashion, World No. 1 Nelly Korda only played three of five matches, with American captain Pat Hurst choosing to leave the Olympic gold medallist on the subs bench for both sets of fourball matches.
Hitting half the number of shots in two foursomes matches seemed a bizarre way of getting the most out of the best player in the world.
Harrington will have a good idea of pairings and whatnot, but retaining a level of flexibility that allows for fluctuations in form, fatigue and a myriad of other factors is just one of the many things the European Ryder Cup captain can learn from his Solheim Cup counterpart.
4. How will he replicate a Moliwood-style partnership?
Finding winning Ryder Cup pairings isn’t an easy task. Some who are expected to gel and complement each other fail to ignite, while others find immediate success. Other experiments go completely awry (think the Tiger-Phil fiasco of 2004) but that’s besides the point.
In 2018, close friends Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood formed a partnership that will live long in the memory. No matter the format, Moliwood, as they became affectionately known by Europeans throughout the continent, dismantled all in their path, winning four from four, which included getting the better of Woods on three occasions.
However, with only one half of the Moliwood duo en route to Wisconsin, there are question marks as to who can fill the hole left by the Italian’s absence.
With six Englishman on the team, it’s highly likely we’ll see an all-English combination, perhaps in the form of Casey and Hatton who played together twice in France in 2018, but two countrymen is by no means a guarantee of success.
An abundance of talent is what Harrington has at his disposal; getting the most out of it from the get-go is something he, and his backroom staff, will have to figure out.
5. How will Harrington get the most out of Sergio Garcia?
While America has Bryson and Brooks, Team Europe has had its own not-so-little squabble to deal with over the years.
It’s no secret that Padraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia haven’t been the best of friends during their respective careers, and in fact, this year’s European Ryder Cup captain and the match’s all-time record points scorer’s feud traces back almost two decades. (God, let’s hope we’re not talking about Bryson and Brooks that long.)
Both parties are equally guilty of badmouthing the other publicly, with Garcia’s outbursts fuelled, for the most part, by disappointment at being thwarted by Harrington in two major championships he felt he should’ve won.
The Spaniard bemoaned what he perceived to be luck that went for his fellow European in the pivotal moments of the 2007 Open and 2008 PGA Championship.
Harrington, on the other hand, has been critical of Garcia’s golfing etiquette on numerous occasions and also took exception to his rival’s lack of grace in accepting defeat.
However, the pair do appear to have “squashed their beef” – for the time being, anyway – with the Irishman all but guaranteeing Garcia’s place on his team well in advance of officially naming his wildcard picks.
Both have stated in the build-up that the Ryder Cup is bigger than any issues that may or may not still be lingering, but it will be interesting to see how the dynamic plays out.