We pick out five questions facing Steve Stricker ahead of this week's Ryder Cup
While American Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker has a number of factors working in his favour ahead of the 43rd edition of golf’s most exciting event, welcoming a European side that has proved immensely tough to beat for more than two decades is going to be anything but straightforward.
With eight of the world’s top-10 players, anticipation is at an all-time high as Team USA bid to put an end to Europe’s dominance and usher in a new era for the red, white and blue.
Here, we ask five important questions of captain Stricker ahead of the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits.
5 Questions for Steve Stricker ahead of the 2021 Ryder Cup
1. How will he get the most out of Brooks and Bryson?
You’d be forgiven for thinking Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau have gone out their way to make Stricker’s Ryder Cup captaincy as challenging as possible. Not only have the pair hit the headlines for their ongoing feud that has been raging on for more than two years, but they have also caused a stir by their actions in preparation for the Covid-delayed extravaganza.
Koepka was an injury doubt as recently as last week before insisting a wrist complaint was fully healed, and the four-time major champion added insult to injury when he sounded off on the biennial match-up, calling it “a bit odd” and just generally sounding unenthused at the prospect of representing his country for the third time.
On the other hand, literally, DeChambeau’s training for the Professional Long Drive World Championship next week has, by the 27-year-old’s own accord, “wrecked his hand.”
Not exactly the stuff you want to hear in the countdown to arguably the biggest moment of your career.
Stricker has, of course, sought and received assurances from both that they are fully committed to the cause, but it still begs the question as to how he will get the best out of them.
Related: “Bryson wants to end Koepka fued”
Koepka has a winning record from his 2016 and ‘18 appearances at least and teamed up twice with Tony Finau in France last time out, so that could be a pairing we see again, whereas DeChambeau is still to get off the mark, having gone 0-3-0 at Le Golf National.
Despite being two of the best players in the world, it’s not easy to spot natural playing partners for either. Perhaps taking the advice of Butch Harmon and putting them out together first game, first match is the way to go…
2. Will the course set up well for his team?
A lot has been made of home advantage, with the host captain able to set the course up to his team’s liking. That’s all well and good at more traditional PGA Tour-esque venues such as Valhalla, Medinah and Hazeltine, but at the links-style Whistling Straits, it might not be so straightforward.
Located on the Sheboygan coast in Wisconsin, wispy rough, deep bunkers and undulating fairways and greens might make the Europeans feel more at home than usual on away soil.
One thing we know for sure is that it’ll play as long as possible to suit the Americans who definitely have the advantage when it comes to distance, but is that alone going to play a big enough role? After all, the majority of Team Europe’s players aren’t exactly short.
3. How will Stricker formulate effective pairings?
As mentioned, a quick scan of America’s formidable line-up doesn’t reveal any obvious partnerships for Koepka and DeChambeau, but broadening that view out further, there aren’t many obvious pairings full stop.
OK, there’s Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, but outwith that, the picture is quite bleak, relatively speaking.
Despite being rookies, Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele could come together having amassed a 2-0-2 record in the 2019 Presidents Cup, but Schauffele and Champion Golfer of the Year Collin Morikawa are supposedly thick as thieves out on tour, so Stricker might lean that way.
Koepka and Dustin Johnson appears to be a no-go now after their bizarre falling out, while Cantlay and DeChambeau didn’t seem to have a great relationship in the aftermath of their thrilling BMW Championship shoot-out.
While Stricker will have a plan and has stated he is glad to have a young side free from the scar tissue of generations old, there are no guarantees his team of superstars will gel together enough to dethrone their opponents.
The one glaring positive is that Patrick Reed won’t be there to further complicate matters.
4. What lessons will he have learnt from the past defeats?
Coming into the 2021 Ryder Cup, captain Stricker stated he hopes to “out-prepare” Padraig Harrington and the European side, and a part of that will have almost certainly involved analysing past failures. And not necessarily just in the Ryder Cup.
The parameters ahead of this year’s Solheim Cup, for example, mirrored those facing Stricker now. The odds were also stacked in America’s favour: they had home advantage and a team of huge depth and talent.
However, in front of virtually all-American galleries, Catriona Matthew’s team gained the early initiative and never really relinquished it.
Of the bizarre decisions made by the hosts, two stand out: opting for foursomes on Saturday and Sunday morning, and not playing Nelly Korda in both fourball matches.
Korda, the World No. 1 who was fresh off her first major triumph and gold-medal-winning performance at the Tokyo Olympics, went 2-2-0 for the week but was rested for the Sunday fourballs.
Playing both foursomes matches – a format where only half the shots are hit – surely diminished her influence somewhat.
Europe, long heralded for their advantage when it comes to team play and general camaraderie, established a three-point lead after the opening foursomes session – a deficit that proved too great to recover from in the end.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, although Stricker has followed Pat Hurst’s lead in kicking days one and two off with foursomes. He’ll be hoping for a different outcome…
5. Can Stricker re-establish Team USA’s singles supremacy?
The way this used to work was that Europe held the advantage in team play and America in singles. From a European perspective, it was sort of like a club hacker playing his best ever golf for 12 holes and attempting to hang on for dear life coming down the stretch.
However, that dynamic has shifted recently. Only once in the last four editions of the Ryder Cup has the American side won the singles session. This is despite almost always having a team with more major champions and a superior average world ranking.
No matter how the first two days play out, this will be something Stricker will be keen to reassert, although it will be far easier said than done.