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Bluff & hearsay: Spotting the Pitt & Jolie of Ryder Cup

Europe captain Darren Clarke (left) and USA skipper Davis Love

Europe captain Darren Clarke (left) and USA skipper Davis Love have played in 11 Ryder Cups between them

You wait two long years for the Ryder Cup, and then it seems to be upon you, and then you have to wait some more, and wait… and wait.

Few sporting events have the consistent allure of this storied old transatlantic ding-dong. Few do so much to drag in those otherwise uninterested in the sport. And perhaps no other has such a protracted crescendo once the actors have been assembled and the stage set.

Here in autumnal Minnesota, leaves losing their summer green and a cold wind blowing off the lakes, we are in full-blown speculation season.

The players arrived on Sunday, most of the world’s media the day after. Because the first shot will not be hit until early Friday morning, speculation and intrigue fill the hours and airwaves instead.

There are the captains, southern gentleman Davis Love and Northern Irish rabble-rouser Darren Clarke, and all the questions that come in their wake: who has prepared better, who has selected more wisely, which of the two is handling the intensity with more elan.

There are their choices of pairings for Friday’s foursomes and fourballs: the chemistry, the calculations, the bluffing and the guessing.

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Inside the European locker room at Hazeltine

There is the course: set up as ever to favour the home team, soaked by unseasonal heavy rain but longer than a good walk spoiled ever used to be, buttressed by bright red temporary stands and trampled underfoot by the thousands of spectators delighted enough to have made it in for the practice days.

There is the history – a European team looking to win an unprecedented fourth successive cup, a US collective who have too often in recent editions acted like disparate individuals.

And there is the future – if the US don’t win this time, after all the rethinks and recalibrations of their 11-man Ryder task-force, when can they ever hope to win again?

In the absence of real answers, it is all about hunting for clues and reading between the lines, picking words from the static, whispering round the greens.

Each day both captains do a news conference, no matter that nothing material has changed since the last one 24 hours before. In each the body language and carefully chosen words are studied.

On Wednesday blew in a brief storm about a column written by the brother of Europe’s Masters champion Danny Willett, in which a number of comical stereotypes about US golfing culture were slightly overplayed.

It was a little crude and probably a fraction unnecessary; when you discover that the founder of this Hazeltine course was called Totton P Heffelfinger, the satirical job has rather been done for you (he preferred to be known as Tot, for somewhat obvious reasons).

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Danny Willett (left) and Europe captain Darren Clarke (right) spoke out against a column written by Willett’s brother

Captain Love, as tradition dictates he must be addressed, went for the dismissive approach. “If I read it, I’m just going to get mad. If I read it, I’m just going to get defensive. So I just try to ignore it.”

Captain Clarke went far punchier. “I spoke to Danny about it. I showed it to Danny. And he’s bitterly disappointed in his brother’s article. It is not what Danny thinks. It is not what I think. It is not what Team Europe stands for.”

That immediately brought approving noises from some that Clarke is much more the natural leader, strong with his players, clear on his lines of command.

Love has been accused of being too collaborative, coerced into selecting the often unpopular Bubba Watson as a late vice-captain by none other than Bubba himself, bringing with him so many lieutenants that it can appear from the outside to be captaincy by committee.

“I had Ben Crenshaw and Curtis Strange and Lanny Wadkins and Hal Sutton and Corey Pavin in our team room supporting us last night,” he said on Wednesday. “I think this team really feels like we got the whole Ryder Cup family behind us.

“I’m in charge and I’ve given them their charge. Tiger was giving me a hard time a couple weeks ago. He said, ‘You’re giving me way too much to do.’

“What this thing is all about is we’re dividing responsibilities. I can’t be the offensive coordinator and the defensive coordinator. So I’ve given them all different roles.

“We’re asking questions of the caddies and of the players; what do you want us to do? If that means we run back and get a sweater, I’ll go get a sweater. My son and I delivered turkey sandwiches to the group ahead.”

In his previous spell as captain, four years ago in Medinah, Love frequently slipped into tears during his press conferences, eulogising about the love between his players and bond that held them together.

It didn’t stop them being pulled apart by a European stampede on that famous final afternoon in the golden autumn light, but like many nuances of captaincy later given great weight, it probably made no difference at all.

“It all starts with the captain,” insists Phil Mickelson, who many considered to have pulled off one of the great hatchet-jobs when he eviscerated Tom Watson two years ago at Gleneagles with European celebrations in full swing.

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FedEx Cup winner Rory McIlroy (left) and German Martin Kaymer practised together on Wednesday

“That’s the guy that has to bring together 12 strong individuals and bring out their best and allow them on a platform to play their best. That’s the whole foundation of the team.”

Clarke has so far gone for the inspirational – bringing former Lions skipper Paul O’Connell into the team room for a speech – and the diverting, following up the big words with the slick fingers of street magician Dynamo.

He has also attempted his own sleight of hand with his possible pairings, putting out practice groups on Wednesday – Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer with Chris Wood and Thomas Pieters, Lee Westwood and Henrik Stenson with Matt Fitzpatrick and Rafa Cabrera Bello – that one caddy confided were about as likely to go out together again this week as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

“I have my pairings, and I know almost about 100% of what’s going to happen Friday morning and indeed Friday afternoon,” said Clarke – and if he gave no clues away, the smart money is on Stenson and Justin Rose leading the fight from the first tee on Friday morning.

McIlroy and Andy Sullivan is another much-touted combination for the foursomes, the two having practised together regularly this year, Sullivan’s relaxed self-confidence belying his relative inexperience.

So too is a pairing of Westwood and Willett: friends, stablemates, quite accustomed to all a bellicose American gallery can throw at them.

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1987: Europe claim first win in US

All went out around this 7,628-yard behemoth on Wednesday in grey sweaters and trousers that matched the bleak skies above and navy bobble-hats that took the edge off the blustery wind.

It is a typical US Ryder Cup course, the rough short, the sparsely spread trees down the fairways little impediment to the long hitters stacked through Love’s 12-strong team.

The greens too look fast, and are likely only to speed up as the warmer weather promised for the weekend moves in. For those less certain with putter in hand – Westwood and Sergio Garcia possibly among them – and less familiar with conditions in this part of the world at this time of year, as some of Clarke’s new boys will be, they might prove the decisive challenge.

For now it is all bluff and hearsay. McIlroy, yet to finish on the losing side in his Ryder Cup career, understands how to play the game; when one boozy wag on the 11th green bellowed, “Yeah Rory!” as he bent to collect his ball, McIlroy replied with a cartoon “Yeah!” of his own. As the group pulled out their drivers on the 12th tee, vice-captain Sam Torrance was walking round the surrounding crowds handing pin-badges to excited local kids.

You use everything you can at a Ryder Cup. You have to. Two years is too long to spend wondering what if and why not.

Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/golf/37502311