By Steve Eubanks, PGA.com
MEDINAH, Ill. -- Shades of 2008 could be seen everywhere at Medinah on Tuesday as both teams ventured out for their opening practice rounds.
The Europeans did exactly what you would expect: sending the English players out together as well as the Northern Irishmen and the Continentals. The pairing of Paul Lawrie and Sergio Garcia was the only surprise, but it made sense. Lawrie's low-key personality is the perfect offset to Sergio's heart-on-his-sleeve passion.
But the real news lay with Team America, where Captain Davis Love III seems to have learned from the successes and failures of his predecessors.
The first group gave clues as to how the teams would be paired. Phil Mickelson went out with his good friend Keegan Bradley, a player who has relied on Phil as a mentor since arriving on the PGA Tour. They were joined by Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson. So, not only were two rookies paired with one guy playing his second Ryder Cup and another playing in his eighth, this was the Type-A foursome, a group that could rally and inspire each other through their aggressive personality traits.
The same could be said of group two, which included Jason Dufner, Zach Johnson, Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar. These are the quiet, even-tempered guys, the ones who will need to rally behind each other if one of them gets down. Two players in that group, Johnson and Johnson, have Ryder Cup experience and can prepare the two rookies for what lies ahead.
Finally, Steve Stricker went out with Jim Furyk, Tiger Woods and Brandt Snedeker. And while Captain Love attempted to downplay the grouping, it was obvious that these guys have similar competitive personalities -- focused, insular, and confident. They are also the group with the most experience, with three long-time veterans giving advice to the rookie, who also happens to be the current FedExCup champion.
"Everybody wants to be Tiger's partner; everybody wants to be Dustin's partner," Love said. "They hit it a long way and they make a lot of birdies. It's easier to play with Dustin or a guy like Jim Furyk than it is to pair with Tiger, because you get the extra attention and the extra pressure.
"If there are five people from the media inside the ropes watching me, there are 50 watching Tiger," he explained. "You have to have a special guy to be able to handle that. We've got a few on our team that can handle it. We don't have a problem on this team pairing anybody."
To quote Boo Weekley from 2008, there appeared to be a lot of compatibating going on out there. If those pairings stay consistent on Wednesday, you can rest assured that Love has, indeed, gone with Paul Azinger's pod system based on personality types.
Another trick Love co-opted from Azinger was the practice-round giveaways. With an estimated crowd pushing 30,000 - so large that no less an expert than Butch Harmon called the Day 1 practice round gallery "unbelievable" - players carried around Ryder Cup lapel pins that they tossed to fans between holes.
Also, the assistant captains engaged the galleries, laughing and conversing and acting as cheerleaders. Fred Couples even pulled kids out of the crowds and had them walk by his side throughout the round.
This was brilliant. Not only did it rally and energize the fans, but the vice captains provided a buffer, chatting with the crowds so the players didn't have to.
Course setup is another area where Love learned from past experience. The rough is almost non-existent, which makes Medinah a bomber's paradise. The Europeans have players who hit it long - Rory McIlroy, Nick Colsaerts and Sergio Garcia pound it out there with the best - but deeper down the roster, the Americans have a distance edge.
They will also have an edge if the course yields a lot of birdies. Fans cheer no matter what, but they roar when players hit it close and hole a lot of putts. On that front, the edge, again, goes to Team USA.
"I've never been a fan of driving it in the rough and chipping out and playing a wedge game," Love said. "Not that we are not good at that ... but match play, Ryder Cup, is a whole different animal. We want it to be fun for the players and fun for the fans. And we want to keep (NBC producer) Tommy Roy happy and see some birdies."
From Love's perspective, there is no sense reinventing the wheel. All great leaders build on the successes and learn from the failures of their predecessors. The Ryder Cup is no exception. So far, Captain Love appears to be making all the right moves.
- Sergio Garcia
- Dustin Johnson
- Tiger Woods
- Ryder Cup