MEDINAH, Ill. When thank you notes are written following the Ryder Cup, there should be three special inclusions: Jack Nicklaus, Paul Azinger and Tim Finchem.
That troika is the reason this week's competition will be so riveting.
Let's begin with Nicklaus. The Ryder Cup was on the verge of irrelevance in the 1960s. United States domination had been so prevalent -- with wins in 15 of 18 matches -- that nobody cared. There was little gallery and little television coverage.
Do you realize why nobody really knows the length of the putt Jack Nicklaus conceded to Tony Jacklin to halve the 1969 matches? It's because the Ryder Cup wasn't even televised that year in the United States.
Everyone remembers Nicklaus for that gracious concession, but it was his suggestion the Ryder Cup team include all of Europe, instead of just Great Britain and Ireland, that truly ramped up the competition.
The United States has a population of 300 million. Great Britain and Ireland have one-fifth that many persons. When the Americans were competing against Great Britain and Ireland, the teams were not fair because the U.S. had five times the talent pool.
Without the inclusion of Europe, these matches might have disappeared for the worst of all reasons: boredom due to lopsided outcomes.
Once Europeans were included, the matches became interesting, but the scales of competition tilted in Europe's favor with the United States losing five of six matches starting in 1995.
You can rationalize all you want about the European camaraderie and greater desire to win, but that's foolishness. Watch the player's faces and tell me the Americans don't care.
Europe went on a win streak because of talent. The United States team selection was flawed. It took Paul Azinger's renovation of the qualifying process, including four Captain's Picks, to upgrade the American team into a more balanced squad.
Something had to change following the 2006 European blowout victory, and Paul Azinger delivered the blueprint.
Which finally brings us to Tim Finchem.
I don't think the PGA TOUR Commissioner had Ryder Cup competition in mind when he created the FedExCup Playoffs, but it has certainly been a serendipitous byproduct.
Prior to 2007, Americans stopped playing for a month following the PGA Championship, while the European Tour continued with tournament competition. The United States athletes arrived at the Ryder Cup venue without having played tournament golf for five weeks. Once there, they faced a European team that was ready to roll.
That has all changed since the FedExCup Playoffs. Four weeks of riveting tournaments hashoned an edge to the Americans' game.
Since the FedExCup Playoffs began in 2007, Americans are 4-1 in team competition, with the lone defeat coming by a half-point at a rain-soaked Celtic Manor.
I can't guarantee a United States or European victory this week, but I will guarantee riveting matches.
Let me be the first to say thank you to Mr. Nicklaus, Mr. Azinger and Mr. Finchem.
Now, that's a great pairing. Play away please.
Observations:Dave Stockton raved about changes in Rory McIlroy's game, and he wasn't talking technicalities in the putting stroke. Stockton told me McIlroy's success is due to a more balanced attitude on the golf course. The Ulsterman used to have a wide range of elation and depression following good and bad shots but was much more emotionally even during the PGA Championship and FedExCup Playoffs. That's true, but I can't tell if Rory's attitude adjustment is due to his recent good play or if his good play is due to an attitude adjustment. McIlroy's body language was not good during the final round of the TOUR Championship last Sunday, when he shot 74.
Sergio: Another player who has undergone a change of attitude is Sergio Garcia. The Spaniard has endured dark moments in the past, but his smile has brightened the course during the FedExCup Playoffs.
During Sunday's TOUR Championship, Garcia made an impressive 59-foot putt for birdie at the fifth. As he exited the green, the two of us made eye contact but instead of congratulating him, I turned to his caddie and said, "good read there Wayne." Sergio let loose an audible laugh, turned around and pretended to punch my considerable solar plexus, as if to say, "that birdie was solely due to my talent."
Golf is a much easier game to play when you are laughing; the trick is to smile following both birdies and bogeys.
Medinah: The course has received more facelifts than Joan Rivers, and not all of them have been for the better. Medinah has been rerouted and re-sodded several times, but there will be high praise for the 15th. The latest revision has turned a boring hole into a drivable par 4, which comes at a critical juncture in match play competition. It reminds me of the 14th at Royal Montreal, where Woody Austin gave us "Aquaman" during the 2007 Presidents Cup.
Chicago: Who has the best sports town in America? New York and Boston are quick to lay claim to the title, but give me the beer-and-brat gallery at Medinah this week. Chicago has survived Mrs. O'Leary's cow, Al Capone and the Cubs. There will be so much passion oozing out of the fans it will fuel heroic deeds for both teams.
Key matches: There are two trends that must be reversed for either side to win. This is not a news flash, but it can't be emphasized enough: America struggles in Four-Ball and Europeans lose singles matches. Since European inclusion in 1979, the United States has been outscored 73-55 in four-ball format. On the flip side, Europe's downfall has been the singles matches where the United States has won 104 of 192 possible points. If the Americans halve the four-ball matches they win, if the Europeans get six points out of singles then they'll win.
Winner, winner: I think the Ryder Cup is going through its most even stage of competition where all matches are going to be close. The home course advantage will be significant, and Chicagoans will cheer the Americans on to a 16-12 victory.
Fred Albers is a course reporter for SiriusXM PGA TOUR Radio. For more information on SiriusXM PGA TOUR Radio,click here.
- Jack Nicklaus
- Paul Azinger
- United States