The schedule for professional golf events has returned to some normalcy but the impact of COVID-19 still has a trickle-down effect.
We see that again this week as the "2020" Ryder Cup gets played this week at Whistling Straits.
Other than the year being wrong in the event's title, it also means a few different names and faces have cracked the lineups across both teams.
Getting a break from the weekly stroke-play grind, here is the format we will see this week in Kohler, Wisconsin.
The Ryder Cup will feature 12 golfers from the United States going facing off with 12 golfers from Europe. The event will start on Friday and will come to an end on Sunday, 28 matches later.
Friday will feature two sessions with four matches in each session. One session will be played with the four-ball format which is a 2v2 match with all four golfers playing their own ball. The other session will be foursomes which is also known as the alternate-shot format. It's also a 2v2 match but each twosome will alternate shots with their partner, playing just one ball per team. As the home team, USA will get to decide which format they want to start with.
Saturday will look the same as Friday but with a bit more of the story revealed.
Then on Sunday, there are 12 head-to-head singles matches that ultimately decide the winner of the event.
How does one team secure the Ryder Cup trophy? Each match is worth one point, or half a point if the match is tied. The first team to reach 14.5 points is the winner. Team Europe won the 2018 edition so they will retain the Cup in the event of a 14-14 tie.
Now let's jump right in and talk about the course.
Whistling Straits is the host venue this week.
This Pete Dye design is situated on the western shore of Lake Michigan.
Looking at the scorecard for the week, golfers will see a par 71 that stretches out to 7,355 yards. That is shorter than the course played when hosting the 2004, 2010, and 2015 PGA Championships, but it also played as a par 72 those weeks. For the Ryder Cup, they have transitioned the 618-yard, par-5 11th into a 479-yard, par 4.
A big aspect of the Ryder Cup is the ability of the home team to prepare the course however they see fit. This was glaringly obvious at the 2018 Ryder Cup in France where Le Golf National catered to precision, not power.
While the home team does prepare the course in the lead-up, it's important to note that during tournament week (now), each team has representatives that discuss final course setup details such as hole locations and any other final aspects of course setup.
So, what has Team USA been able to do with the course leading up to this week's big event? With a long course and a team that consists primarily of big hitters, it would make sense for Team USA to make the rough as easy as possible to play from. That is exactly what early quotes from the head of golf course maintanence (Chris Zugel) suggests:
“The one difference would potentially be in the rough. We’re not protecting par throughout the rounds. The rough that they’ll be playing out of is fairly similar to what you’d find on your local golf course.”
Other than the rough being light (2.5 to 4 inches), Zugel said the course will play similar to the 2015 PGA Championship with firm and fast fairways and fast greens to boot.
Off the tee, golfers will see a wide-open landscape in front of them with a minefield of bunkers to navigate around. While I just talked about the Americans lowering the penalty for finding the rough, there is no way to lessen the impact of finding fairway bunkers off the tee.
Just how many bunkers are there at Whistling Straits? They've done some counts over the years and they usually end up somewhere right around 1,000 bunkers littered across the property.
On approach, the bunkers remain a key part of the story. You are either hitting out of a bunker on your approach shot or you are doing your best to avoid the nasty, greenside bunkers. If you look at past PGAs played at Whistling Straits, it becomes apparent that getting up-and-down from the bunkers is a 50/50 proposition at best, and often even tougher.
Getting into some turf talk, golfers will see fescue fairways and rough with creeping bentgrass greens. The average green sizes are slightly larger than TOUR average at 7,000 square feet and they are expected to be speedy. The turf profile of fescue and bent would closely resemble the courses back in GB&I, giving a slight bump to Team Europe in that regard.
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Sifting through some past quotes, let's try to break down the course to see how it will play.
Jordan Spieth: "You have to shape the ball both ways off the tee and into greens, so it requires kind of a lot of different shot-making abilities. You're likely going to have to wind so you've got to flight it and then you've also got to be able to launch the ball high and soft into the green. So it really tests every facet of the game."
Steve Stricker: "I'm hoping for some good weather. We could have a little bit of anything the end of September. We have a beautiful day today, but you can get some big winds here or breezes off Lake Michigan, and it's going to be a challenge for all the guys and there's birdies to be made out there but there's also danger that lurks around every corner."
Friday: Partly Sunny with a high of 70 degrees. Possible afternoon showers with winds at 10 to 15 MPH with gusts around 20 MPH.
Saturday: Cloudy with a high of 67 degrees. Showers possible. Winds around 10 to 15 MPH.
Sunday: Partly Sunny with a high of 71 degrees. Winds around 6 to 10 MPH with gusts around 15 MPH.
The Midwest in September is a fun puzzle to solve when it comes to weather. Most mornings will be chilly, sweater weather, but occasionally you will get a random 70-degree morning. Overall, the forecast looks pretty clean with an occasional shower here and there.
Trends to Watch
The Ryder Cup has been played 42 times with the United States winning 26 of those, Europe winning 14, and two ties. Let's see what kind of trends stick out when looking at the history of this event.
Americans off to a fast start
Team USA has won five of the last six opening sessions with the other being a tie. The overall score for those opening sessions is USA 17 to Europe 7. If you think this trend continues but you like the Europeans to win the event, it may be wiser to hold off on your bets and fire at a better number if the Americans start strong again.
Europeans Closing the Gap
I talked about the overall record of this event being tilted in the Americans' favor (26 wins to Europe's 14). However, Team Europe has actually won nine of the last 12 editions. Whether it's better team unity, a better game plan, or something else entirely, the European have to be arriving with a lot of confidence, knowing they have momentum on their side.
Performance by Format
If team chemistry is a problem then you might expect to see overperformance in the four-ball format but underperformance in foursomes. That is exactly what we see with Team USA in recent years. Over the last five Ryder Cups, Europe has the edge in foursomes 23 to 17 while Team USA edges out Europe in the four-ball format (21 to 19). As for Sunday Singles, Europe is also leading in the department over the last five Ryder Cups, 32 points for Europe to 28 from Team USA.
Aye Aye Captain
A fun wrinkle to the team selection process is the ability for team captains to finalize their rosters with handpicked selections. Recent editions have seen the captain's picks struggle for Team USA. Over the last four Ryder Cups, the American selections are 16-29-2 (0.36 points per match) while the captain's picks for Europe have gone 21-19-3 (0.52 points per match) over that same stretch.
When a golfer is making their debut in this event, analysts often pull out the "first-timer nerves" narrative but does that really exist? Definitely not in recent years. Rookies for Team USA have gone 26-15-5 (0.62 points per match) over the last four Ryder Cups while European Rookies have gone 22-22-2 (0.50 points per match) over that same stretch. This is encouraging news for American fans as they'll bring six rookies to the table this week. The last time they've brought six rookies to the event was 2008. Team USA won that year 16.5 to 11.5 at Valhalla.
Hopefully, these trends get your research started in the right direction. We will return throughout the week to discuss our picks.