Home-course advantage? Why Whistling Straits may not favor Ryder Cup hosts

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SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – It’s customary for the home team at each Ryder Cup to defer to the visitors on the first practice day at the biennial matches. That meant that two years ago, England’s Paul Casey began his week at Le Golf National outside of Paris on the 10th hole.

It was a brutal and ominous start.

“My first practice round at Le Golf National I lost a tee shot on the very first hole [No. 10], on the first day, I think I hit two balls in the water at 11, I was down three golf balls through two holes,” Casey laughed. “I was thinking this is going to be a really long week. Yeah, it was set up a certain way.”

Setting up a Ryder Cup course to favor the home team’s strengths – or in the case of Le Golf National, the visiting side’s weaknesses – is nothing new, but the 2018 matches were arguably the most extreme version. The fairways were pinched in key areas to punish the long-hitting American team, and the rough was grown to ridiculously thick lengths.

As one U.S. team member joked following the U.S. side’s seven-point loss, if the format had been stroke play then the only Americans who would have made the cut were vice captains (a fairways-and-greens threesome of Steve Stricker, Zach Johnson and Matt Kuchar).

But if Le Golf National is the benchmark for home-course advantage, Whistling Straits, site of this week’s pandemic-delayed matches, will largely be immune to the type of setup bias that has become popular among captains.

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Massaging a course to take advantage of your team’s tendencies is not a European thing. In his first stint as captain, Davis Love III attempted to mold Medinah into a playground for his 2012 team, but the move backfired in spectacular fashion when the Europeans rallied from four points down on Sunday.

Using his captain's mulligan in 2016, Love again went with a fast track at Hazeltine National.

“I think [setup] is a big reason why we dominated the way we did at Hazeltine,” said Brandt Snedeker, who went 3-0 at the 2016 matches. “We set the course up for the things our team was really, really good at and we executed from there. At Hazeltine we had a bunch of guys who drove the ball really, really long so the course was set up to favor that. The fairways were wide, not a lot of rough and our guys went out and just smoked them.”

But Whistling Straits, Pete Dye’s famously quirky links-like course, doesn’t offer U.S. captain Stricker the flexibility to adjust the way Hazeltine or Le Golf National did.

“The way they set Hazeltine up definitely favored the American side. The way they set up Paris definitely favored us,” Rory McIlroy said. “There are things you can do. I don't know what you can do with Whistling Straits to make it any different than what it is. The land and the topography, that's what makes the golf course.”

Stricker had access to the same analysis and statisticians as previous captains, and when he selected his six captain’s picks, he referenced how each player “fit the course to a T,” but compared to the extreme setup philosophies of the last few matches, it felt more like a philosophical choice.

Stricker’s six picks – Daniel Berger, Harris English, Tony Finau, Xander Schauffele, Scottie Scheffler and Jordan Spieth – all deliver varying levels of power off the tee. The captain also referenced at least one player’s ability (Scheffler) to make birdies, although it should also be pointed out that McIlroy and Jon Rahm, the European’s top two players, led the PGA Tour last season in birdie average.

“[Scheffler is] another guy who is long off the tee,” Stricker said of the rookie. “His stats across the board are very solid from top to bottom, and the guy makes a lot of birdies, which should do us very well going around Whistling Straits.”

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The last two PGA Championships played at Whistling Straits (2015 and ’10) have been won with double-digit under-par totals, and it appears as if Stricker is looking for low scoring.

“I would agree that it will be a fast track,” said English, who was among the American team members who spent last weekend scouting Whistling Straits. “We went through some stats of what percentage of holes are won in four-ball with par versus birdie, in best-ball if you make a lot of pars you’re going to lose a lot of holes. Depending on the weather it lends itself to more birdies. It lends itself to an aggressive style.”

In practical terms, that means accessible hole locations, slower green speeds and softer-than-normal conditions.

But it also appears as if Stricker’s hands will largely be tied by the rugged design of Whistling Straits.

“You can’t really grow the rough in there. There’s no really tightening the fairways, the fairways are what they are,” said Snedeker, who tied for 12th at the 2015 PGA. “A lot of the course is built around bunkers, not rough. When it comes to course set-up I just don’t think there’s a lot you can do because of the way the golf course is designed.”

Unlike three years ago in Paris, there will be no surprises – brutal or otherwise – when the practice rounds begin. The U.S. side will certainly have a home-crowd advantage this week, but the home-field edge will likely be lost in the manufactured dunes and quirky bunkers of Whistling Straits.