A final test of nerve: who will risk it all on the 18th?
Last hole can rival the Belfry for dramatic conclusions as players will be tempted to gamble in pursuit of an eagle
Much is made of the first-tee nerves in the Ryder Cup and the grandstand that was packed at dawn this morning for the opening shots of this 38th transatlantic encounter would grace the closing hole at most other tournaments.
But that is only the start of it. By the time they get all the way to the 18th green the tension is usually unbearable. Of course, in match play, not all matches go the distance, many end out in the country, but those that do are poised on a knife-edge.
When it came to remodelling Celtic Manor to host the Ryder Cup, the architects had a rare opportunity to custom-build a finale especially to test the match-play skills of the best players in the world to the very limit. Given the 575-yard, par-five hole they came up with, it would be a shame indeed if the 18th is not utilised extensively over the next three days.
Lee Westwood, Europe's most experienced Ryder Cup performer on show this year, certainly agrees. "I think 18 is going to be great from a fan's point of view and a player's point of view," he said. "There are so many variables."
For the Wales Open, which is played under stroke-play rules, the hole can be stretched to well over 600 yards and is often played as a "three-shotter". For the Ryder Cup, the back tee has been discarded and the hole may play as short as 545 yards. The intention is to allow the players to attempt the heroic second shot from the crest of the hill down to the green – but over the pond at the front of putting surface.
"It takes two great shots to hit the green in two," said Westwood. The reward would be a putt for an eagle. "But at the same time, if you miss the fairway, I suppose you can hack it down there and still make birdie that way. There are lots of permutations."
Not so much with the hacking. Even if a player lays up to leave a wedge shot for his third, he must be careful not to put too much backswing on the ball. Any shot that lands on the front of the green and starts heading backwards will simply gather momentum down the bank into the water. At the Wales Open, Luke Donald did exactly that. Sevens are as common here as eagles.
Thomas Bjorn, one of Colin Montgomerie's vice-captains, is not the only person to liken the hole to the 18th at the Belfry, which became famous for dramatic Ryder Cup conclusions from Sam Torrance in 1985 and Christy O'Connor Jnr in 1989, as well as a host of watery disasters.
"It could be a tremendously dramatic finale at that hole," said the Dane. "You can just imagine a ball hanging on the brink of the green, threatening to roll in the water with the Ryder Cup on it. It is like the 18th at the Belfry, but maybe even better because the dilemma of whether to go for the green will be that much more pronounced."
Should any matches go to the 18th, the home team will be quite confident knowing that since 1985 they have won 44 games that have gone the distance, while America has won only 27. It has nothing to do with home advantage. At Oakland Hills, in Detroit, in 2004, Europe won seven of the matches that went to the 18th, three were halved and the States only took one win.
"As for why we keep winning the last hole or why we are more successful on the last hole, I really don't know," said Westwood. "I know there is a lot of pressure on the last hole and you've got to – I don't know how to put it other than you have to take your balls in your hand."
Having diverged from strict golfing terminology, Westwood checked to see if the interview was going out live. Told it was, he rephrased: "Great, sorry about that. You know, it takes a lot of guts to play that last hole well."
That was the last mulligan anyone will get on the 18th this week. The huge amphitheatre around the green, crowded yesterday for the opening ceremony, will only add to the atmosphere. Montgomerie said: "Trust me, if you have won your match, the walk up that hill from the 18th green to the clubhouse will be nothing. You'll float up there with a point in your bag. If you've lost, though, it'll be a mountain."
What they've said about the other holes...
Steve Stricker on the first
"It's a straightaway par four where you find the fairway, it's a legitimate birdie opportunity. You have a short iron in your hand. But [it's] a good opening hole. If you miss the fairway, it's tough hitting out of the rough."
Dustin Johnson, also on the first
"Walking into the first-hole stadium sounds as enjoyable as wrapping your arms around a barrel cactus. It looks like the fabled 16th at TPC Scottsdale, the rowdiest hole in golf."
Jim McKenzie, Celtic Manor Director of Golf Courses, on the third
"A dramatic short hole, with water all the way to the green. There's a deep swale at the back of the putting surface."
Colin Montgomerie on the 12th
"Because it will be colder and because we are down in a valley at sea level, the ball will not fly as far. I'll tell my players to be careful."
Graeme McDowell on the 14th
"Fourteen can be a really brutal par four. Going down the left, you've got heavy rough while there's a hazard down the right. Then you have a five or six iron to a very difficult green."
Montgomerie on the 16th
"This is a super hole. It will probably be played into the wind. The second shot here is one of the best on our tour."
McKenzie on the 17th
"This is a great amphitheatre for spectators. There scope for drama with one bunker on the left and five on the right."
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