America arrived here anticipating a Ryder Cup shock, although surely nobody would have come to Valhalla expecting to see the humane side of Nick Faldo before a ball had even been hit. As he announced his pairings for this morning's opening foursomes, the Europe captain had twice to choke back tears as he talked about his team's meeting with Muhammad Ali yesterday helping to make this "the most special week of my life". It was stunning proof that between them, The Greatest and The Greatest Show on Turf can make even the coldest psyche crack.
Faldo's erratic emotional state completely overshadowed the declaration of the first pairings of the three-day match which will see Europe gunning for an unprecedented fourth successive victory. On Wednesday, a list he was clutching containing his opening partnership had been caught on camera and Faldo's ensuing tetchiness at reporters led to a farcical conference. Yesterday, the emotions ran just as high but this time he touched the soul instead of a nerve. Overnight, Captain Cock-Up had become Captain Kleenex.
Whether Faldo's apparent loss of his legendary cool focus will be good or bad for Europe is a moot point. But there can now be no doubt how dearly this renowned loner cares for this event. When asked what it meant to him for Ali to have greeted Europe on the first fairway, Faldo said: "It was just an incredible moment – as you can tell." With that his eyes watered and his voice crackled. "I thought it was really special. It really was. I'm about up to there with emotions this week, already. I need to get it out somewhere."
Faldo claimed, however, that the emotions had all been positive. "I'm loving every minute of it," he said. "This is the best experience I've ever had inside or outside the ropes. This is the most special week of my life and it hasn't even started yet. The way we're getting on as a team and everything we are doing together. Yes, this is the best."
It was in stark contrast to the calculating performance of Paul Azinger who, as expected, went back on his game plan to start off the proceedings with a Kentucky bang. Instead, he has asked the player who has summed up recent American failure better than any other to kick-start their resurgence. In the absence of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson will have the onus of inspiring his country to conquer the odds against an imposing Europe team.
That much became clear when the American captain resisted the urge to begin the foursomes with the two Kentuckians, Kenny Perry and J B Holmes. While the temptation must have been great to whip the crowd into the instant frenzy many here believe is critical if the outsiders are to prevail, Azinger must have recognised the gamble it could have been to expose the local boys. Padraig Harrington, the back-to-back major champion, and Robert Karlsson, the big-hitting Swede, would not have feared Perry and Holmes; Mickelson and the brilliant rookie Anthony Kim, however, could be another matter. They possess an overload of talent that could get their side off to the quick beginning that may prove so crucial.
It is a telling stat that America has not held the lead after any session since their victory in 1999. In each of the last three matches they have been put to the sword on the Friday morning. They have shown themselves to be miserably incapable of launching any sort of fightback and there is no reason for believing they could this time around. In fact, with a team containing six rookies and more ordinary run-of-the-multi-millionaire players than perhaps any Stars and Stripes team in the cup's history, the necessity for momentum straight from the off seems more marked than ever. There is a clear and present danger that if they are toppled before lunchtime they will once again be rolled over.
Faldo will certainly be confident of his men grabbing that early advantage. Most thought he would lead off with Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia, but he plainly views Harrington as his team leader. "It's pretty tough to push a three-time major champion out of his seat," Faldo said. So Harrington will be entrusted with snuffing out the challenge of Mickelson and if he and Karlsson could lower the colours of a Ryder Cup performer who last time won only half a point out of a possible five it could begin another long weekend for America.
In the second foursomes, Henrik Stenson and Paul Casey could have too much for the veteran Justin Leonard and the rookie Hunter Mahan, while, third up, Ian Poulter and Justin Rose will be aware that Stewart Cink is a proven Ryder Cup performer but Chad Campbell is not. Lastly, it would be a surprise if Garcia and Westwood do not have the wherewithal to see off Jim Furyk and Perry. Garcia has won eight foursomes out of eight while Westwood has not lost in any match since the 2002 singles.
But there is hope for Azinger. However intensely Faldo warmed the hearts yesterday, his captaincy has not gone well in the build-up. Cracks have appeared in a facade that has always been unashamedly certain of its own imperiousness and the media have turned against him. Faldo's terrible handing of the pairings leak stank of an ego that could threaten the renowned Europe chemistry. His baffling exclusion of Darren Clarke had already shaken the equilibrium of both the camaraderie and the balance of the obvious partnerships. Many saw that as Faldo simply being Faldo, but the point surely is that Faldo has to be something he has never been before. Perhaps, yesterday's tears proves he has at last realised this.
Whatever, Azinger must be prepared to exploit mercilessly any erosion of confidence in his counterpart. This is the first time Europe have been favourites when playing away from home: they know that nothing but a victory will be satisfactory. Yet they will also be aware that a close loss for America will be regarded as a moral victory for Azinger. Deep into the singles, Europe could well find themselves playing a side with nothing to lose and perhaps that is exactly what the Ryder Cup needs. To restate itself as the most thrilling Sunday afternoon in sport.
Europe rules: Recent Ryder history
2002 The Belfry, Sutton Coldfield, England
Europe: 15 1/2 US: 12 1/2
The Americans arrived at the Belfry on the back of a controversial single-point success at Brookline in 1999. Europe, under the captaincy of Sam Torrance, were adamant that the hosts would gain a measure of revenge for the perceived unsporting conduct of their conquerors two years earlier. The most memorable moment came on the 18th green when, after holing an eight-foot par putt to give the team the half-point they needed to win, Paul McGinley was thrown into the lake in celebration by his jubilant team-mates.
2004 Oakland Hills, Bloomfield, MI
Europe: 18 1/2 US: 9 1/2
Captain Bernhard Langer's men produced a sparkling team performance, retaining the trophy with a nine-point margin of success, the largest by a European team in the history of the event. The winning putt was made by Colin Montgomerie, who maintained his extraordinary record of never losing in any of his seven singles matches. The US team had never suffered such a heavy defeat on home soil.
2006 The K Club, Co Kildare, Ireland
Europe: 18 1/2 US: 9 1/2
Henrik Stenson made the winning putt after Luke Donald ensured Europe's defence of the Cup, but it was Darren Clarke who completed perhaps the most remarkable victory, winning both his four-ball matches and then his singles on Sunday, despite having only recently returned to the game after the death of his wife, Heather, from cancer. Europe equalled their nine-point margin of success from 2004 to complete three successive victories for the first time.
Ryder Cup timetable
Today's opening foursomes (USA names first, all times BST):
13.05 Phil Mickelson and Anthony Kim v Padraig Harrington and Robert Karlsson
13.20 Justin Leonard and Hunter Mahan v Henrik Stenson and Paul Casey
13.35 Stewart Cink and Chad Campbell v Justin Rose and Ian Poulter
13.50 Kenny Perry and Jim Furyk v Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia
17.45 Fourballs series, four matches, again matchplay format. Two players from each side play their own balls. The lowest score from either side wins the hole.
13.05 Foursomes (four matches); 17.45 Fourballs (four matches)
17.00 Singles (12 matches)
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