James Corrigan: Year of the rookies? Why newcomers can steal the show
Europe have McIlroy. The US have Fowler. And at Celtic Manor, established powers of the game have reason to be fearful
Thursday 30 September 2010
What is a Ryder Cup rookie to do? How is he to act? Does he swagger into the team room saying, "Give me Tiger, I'll take him down"? Or does he slink into the background, remaining respectful in his modesty, but assured in his attitude?
It is a dilemma that a record number of first-timers have been weighing up over these weeks, months, years leading up tomorrow's first steps in the most intimidating arena in golf. There are 11 debutants in all, the most since Great Britain & Ireland became Europe 31 years ago. To employ the war imagery favoured by the US captain, Corey Pavin, Celtic Manor will resemble less a five-star golf resort and more a scene from Onward Virgin Soldiers.
Many have already accused Rory McIlroy of going over the top first in calling the Ryder Cup "an exhibition" and then in stating his desire to play a faltering Tiger Woods. The young Ulsterman should experience this unique atmosphere before making the big claims, or so go the critics. Even Rickie Fowler, the US equivalent of Europe's boy wonder, felt able to reference his peer in less than glowing terms.
"Being confident is I guess just staying humble, in a way quiet and collected," said the 21-year-old. "Cocky is when you start to throw out predictions about who you would like to play and how you feel you would beat them. I guess it's a fine line."
In fairness to McIlroy he is anything but a brash upstart. That description would apply nicely to Anthony Kim. Together with Hunter Mahan, the Los Angeles kid was the star of the 2008 match in Kentucky, suppressing any nerves with a performance of such verve that veterans such as Jim Furyk felt resurrected by his presence.
"I've played in a lot of Ryder Cups, and it was always, 'Experience, experience, experience'," said Furyk. "Six new guys brought a lot of enthusiasm, infused amazing energy into the crowd and won the majority of the points for the team. They won the Ryder Cup and they really helped us out."
As Furyk alluded, it was not just Kim and Mahan who achieved America's first victory of the century but all of the captain Paul Azinger's rookies. Interestingly the debutants in the blue and gold corner could not be blamed for Europe's first defeat in almost a decade. In fact, Graeme McDowell, Justin Rose, Soren Hansen and Oliver Wilson, contributed three times as many points as the heavyweight trio of Lee Westwood, Padraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia. They were anything but overawed and helped to further bash down the myth that the Ryder Cup was all about the Big E (experience).
The attitude thus far of the untested 11 signify that the rookies will also hold the key in the 2010 version. Colin Montgomerie thought he had seen it all in the Ryder Cup, but was taken aback by this new generation of Ryder Cuppers. "The thing that has really surprised me has been how relaxed the rookies are, and how they felt so much part of the team so quickly," he said.
This familiarity doubtless has so much to do with the fact that those such as McIlroy and Martin Kaymer are already established members of the world's top 10, while the others – England's Ross Fisher, Sweden's Peter Hanson and Francesco and Edoardo, the Italian Molinari brothers – are regulars on the world stage. But there must be more to it than that and with a few of the individuals on show, a great Welsh amateur believes he has the answer.
"It's undeniable that so many of the young guard are graduating much faster from the Walker Cup to the Ryder Cup," says Nigel Edwards, the Great Britain and Ireland captain for next year's match in Aberdeen. "Look at Rickie Fowler. He will become the first to have played in the Walker Cup and then the Ryder Cup in consecutive years. There's Rory and [Dustin] Johnson, who both played in the 2007 Walker Cup. It used to take much longer for the boys turning pro to make the transition. Now they hit the ground running."
Edwards – a veteran of four Walker Cups who never joined the paid ranks but instead became the director of player development and coaching at the Welsh Golf Union – cites the much-improved amateur environment which essentially prepares the players to be professionals. Foreign travel has become the norm, meaning they will not be left open-mouthed as they venture abroad. "The support they receive now from the respective golfing unions outweighs anything 20 years ago," he said.
"They play all over the world now so they are more experienced. And because they are billed as the next big things, the promoters want them in their professional events so they acclimatise themselves that way, too. Garcia played 23 pro tournaments before he switched from the amateur ranks and Rory played in something like 10. And I would suggest someone like Rory has been prepared by what he went through as a young amateur."
Edwards played in the 2007 Walker Cup at Royal County Down, where the then teenager was obviously the home attraction. "The number of people who followed him when he was a 15- or 16-year-old was absolutely incredible; it was exceptional for an amateur golf tournament that we had 1,000 people watching the opening round," he said. "But at County Down it was something else. They had limited the crowds to 12,000 a day because of the dunes. Most of those swarmed around Rory and the rest tried to. You only had to see the photos of his interviews on the 16th and 18th and the media scrum was like Tiger Woods. That has got to serve him well.
"But then, Dustin and Rickie ended up overshadowing him. [Rickie] did in points scored. I could see Johnson and Fowler were going to be players of the future in the professional games. They were strong hitters, good putters and they looked to have that star quality. I'm not surprised they are in this Ryder Cup."
If and when they do they will encounter an American team room unrecognisable from the emotionless room of not long ago. As Furyk says, the old guard have been "energised" by the new kids on the tee-box. Edwards puts their enthusiasm down to their experiences in the Walker Cup, although those like Bubba Watson never qualified. Yet the dizzy Floridian was still so inspired to make Pavin's dozen that he was less concerned about losing the USPGA play-off to Kaymer last month than he was with the fact it secured his berth. But he is not going to let the supposed magnitude of a three-day team match overwhelm him.
"I don't look at the history of it, that we haven't won on European soil in 17 years or whatever it is," he said. "Zach Johnson put his arm around me here the other day and said, 'Hey Bubba, it's just golf'. That's all it is."
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