America's Ryder Cup heroes feel the need for speed
Published 15/09/2008 | 16:58
Europe didn't pull a fast one on Tom Lehman's US team in Ireland. They did the exact opposite.
The greens at 2006 Ryder Cup were set up to play even slower than they would for the Captain's Prize at The K Club. Did it make a difference? You bet.
The Americans were bamboozled by the pace of the pristine putting surfaces on The Palmer Course; a recurring theme of Ireland's Ryder Cup was the look of exasperation on Tiger's face as putt after putt stopped short of the cup.
The biennial battle for supremacy between Europe and The United States begins long before the first tee shot is struck and involves many more people than the 24 players on the golf course.
One of the first guys Ian Woosnam sought out after being appointed Ryder Cup captain for 2006 was Gerry Byrne, course superintendent at The K Club.
And Paul Azinger has worked for the past 18 months with Mark Wilson at Valhalla to ensure the US team really do enjoy 'home field advantage' this week.
In Padraig Harrington's estimation, that will include greens which play considerably faster than at the three previous Ryder Cups, when he and his European comrades rattled up a famous hat-trick.
Byrne, Wilson and their staff are the hidden heroes of the Ryder Cup; special forces whose handiwork can make the difference between victory and defeat.
All sorts of tricks can be pulled with course set-up.
In his autobiography 'Life Swings', Nick Faldo suggested "there was skulduggery afoot" at Muirfield Village, venue for the 1987 Ryder Cup.
He explains: "Before the second day's play, the Americans were equipped with detailed information regarding not only the exact areas where the greens had been watered but also the amount of water used, which represents a huge advantage when assessing where to land the ball.
"Fortunately, we had a spy in the camp. Howard Clark overheard what was supposedly a secret conversation and was able to furnish us with all the information, such as "13th watered heavily up to the ridge, then rock hard on the upper tier."
Clearly it didn't work. Muirfield Village would become a turning point in Ryder Cup history as Europe romped to their first victory on US soil.
Woosie's instructions to Dubliner Byrne were not as convoluted. He wanted new trees and a bunker or two to be situated at strategic points on the golf course and requested that the swales and run-off areas around the greens be shaved.
Yet the most telling instruction of them all came as Ryder Cup week opened and it concerned the putting surfaces themselves.
Byrne recalls: "We had cut them tight and rolled them and they were sitting lovely -- they were running about 11 and a half on the stimpmeter. We were spot on but we were told to just 'slow them down and put the brakes on'."
This arose from a situation at The Belfry, where an issue with the greens had required them to run as slow as 10 on the stimp. It was far from ideal but, as Byrne explains: "the Europeans adapted quicker because they'd mostly grown up playing on slower greens.
"As a golf course superintendent, you like to have the greens running nice and quick (at an event like this) because your handiwork is being seen on a world stage. Yet having our greens run so slow at The Ryder Cup helped me from the preparation standpoint.
"I only had to cut them once a day -- with all the rain that was falling, they'd have flooded if we'd done all the extra cutting and rolling required to make them run faster.
"They ran at 10 in the rain that week and speeded up a little in the dry. That's only member's pace. I mean, if I'd a Presidents or Captains prize, I have them at 10 and a half or 11.
"The real source of pride to me was that greens ran very true."
American skipper Tom Lehman and several of his players, including Tiger and Phil Mickelson, cited their inability to make telling putts as the key factor in their annihilation at Straffan.
"The Europeans just seem to feed off of one another," said Tiger as the sun set on another humbling Ryder Cup humiliation.
"The Europeans make more putts than we do. Unfortunately, we were just not able to make putts when we had opportunities to turn the tide."
Lehman mused: "What Tiger's saying is that momentum can swing on certain putts and we simply did not make them."
Harrington offers his support to the argument that the principal difference between the two Ryder Cup teams in recent years has been the ability of the Europeans to perform on greens which have suited them.
Ireland's triple-Major Champion readily conceded that all three legs of Europe's recent hat-trick were achieved on relatively slow putting surfaces, including Oakland Hills, which he describes as "an old-style golf course with big slopes on the greens so they can't get them lightning quick.
"I'll tell you what's going to be interesting," he said.
"Every time we have won in recent years, it's been on Europe-paced greens. Well, these greens are going to be super-quick at Valhalla this week.
"When America came from behind to beat us on Sunday at Brookline in 1999, they changed the greens back from being European-paced to fast US-paced. We holed all the putts the first two days and they holed all the putts on Sunday.
"Looking back to the US PGA at Valhalla in 2000, it was like putting on top of a table so there will be a serious advantage there in terms of familiarity for the US players and it will be interesting to see what happens.
"Europe has won and the US has lost more Ryder Cups recently because we have holed more putts on greens that suit us better."
This, of course, might help explain Nick Faldo's decision to overlook Darren Clarke and instead opt for two players, Paul Casey and Ian Poulter, who have played on the US PGA Tour all season and plainly, impressed the captain with their putting prowess in recent weeks.
So never mind Faldo's two wild cards, the four picks Azinger made or the presence of multiple Major-winners like Mickelson and Harrington. Valhalla greenkeeper Mark Wilson, like his K Club counterpart Gerry Byrne two years ago, will be one of the most influential 'players' at this week's Ryder Cup.