In case you haven’t heard, it’s Ryder Cup week. The teams are (finally) fully announced, the players are on site, and we’re just about ready for the crowds to descend upon Hazeltine and the balls to begin flying.
Now, what usually happens in a Ryder Cup preview post is that the writer throws out terms like “wedge play” and “proximity to the hole” and “fairway percentage,” and uses these and other dubious statistics, along with the always-important personality factor, to create what the writer believes to be the best two-man groupings to go out in team play.
I’m not gonna do that.
And the reason I’m not gonna do that is simple – I’m not a captain. It’s not my job to mix up a bottle of Michael’s Secret Stuff and cram it into the stand bags of 12 players, trusting that they’ll share the contents with their partner and form some deep telepathic golfing connection that results in a 7&6 drubbing.
I just want to see some killer singles matches.
Match play singles is the purest form of golf. There are no platitudes about just playing the course, no discussions of posting a number and hoping it’s enough. It’s you against the other guy, straight up. Oftentimes it feels like a game of HORSE, as one player pours in a long birdie and metaphorically tosses the ball to their opponent, daring them to match the feat. Or, to use a different sports analogy, this is the closest thing golf has to an Oklahoma drill.
Players describe the pressure of a Ryder Cup match almost like it’s a phsyical malady. “I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t swallow,” Hale Irwin said of his clinching 1991 match against Bernhard Langer. “The sphincter factor was high.” If you don’t think I’m tagging #sphincterfactor in some tweets this weekend, you sir are wrong.
Constantino Rocca, he of the British Open loss to John Daly, missed a short par putt on 17 to hand Davis Love a singles match in 1993. “I miss putt because I go to look too quickly the ball go at the hole,: he said, “…The tension. The tension.”
In 1967, Billy Casper, then in his fourth Cup, explained it with a question: “Did you ever try to hit a golf ball with no oxygen in your system?”
I personally haven’t, but it doesn’t sound easy. Now, let’s check out which matchups would produce the most spine-tingling, sphincter-factoring, oxygen-depleting golf on Sunday afternoon in Minnesota. First, a reminder of the squads.
Now, let’s see if we can find the best 12 singles matchups in these groups. This is completely subjective (obviously) and ranked in a loose order of most to least compelling.
The Heavyweight Championship of the World
Rory McIlroy vs. Dustin Johnson
Who else could it have been? Sure, Phil vs Rory would be great. And yes, I do believe that should he be paired with Rory, Patrick Reed would train a bald eagle to tee his Titleist up for him on every hole and then soar majestically down the fairway to be his forecaddy. But this is the singles match that would send the golf world into an absolute frenzy the fastest.
Coming off two wins in his last three tournaments, including a de facto singles match against Ryder Cup captain’s pick Ryan Moore in a playoff, Rory is proving once again that when he’s playing well, he can torch just about anyone. He’s also responsible for a brief internet outage in the greater Amsterdam area just after 1 AM local time on Sunday:
— No Laying Up (@NoLayingUp) September 25, 2016
Seriously, Soly may have needed a smoke and a pancake after that effort.
The only American who can match Rory’s world-consuming narrative and stranglehold on the golf community is the man who often seems completely oblivious to the idea that anything he does on (or off) a golf course is being scrutinized at all. DJ can match Rory’s outrageous length, can pick blimps out of the sky with his short irons just as well as the Northern Irishman, and possesses the same kind of balky/streaky/mercurial putting stroke that has flummoxed Rory for parts of his career. If this pairing winds up happening, and both play at or near their best, this could go down as an all-timer.
The Potential Volcanic Eruption
Patrick Reed vs. Sergio Garcia
Another great thing about match play is that it shines a spotlight on the players’ personalities. Short of the odd Donkey-Kong ground pound style meltdown, we don’t often see the inner churnings of a player’s psyche on full display during the regular season. But when the Ryder Cup cauldron gets a-bubblin’, there are sure to be some monstrous displays of emotion on both sides. And if we’re looking for everything from histrionics to ultra swagged-out #TourSauce, I can’t think of two players more suited to square off in match play than Patrick Reed and Sergio Garcia.
It could have happened in 2014, but instead we had just about the opposite situation. Reed overcame stoic Swede Henrik Stenson, and Garcia outdueled James Taylor lookalike Jim Furyk. If the two most combustible personalities on each team happen to be paired up in singles on Sunday, I’m going to need someone on an NBC affiliate to sacrifice their Seinfeld rerun marathon so we don’t miss a moment of this volatile showdown.
The Open Championship Rematch
Phil Mickelson vs Henrik Stenson
Not much more needs to be said here. The #narrative discussions if this matchup were to occur could sustain NBC’s talking heads until the next Ice Age. Phil and Stenson were so far ahead of everyone else at Royal Troon this year that they may as well have been playing match play (aside from the obvious strategic differences, but you get the point). A couple of fortysomethings lapping the field at the oldest tournament in golf, then running it back a few months later with international pride on the line? Sign me up.
The Masters Redemption
Jordan Spieth vs Danny Willett
Another matchup that’s dripping with narrative and intrigue. After Spieth’s double drink job on 12 at Augusta, Danny Willett swooped in and nabbed the green jacket from Spieth’s grasp. I almost want someone to start working on one of those video Photoshop things that the kids are doing now just in case this pairing ends up happening. I can see it now – the rain pouring down on Andy Dufresne’s back as he [SHAWSHANK SPOILER] climbs out of the sewer pipe, the film’s score slowly fading out and replaced with – can it be? It is! – the tinkling piano of the Masters theme. Dufresne slogs downstream, the camera cuts to him face-on and his head is replaced with Jordan Spieth’s. He tears his soiled. two-year-old green jacket off and lifts his face and arms to the heavens, and suddenly his hands are cradling the Ryder Cup.
The Stranger in a Strange Land Battle
Brooks Koepka vs Matthew Fitzpatrick
A lot to like here. Two Cup rookies with utterly contrasting looks and playing styles. What I’d be most excited about from a golf nerd perspective, however, is the similarity in career choices. Just as Brooks Koepka plied his trade on the European Tour in an effort to gain status on the PGA Tour, Matthew Fitzpatrick is planning to live and golf in the United States full-time after the Ryder Cup is complete. We’ll get an up-close look at whether the 22-year-old has the game, and the stones, to make such an idea feasible this weekend. Also, I’ve never read Stranger in a Strange Land, but the title seemed appropriate.
The Twitch vs The Tank
Brandt Snedeker vs Martin Kaymer
I just think this is an exercise in contrasting styles. Brandt Snedeker is one of the most fidgety, herky-jerky players you’ll ever see. His swing is beautiful and he pures everything, but when he’s over the ball he looks like a nervous rabbit that just found a bed of clover in the middle of a six-lane highway. He’s also not particularly long with the long sticks. Kaymer, on the other hand, is a model of German engineering: a plodding, powerful, smooth-swinging player who I hope treats Snedeker the way an old German Shepard treats a Chihuahua puppy.
The Veteran Scrap
Matt Kuchar vs. Lee Westwood
Nothing fancy here, just a couple of Ryder Cup vets grinding out pars and looking for any advantage they can. If DJ vs. Rory is a boxing match between Ali and Frazier, Kuchar vs. Westwood is a game of poker between Phil Ivey and Doyle Brunson. Neither player has that fiery personality, and there won’t be any explosive outbursts, but you can bet that nobody will make any egregious errors.
The “Chicks Dig the Long Ball” Matchup
J.B. Holmes vs. Thomas Pieters
Holmes led the PGA Tour in driving distance this season at 314.5 yards. Pieters ranked 16th on the European Tour, and first on Europe’s Ryder Cup team, at 301.420. Look for both of these mashers to blaze a long rip off the tee on almost every hole.
The Quiet Riot
Zach Johnson vs. Justin Rose
Zach Johnson is from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Justin Rose is from the English countryside. Both players are accurate with their irons and deadly with the flat stick (ZJ, in particular, can somehow pour in putts with that center-shafted abomination). But both players have a competitive streak that sneaks out in big moments. Witness Justin Rose’s iconic (and extremely British) celly after winning the 2016 Olympic Golf gold medal, and the steely resolve Johnson demonstrated in capturing a 4-hole playoff over two players in the 2015 Open Championship.
The “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” Showdown
Rickie Fowler vs. Chris Wood
I’ll start by saying that I frankly don’t know who Chris Wood is. It looks like he won the BMW PGA Championship in May, followed that up with a T6 at the succintly named Lyoness Open powered by Sporthlife Cashback Card, and hasn’t carded a top 10 since June (though there are some top 20s sprinkled in there). We all know about Rickie’s 2014 major top 5 streak, and he got the monkey off his back with a win at the Players last year, but he hasn’t found the winner’s circle this season and has been unimpressive since fading badly in The Barclays at Bethpage in late August.
The Bathroom Break
Ryan Moore vs. Andy Sullivan
Ryan Moore’s claim to fame is that he wears dope outfits. This doesn’t help in a team event. If this pairing shows up on your screen, it’s time to hit the bathroom and/or load up on snacks.