Wednesday Notes from the 43rd Ryder Cup

Andy Johnson sums up his initial wanderings around Whistling Straits


I’ve been on the grounds at Whistling Straits for the past two days, and… well, I’m ready for the Ryder Cup to start. But here are a few things I noticed during the pre-tournament action:

More than infrastructure

The sheer scale of the 1st-tee build-out will get all the attention, but the effect of the grandstands on the strategy of the hole is the real story. With infrastructure occupying the back tee, No. 1 has become relatively short, even drivable in some cases. This forces players to choose between pushing the ball up near the green or laying back with an iron. The risk of the aggressive play is a common theme at Whistling Straits: treacherous surrounds. Faux dunes, bunkers, catch basins, and not-so-wispy fescue make for terrible lies.

The 1st hole (plus build-outs) at Whistling Straits. Photo: Andy Johnson

“What we have got around these greens is rough and bunkers that are pretty deep,” Europe’s Ian Poulter said at his press conference. “The rough, the lies you get around the greens, you can’t predict it. You can miss a green by three feet and have an unplayable lie. You can miss the green by five yards and you have a kind of nice lie. I think that is the unknown at the minute, and if you’re going to start to leak a few here and there, it’s going to be difficult.”

In yesterday’s practice round, Jon Rahm went for the green from the 1st tee, found a bunker about 40 yards short, and could pitch out only 10 yards or so. Meanwhile, the layup is safe and gets players off to a comfortable start. I would expect to see more aggressive drives in the four-ball (best ball) matches and a more conservative strategy in foursomes (alternate shot).

Wise beyond his years

Patrick Cantlay’s press conferences, like Rory McIlroy’s and Jon Rahm’s, have become must-sees. His answer yesterday regarding the alternate-shot format was particularly insightful:

“I was talking about it the other night. There’s a weird thing about foursomes in that you only hit half the shots, so personally it feels like every shot you hit is more important…. Usually you would be hitting double the shots, so… every shot I hit is two times what it’s normally worth for the outcome of that match compared to singles. Best ball, in a way, it’s less…. I think that pressure or that feeling, while I haven’t heard it expressed in that way, is a real thing that people feel, which makes them feel uncomfortable in foursomes. You saw it with Seve and Olazábal. I guarantee you they didn’t say ‘sorry’ for hitting a bad shot because they were such good friends and they had done it so many times.”

If the Americans ever embrace the Seve-Olazábal mindset, they’ll probably fare better in foursomes. Alternate shot is golf’s ultimate team game. You and your partner have to be on the same page and understand that bad shots happen.

The buddy system persists

While the U.S. team denies the existence of a “buddy system,” the evidence suggests otherwise. Look no further than Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas playing together in every single practice round. As has been well documented, these guys are pals, have known each other for years, play the same ball, etc. Who knows, maybe they’ll be a dynamic pairing, as they were at Le Golf National. But given that Spieth and Thomas are already familiar with each other, why not spread them around a bit in the practice rounds, just in case plans change during the competition?

Besides, on a team full of bombers, Spieth and Thomas both offer rare skill sets. Spieth excels in every aspect of the game except driving, and Thomas is one of the best iron players of his generation. Why not match Spieth with Bryson DeChambeau (No. 1 in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee) and Thomas with Brooks Koepka (No. 7 in SG: OTT), creating two potentially dominant teams? Or at least try it in the practice rounds, which are an opportunity to experiment with alternatives that could yield exceptional results.

Data analyst Joseph LaMagna has written about the importance of pairing up contrasting yet complementary skill sets in his newsletter Finding the Edge as well as in a recent episode of The Fried Egg Podcast:

The wind

As it was on Kiawah Island at the PGA Championship, the wind will be a factor at this year’s Ryder Cup. The cool north wind is predicted to switch to the more friendly, typical south wind. Since 14 holes at Whistling Straits play along the north-south axis, players will not be able to rely on their practice-round numbers.

The biggest tests of players’ adaptability will come at the 4th and 8th holes, two long par 4s that play along Lake Michigan. In a north wind, No. 4 is a picnic for pros who are able to hit it past the bottleneck in the fairway. But when wind reverses direction, the hole will become one of the toughest on the front nine. Conversely, the 8th was a beast today, with players hitting long irons and even fairway woods into the green. That approach should play substantially shorter this weekend.

The 4th hole at Whistling Straits. Photo: Andy Johnson

Sterling form

After missing four consecutive cuts from the Masters to the PGA Championship earlier this year, Sergio García was questionable for the Ryder Cup. Lately, though, the longtime thorn in Team USA’s side has been surging on the PGA Tour and elsewhere. García arrives at Whistling Straits with eight top-26 finishes and just one missed cut in his past nine starts. Plus, a birdie informed me that he fired a course-record 61 at Austin Golf Club last week. All signs point to a stellar week from the Spaniard.

Westy’s run

Golf Channel has a delightful feature on Lee Westwood and his long career in Ryder Cups:

It’s hard to predict what we’ll see from Westy in this year’s Ryder Cup. His performance at Hazeltine in 2016 was, to put it mildly, shaky, and his form was far better early in 2021 than it is now. But if the wind blows, as it’s predicted to, few players on either team have better command of their golf ball than the 48-year-old Englishman.