A captain can win the Ryder Cup with six rookies on his 12-man team. Colin Montgomerie and the Europeans did it as recently as 2010, playing at home at a soggy Celtic Manor in Wales.
But since 1979, when the Ryder Cup entered its modern phase by becoming Europe versus the United States, no captain has ever won golf’s premier team competition on the road with six or more newcomers.
This helps explain why the United States is the odds-on favorite to regain the Cup when play begins on Friday at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Minnesota.
The six rookies on the European team, captained by Darren Clarke, range from Danny Willett, 28, an Englishman who won his first major championship at the Masters in April, to Thomas Pieters, a 24-year-old Belgian who is 39th in the world golf rankings and has yet to make it to the Masters.
“It will be difficult, quite difficult,” said Thomas Levet, a former European Ryder Cup player from France who is now an analyst for Canal Plus television. “But the rookies Darren has are very strong. And when we look at world golf now — and this is even truer with the women than the men — we see the emergence of great golfers at a very young age.”
“Look at Rory McIlroy, who broke through early at a high level on the men’s circuit,” Levet continued. “Look at Lydia Ko, who gets to No.1 in the world at age 17. That wasn’t happening so often before, so I think the notion of rookie doesn’t mean what it used to mean.”
“Players are coming onto the circuit at 17, 18, 19, 20 with a great deal of experience,” he added. “They are not afraid to win big, and so it makes for a European Ryder Cup team that is very dangerous because it’s full of insouciance. I think we’re going to see some big surprises this week.”
At this stage, another European victory on an American course could hardly be considered a surprise. The Europeans have won two of the last three Ryder Cups held in the United States, routing the Americans in 2004 at Oakland Hills, in the Detroit suburbs, and then producing the so-called Miracle at Medinah near Chicago in 2012 by channeling the memory and the positive energy of the late Seve Ballesteros to come back and win by a single point.
The Europeans had just one rookie in Medinah, the long-driving Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts. But in 2004, the Europeans had five rookies, the same number as the Americans did that year. Although no team since 1979 has won on the road with more rookies than the opposition, that team — captained by the German star Bernhard Langer — came closest.
Langer had already played in 10 Ryder Cups before becoming a nonplaying captain. He had been part of resonant victories and also the unfortunate soul who missed a putt from just six feet that would have retained the Cup on the road at Kiawah Island in South Carolina in 1991.
So he knew all about knee-knocking Ryder Cup pressure and the learning curve.
“In general, nowadays the rookies aren’t really rookies as such,” Langer said by telephone from a PGA Tour Champions event in Canada last week. “They are rookies for the Ryder Cup but hardly rookies in terms of professional golf. They’ve played in the majors. They play in the world championships. They play in big tournaments all over the world, and they play against the Americans and the best in the world, so this is not anything totally new.”
“What is new to them is the atmosphere of the Ryder Cup,” he added, “and the kind of hostile environment it can be away from home, because it’s more like a soccer match where the crowd is for one team and actively against another team. They are cheering when you hit a bad shot or when you hit it in the water or whatever, and that’s not the case at any other golf tournament. This is something the rookies have to be aware of, and hopefully be inspired by it and embrace it instead of being turned off. It’s easy to get ticked off by people when you miss a four-foot putt and they cheer.”
Langer tried to defuse some of the partisan tension at Oakland Hills in 2004 by having his players make an extra effort to commune with the public and sign autographs during the practice days.
“We felt it was important because many of those American spectators didn’t really know some of us, and they didn’t know that we’re basically good guys and love the game of golf and people and competition,” Langer said. “I think when the spectators realized that we were not the enemy, not all that bad, it took some of the edge off.”
Other rookies have adopted a less conciliatory approach. See the American Patrick Reed putting a finger to his lips to shush the European crowd after making a clutch putt on the road in Gleneagles, Scotland, in 2014. Team U.S.A. still lost, however, and at this increasingly grim stage, it may take much more than a practice-day charm offensive from the Europeans to take the edge off.
They have now won three straight Cups and eight of the last 10, and Clarke’s team — in particular his six rookies — may be about to get an earful.
Lee Westwood, one of Clarke’s captain’s picks, acknowledged the challenge in comments to British reporters.
“Let’s make no bones about it, I think it will be tough,” said Westwood, who will be playing in his 10th Ryder Cup, the most of any European on this team. “It’s difficult to be a rookie on home soil when you have the crowd cheering for you. But to be a rookie in the States and be up against it, the crowd as well as the team, it’s a little extra. But I look at our rookies and I see them not as rookies. There’s a lot of experience there.”
Besides Willett and Pieters, the other European rookies are Rafael Cabrera-Bello of Spain and Andy Sullivan, Chris Wood and Matthew Fitzpatrick of England. Of the six, only Cabrera-Bello has not won a European Tour event in the past year. Pieters, a captain’s pick, won just last month, in Denmark.
Current form, very current form, can be particularly important in the Ryder Cup, where the extended qualifying process has sometimes resulted in last year’s hot players making the team at the expense of this year’s.
Captain’s picks are supposed to be the corrective, but Clarke apparently drew the line at six rookies. He could have picked a seventh but chose to go with experience in the form of Westwood and Martin Kaymer rather than Russell Knox of Scotland, who won the Travelers Championship last month.
No team has had seven rookies since the Europeans in 1999, when the Americans famously came back to beat them on a contentious Sunday in Massachusetts, at the Country Club in Brookline. The European captain, Mark James, chose not to play three of his team’s rookies until the singles on the final day. The move backfired — all three lost — and captains have since preferred to put rookies into at least the four-ball (better ball) pairings during the first two days to get them into the flow of the competition.
This week, Clarke and his counterpart, the American captain Davis Love III, are expected to do the same. But it seems best to keep a rookie’s performance in perspective. One of those who shares the dubious Ryder Cup record for most losses by a rookie is Ballesteros, who lost four matches in 1979 at age 22.
He went on to win many more and become Team Europe’s inspiration, in both life and death.