Sunday, September 30, 2012

Any Given Sunday

I don't know what to say really. 86 minutes to the biggest battle of our professional lives. It all comes down to today...
Or something like that.

The final day of a Ryder Cup is guaranteed to be a special day, and the 2012 edition should be no different. Europe have been outplayed by a superior team over the last two days, but some sheer terrifying blood 'n' guts from a certain guy have given them just a sniff at a chance in the singles. Yes, 10-6 is a huge deficit to make up, on foreign soil, against a team as hot as Davis Love III's team. But you can guarantee that José María Olazábal's team will not give up until that 14 1/2 mark is reached by either team.

Looking at the pairings, I feel slightly more optimistic. There's no match there that scares me in particular; even those of our players who haven't performed so far seem to be coming up against their U.S. counterparts (basically Kaymer and Stricker). Olazábal had no option but to put his best foot forward - there's no point holding back some big guns for the later matches if we go out and drop the first three. Love has the option of mixing around his talent to some extent, although he too looks to be trying to get the Cup safe as soon as possible. He has left a certain man until the end though, should things get tough...

Bubba Watson v. Luke Donald

Tough to get two more different players. The wild, unpredictable, crowd-revving Watson against the quiet, tidy Luke Donald. Don't doubt the mutual respect between these two, however. Bubba has been great so far, although Webb Simpson's putter has helped him a lot. Donald did well to hold on to his point last night after Woods and Stricker fought back, and his tee shot to the 17th shows his nerve under pressure. This should be a fantastic opening match.

Donald to win 3&2

Webb Simpson v. Ian Poulter

Ian Poulter's performance last night was, quite simply, one of the greatest performances I have ever seen in sport. The man is a Ryder Cup machine. He wants to get his point in the bag early today and, despite the quality of Webb Simpson's play, it's tough to go against him. He's up against one of the U.S. team's most consistent players so far, but the same was true in Wales, where he handed Matt Kuchar a 5&4 drubbing. I think he's got one more game in him.

Poulter to win 4&3

Keegan Bradley v. Rory McIlroy

Poulter may have birdied the final 5 last night, but McIlroy holed a great putt on the 13th to get the fightback started. That said, he contributed little else in the round, and has looked pretty flat since his first nine holes on Friday morning. Keegan Bradley has been anything but flat - I don't know if I've ever seen an American as pumped as that man. He made it clear that he wanted a shot at McIlroy - he's got it now, and I only see this going one way.

Bradley to win 4&3

Phil Mickelson v. Justin Rose

It's interesting to see that Love has kept his first two pairs as close as possible for each other - does he feel that Mickelson and Bradley will be able to feed off each other from 300 yards? He might be right - it's a different Phil Mickelson in this Ryder Cup - he too will be without a red-hot partner on the greens, but you can tell he's enjoying this. Rose has picked up two points alongside Poulter, but yesterday morning he was beginning to wobble around the greens, and didn't play in the afternoon. Tight match, but I think the home team will make it 2-2 here.

Mickelson to win 2&1

Brandt Snedeker v. Paul Lawrie

Paul Lawrie has played a lot of decent golf for his two losses, and I fancy him to do well today. He's seen it all before, so won't be easily rattled by anything that happens on the course or in the crowds. Snedeker has had a solid debut Cup, and has shown himself again to be a great putter, but I think he'll miss the steady Furyk at his side.

Lawrie to win 1 up

Dustin Johnson v. Nicolas Colsaerts

Don't bother looking at the first 350 yards of any hole in this match. These boys can hit it hard. DJ has picked up two points, but he has Matt Kuchar to thank for plenty. He made a great birdie putt on the 17th yesterday to deny Colsaerts and Lawrie, so you can be sure the Belgian wants revenge. He's been impressive in his first Ryder Cup, and don't forget that he won the European Tour matchplay earlier this year.

Colsaerts to win 2&1

Zach Johnson v. Graeme McDowell

I don't know if there's a tidier player in the world than Zach Johnson, and he's used it to his team's advantage in the 2012 Ryder Cup. He's up against the other big firebrand in the European team who, after a rest yesterday evening, will be itching to contribute to another win. Few players thrive on pressure as much as McDowell, but this is a really tough match to call - I'll go for the first share of the week.

Halved match

Jim Furyk v. Sergio Garcia

He who holes wins here. Both players have played solid stuff, but Sergio needs to make some putts if he's to take a point off Furyk. Ryder Cup time used to be when Sergio found his putter, but it hasn't been great this year, and he lost his last singles back in 2008. You know how much he cares about the Ryder Cup though, and his win last night should have given him some confidence.

Garcia to win 1 up

Jason Dufner v. Peter Hanson

I could just watch Jason Dufner play forever. He mixes sleepiness with mild surprise like no one else. He's also been on fire so far in this tournament - there wasn't much more he and Zach could have done last night against the Poulter juggernaut - you just have to accept it and move on.
Peter Hanson didn't get much of a game on Friday, coming up against the Bubba/Simpson fireworks, and it's tough to say how he's playing. He's as steady as they come, but I would worry that it's a little late for steadiness at this point.

Dufner to win 3&2

Matt Kuchar v. Lee Westwood

Kuchar has been very good. Westwood has been awful. I think Westwood will lift his game for the situation, but there's no way he can match Kuchar on the greens. Nothing more to say here.

Kuchar to win 4&3

Steve Stricker v. Martin Kaymer

Oh God. Really? The way these two have been playing so far, this could be dull. I think they're both great players, but neither is in great form, and even Stricker's putting seems to have gone on holiday. He probably still has enough to see off a simply out of form Kaymer.

Stricker to win 3&2

Tiger Woods v. Francesco Molinari

So. Is Love hiding Tiger or holding him back. The way he plays singles, and the way he's played the back nine this week, I think it's the latter. It's been a tale of two halves for Woods this week, but he's been trying so hard to find a win and, in truth, is unlucky to have 0/3. Molinari started to get going yesterday evening, but had too much ground to make up against Bubba and Simpson. He played (and lost to) Tiger in Wales in 2010, so at least he won't be put off by that. If he makes some putts, the Italian has a chance. I fear, however, that this match won't be crucial.

Woods to win 4&3

So that's that. 6.5 - 5.5, leaving the final score at 16.5 - 11.5.
If it goes like this, we'll be in for an exciting day, with Europe making up some early ground. All in all though, I can't see them limiting the U.S. to 4 points, and the home team should take a very well deserved victory.

Enjoy it - after this, there's no Ryder Cup for two years.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Help Needed

So we're 12 points into the Ryder Cup, and we're all thinking the same thing - why can't Ian Poulter play all our matches?
You can't blame the captain for his team's poor play, but the one massive mistake Olazábal made was leaving out Ian Poulter yesterday afternoon - if Europe have a chance of winning this Ryder Cup then Poulter will be contributing plenty of points and guts.

The fourball pairings are out for Saturday afternoon, and the big news is that the unstoppable force of Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson has been stopped. I have no hesitation in saying that this is a stupid decision from the captain - no matter what your pre-match plans are, you have to be flexible. When you're playing that well you want to go straight back out there - fatigue is not nor will not be an issue. It's a let-off for the Europeans and they need to take advantage.

Match 13: Dustin Johnson & Matt Kuchar v. Nicolas Colsaerts & Paul Lawrie

The big worry here is that Colsaerts will have been brought back down to earth and have lost some confidence after some shaky moments this morning. However, he's good enough to know that fourballs is a different game, and having the calm (although most boring man in the world) Paul Lawrie alongside him should be a help.
DJ and Kuchar won their match very quietly and confidently yesterday - Kuchar doesn't make mistakes and Johnson makes heaps of birdies - that sounds like a good combo to me. Kuchar will hole any putt he looks and and is just the friendliest guy in golf.

Verdict: This is going to be a tough match for Europe - Colsaerts is going to need to replicate some of his Friday form, while Lawrie needs to play an anchor role. The two pairings are similar enough, but I think Kuchar's putting could be the difference here.

U.S. to win 3&2

Match 14: Webb Simpson & Bubba Watson v. Justin Rose & Francesco Molinari

Justin Rose has another partner today after another successful morning with Ian Poulter. He picks up GIR-machine Francesco Molinari, who never really got going with Westwood yesterday morning. My concern is that Francesco isn't a great putter, and Rose missed a few down the stretch this morning, but I like the look of this pairing in general.
Simpson and Bubba were looking good early on in the foursomes, but a couple of creaks around the turn proved enough for Europe to pounce. That said, Bubba showed his cool under the gun when he hit a marvellous approach to the 18th, which Simpson just failed to convert. Another cracking fourball pairing, marrying Bubba's flair and power with Simpson's all-round class.

Verdict: Really tough game to call, and maybe I'm just being partisan, but I think Europe can get something out of this one. Don't expect it to finish early though.

Halved Match

Match 15: Steve Stricker & Tiger Woods v. Luke Donald & Sergio Garcia

After a horrible morning yesterday, Tiger played some great golf in the afternoon, particularly on the back nine. The steady Stricker could have done more to back him up, but you can bet your life that this pair are out for blood.
Donald and Sergio were Bricklesoned (totally going to catch on) yesterday morning, and neither has looked in great touch throughout the two days. Donald even missed some short-mid length putts today, which is not normal service. He must take the chances he creates this afternoon, and Sergio needs to find some of his Ryder Cup magic.

Verdict: I'm afraid I only see this going one way. Tiger showed me enough class yesterday to prove that he's going to take his first point of 2012.

U.S. to win 2&1

Match 16: Jason Dufner & Zach Johnson v. Rory McIlroy & Ian Poulter

Rory McIlroy has lost one firebrand in Graeme McDowell but has been given the ultimate in Ian Poulter. The Northern Irish pair haven't played well since about the 12th hole on Friday morning - they managed to hang on to a win in that match, but have been distinctly lacklustre since then. We knew McIlroy would need to hole putts, and he simply hasn't, although his stroke's looked decent.
Dropping McDowell is a brave decision, but maybe McIlroy needs a different approach. He holed some nice putts towards the end of the foursomes, and hopefully he can carry that forward. Poulter is just great.
Dufner and Johnson have played reasonably tidy golf, as expected, holing putts when needed. Despite their 2 points from 2 matches so far, I don't think McIlroy and Poulter should fear them too much in the fourballs. A vital match for Europe to shore up the day's play.

Verdict: I hope that we can finally have a slightly more comfortable victory here although, knowing how the Ryder Cup works, probably not.

Europe to win 4&3

So that's another prediction for a 2 1/2 -1 1/2 session, this time in the U.S.'s favour. That'd leave the overnight score at 10.5-6.5. The U.S's famous 1999 comeback was from 10-6 down - we really need to win this session and keep the deficit to a maximum of 3 points.
So far, the Ryder Cup has not disappointed. Let's see if Europe can contribute some more of the excitement.

A Mountain to Climb

So, the 39th Ryder Cup is one day old and, so far, it has not disappointed.
Friday morning foursomes were full of the nip and tuck that makes the Ryder Cup what it is, with the early European momentum being dragged back by a spirited American team, to leave the first session at 2-2. In the afternoon, the home team simply blew Europe away in the better-ball matches, the one exception being a tall Belgian man who didn't seem to realize how difficult the Ryder Cup is meant to be. Carrying his partner Lee Westwood, Nicolas Colsaerts gave his captain some hope by shooting -10 on his own card and securing a vital point for Europe. This was after Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson had annihilated Paul Lawrie and Peter Hanson in the top match, followed by wins for the inspired new pairing of Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley, as well as Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar.
Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker finished the first day pointless and, although Tiger bounced back from a woeful foursomes display to play some decent golf in the fourballs, Davis Love III has decided to leave him and his partner on the bench for Saturday morning's foursomes; the first time Tiger has been rested at a Ryder Cup.

It may be easier to say after the poor afternoon session, but I think that José María Olazábal showed some poor captaincy in the afternoon. After seeing the Americans build momentum and rescue a 2-2 result from the morning's play, it was vital that Europe got out of the blocks fast and got points on the board in the fourballs. The answer? Put out the guys who you know will deliver. Ian Poulter sat on the sidelines after winning with Justin Rose in the morning, and we saw the four mrning subs make their first start of the matches. I agree with the sentiment of getting all 12 players out on Day 1, but it needs to be a flexible approach. Resting Poulter was madness. Luke Donald and Sergio hadn't looked their best in the foursomes, but you can guarantee that Donald will hole his putts and that Sergio will always produce some magic. Peter Hanson and Paul Lawrie were unlucky to come up against the unstoppable force that was Watson and Simpson, but I can't help feeling that holding back at least one of them until Saturday would have been a stronger move. Martin Kaymer was almost invisible for most of the afternoon, and showed why he has not been contending like his 2009 and 2010 self.

DL3's captaincy was good, although it has to be said that he has any easier job at times, given the talent at his disposal. He's claimed that he doesn't want any player playing all 5 matches, and that Tiger's rest has nothing to do with his Friday morning form. Fair enough Davis, although just try and stop Mickelson and Bradley walking on to the first tee this afternoon.

So, how do they match up on Saturday morning?

Match 9: Webb Simpson & Bubba Watson v. Ian Poulter & Justin Rose

We got plenty of the famous Poulter stare yesterday, so anyone who doubted if he was as up for this as ever quickly had those doubts put to bed. He looks comfortable with Rose, and vice versa - I get the feeling Rose will be relieved to be back with Poulter after failing to get anything going with Martin Kaymer.
Simpson and Bubba were outstanding yesterday - there's a case to be made that Bubba might be more of a fourball player, although that swing manages to put the ball in the fairway more often than simple physics would suggest. Simpson is just a class act in all dimensions, and thrived yesterday in Bubba's company.

Verdict: Really tough match to call, but I just get the feeling that Poulter, knowing the trouble his team is in, will drag something out of this no matter what. Should be a cracker.

Europe to win 2&1

Match 10: Keegan Bradley & Phil Mickelson v. Luke Donald & Lee Westwood

What can you say about this American twosome? Mickelson has been mentoring Bradley for some time now, so they're obviously totally comfortable in each other's company. Love will be as delighted to have found a partner for Mickelson as much as Bradley, given Lefty's questionable Ryder Cup record. Bradley took to the Ryder Cup like a duck takes to water, if ducks hole everything within sight and leap around to beat the band. These guys are the pairing that have lit it up so far, and it's tough to see them stopping just yet.
Donald lost to this group with Sergio in the morning yesterday, but didn't play bad golf. Westwood played a lot of bad golf in both matches and, as expected, couldn't hole a putt. He'll be delighted to have Donald taking responsibility over some of the short game, but will have to deliver with the long game.

Verdict: The U.S. pair were awesome to watch yesterday; it was impossible not to enjoy Bradley's enthusiasm and Phil's delight. I don't doubt that they will continue to play well, but they're up against a cool matchplayer in Luke Donald, who should help to settle Lee Westwood. I don't quite know where I'm getting this from, but I'm going to back the boys in blue to get something here.

Halved Match

Match 11: Jason Dufner & Zach Johnson v. Nicolas Colsaerts & Sergio Garcia

Can Nicolas Colsaerts continue his magic from yesterday? Before the match, I'd have seen him as a fourball player - heaps of birdies but sitting out of a few holes after doing damage off the tee. He took Woods and Stricker on single-handedly with barely an error, and he should enjoy having Garcia's infectious enthusiasm beside him today.
Dufner and Johnson played solidly to beat Westwood and Molinari in the foursomes, holing their putts where they needed to. Dufner looked nervous at the beginning, but anyone who's watched his career progress will know that once he's in the comfort zone, he's hard to get out.

Verdict: These predictions seem a little topsy-turvy, but I'm going to give the home team a win here. They look calm and settled now, and they're going to continue to hole their putts. I can't imagine that Colsaerts isn't a little drained after his magnificence yesterday, and I just hope that he can recover himself in times for his obvious fourball appearance in the afternoon.

U.S. to win 3&2

Match 12: Jim Furyk & Brandt Snedeker v. Graeme McDowell & Rory McIlroy

The final foursome of the 2012 Ryder Cup sees a rematch of the opening match. In Part 1, the Europeans looked to be cruising before surviving a fantastic comeback from the Americans to win it with a shaky par on the last. McIlroy and McDowell never got going in the afternoon, but it's hard to see them not picking themselves up and getting things going again today. McIlroy continued to miss some important putts, but G-Mac tends to make what he needs.
Furyk and Snedeker aren't the most charismatic pairing on the course, but they'll be disappointed that they couldn't convert their fightback into a point yesterday morning. Snedeker needed to find a good drive on the last but he blocked it miles right. The Ryder CUp isn't easy, and he'll need to bounce back fast. Furyk's experience and calm was invaluable on the back nine yesterday, but the veteran will need to hole a few more putts if he and Snedeker are to take down the Macs.

Verdict: No more than Poulter, I think the Europeans will deliver when the heat is on. They know they're in the anchor match to either shore things up or to put the final touch on a winning session. They played enough good golf yesterday to show that they're in form, and G-Mac has that look in his eyes.

Europe to win 4&2

By my calculations, that's a 2 1/2 - 1 1/2 session for Europe, which would reduce the American's lead to a single point going into the afternoon. Optimistic? Maybe so.

Check back as the foursomes wind down for a preview of the final team matches of this year's Cup.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Ready, Steady, Go!

The 2-year wait is over. The slightly odd procession of wives is behind us. We have one more sleep before the 39th Ryder Cup kicks off in Medinah, and with the foursome pairings at our fingertips, we can begin to imagine what will happen.

Match 1: Jim Furyk & Brandt Snedeker v. Rory McIlroy & Graeme McDowell

No surprises from José María Olazábal with the first match out - World Number 1 Rory McIlroy partners Northern Irish compatriot Graeme McDowell to resume their partnership from Celtic Manor. McIlroy is playing fantastic golf right now, albeit with a return to his poor putting in the Tour Championship. McDowell didn't make it to East Lake, but a good showing in the BMW Championship  was enough to show that his best golf is not far off, and only Ian Poulter can rival G-Mac for fire in the belly.

I was a little disappointed that Davis Love III didn't lead off with Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker, but I reckon they'll get the chance to take on the Macs later on in the weekend. Meanwhile, Jim Furyk and Brandt Snedeker won't be a pushover. Furyk had a return to form this year, although faltered slightly in the autumn, requiring a captain's pick. One man who instantly repaid his captain's faith in him was Snedeker, who picked up the FedEx Cup and some money last week in East Lake. Snedeker is a phenomenal putter, and with Furyk's phlegmatic calm alongside him, should be able to stay cool on his Ryder Cup debut.

Verdict: This is a tough match to call - if McIlroy holes some putts, that should be enough to take Europe over the line - you can be sure McDowell will make the ones that matter. Snedeker will make his putts, but he needs Furyk to rediscover the ball-striking he displayed in May and June this year. I don't see this one ending early.

Halved Match

Match 2: Keegan Bradley & Phil Mickelson v. Luke Donald & Sergio Garcia

Keegan Bradley may be a Ryder Cup rookie, but with the 2011 PGA and the 2012 Bridgestone Invitational on his mantlepiece, he's not short of big-game experience. Another solid putter, he was expected to team up with fan favourite Phil Mickelson. Mickelson's had a quiet year since the Masters, but played some decent golf in the Playoffs to prove he's close to being back in form. There isn't enough thick greenside rough for us to see Mickelson perform his usual magic tricks, but you can be sure he'll still provide some sensational wedgeplay.

Once again, Olazábal picked a ready-made superstar pairing. With 4/4 points in foursomes together, Sergio and Donald are a formidable partnership. Sergio will be delighted to have a short game like Donald's at his disposal, while the Spaniard played his way on to the team with a victory at the Wyndham Championship. An often awful putter, Garcia always seems to find his stroke in time for the Ryder Cup - he'll need it to back up Donald around the greens.

Verdict: I'm not going to go against the form book here: I haven't seen enough good play from the American pairing to believe they can take down the European duo - Donald may have been quiet for the last few months but he found a top-5 at East Lake just to remind us why he held the Number 1 spot for a year. Sergio has that Spanish something in the Ryder Cup, and I see the Europeans extending their stellar record.

Europe to win 4&3

Match 3: Jason Dufner & Zach Johnson v. Francesco Molinari & Lee Westwood

An interesting pairing from Love - we all know who's coming in the final match, so announcing these boys to play third means there are some big names left out. That said, he's picked two great putters here (the U.S. team is full of them), in particular Johnson, who doesn't know how to miss from inside 6 feet. Dufner was the player to watch earlier in the season, but didn't catch fire in the summer. Don't be put off by those sleepy eyes though - he's up for this.

You know who does know how to miss from inside 6 feet? Lee Westwood. Also Francesco Molinari. These guys will be amazing from tee to green - Ollie Wilson just tweeted that he expects 18 greens in regulation - but they simply will not match the Americans' short games.

Verdict: Easy call for me here I'm afraid. You can't win matches without sinking putts.

U.S.A. to win 3&2

Match 4: Steve Stricker & Tiger Woods v. Ian Poulter & Justin Rose

Here we go. Once the Americans found a partner for Tiger, they have not let go of him. Stricker and Woods have a great record in team events, and I'd expect them to continue it at Medinah. Woods is playing great golf - he's faded a few times in final rounds, but you won't convince me that he's lost his nerve. Steve Stricker is Mr. September - these dates must suit him perfectly so. Tough to find a player who rolls the ball better than Stricker - this is just a great pairing.

Speaking of great pairings....anything with Ian Poulter always looks good. The man just lives for the Ryder Cup. Justin Rose has proven himself in the last two years - the uncertain youth is gone, and the polished professional is here. He did not enjoy missing out on the Celtic Manor win, and made sure he made the team early this time. Rose is another player who returned to form at East Lake - he's comfortable in America and he'll be comfortable with Poulter.

Verdict: This is a toughie. If Poulter gets into his Ryder Cup stride early he'll be difficult to stop. That said, I'm pretty confident Tiger's going to lead this American team this year, and that he and Stricker will start right here. Should be a cracking match.

U.S.A. to win 3&2

So that's it. America to be leading 2 1/2 to 1 1/2 after the first morning's play. In reality though, who knows? Check back in after the morning's play for a preview of the afternoon's fourballs.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Home Comforts

For the first time in nearly 60 years, Royal Portrush is playing host to the Irish Open. Given the success of Northern Irish golfers in the last few years, expectations have never been higher for local heroes to succeed, and with over 100,000 fans expect to turn out, the 2012 Irish Open will be one to remember.

The question is, can one of the local boys do the business?

Rory McIlroy is not playing well. After missing three cuts running, he had a chance to win the St. Jude Classic before hooking a 3-wood into the water on the 72nd hole. Despite his top-10 finish, he still didn’t look in control of his ball, and the fact that he managed to stay in contention is testament to his talent. It was fairly unsurprising, however, that his bad play was found out at the U.S. Open. The Olympic Club was not a venue where you could get away with bad golf – you could barely get away with good golf – and McIlroy crashed out on Friday afternoon.

Having taken a week off following the major he is now back home, not too far from where it all began for the World Number 2. The question is, is that a help?

There’s no doubt that he will receive tremendous support from the home crowd, but the fact remains that his game does not seem ideally suited to links golf. He has produced some moments of magic, particularly at St. Andrew’s, but for a man who grew up in Northern Ireland his links game is distinctly questionable. After a disappointing finish in last year’s Open Championship, he gave a somewhat childish interview in which he didn’t seem at all inclined to try to adapt his game to links golf, stating that it’s only one week of the year. Not the attitude you want from a man tipped to conquer the golfing world.

He has moved to the United States, and plays most of his golf there now, where the clear weather, mid-20s temperatures and cultivated courses suit his undoubtedly superb game. With plenty of rain forecast for the weekend at Portrush, we might well see another cold and uninspiring performance from McIlroy.

I can’t see him missing the cut again – I reckon sheer willpower to keep the fans happy will see him through to the weekend – but he just doesn’t seem to have the control over his long game that will be necessary to contend on this tough golf course.

Prediction: 30th-40th place

I get the feeling that Graeme McDowell is pretty excited. If you ever want a golfer who loves a pressure situation, is prepared to go toe-to-toe with anyone and believes he will win every time he goes out, look no further than the 2010 U.S. Open champion. I really didn’t see him going as close as he did at the U.S. Open, but once again he showed that he can find form when he needs to. With Furyk struggling on the final day I expect McDowell to close it out, but a couple of errors ended up costing him dear. He showed his scrapping qualities throughout, right up to a gutsy birdie on the 17th and a great iron shot on the last to give him a chance of the playoff.

Everyone wants to win their home event, but I don’t think anyone is as up for it as McDowell. He’s been a big supporter of trying to get tournaments back to Portrush, and he’ll want to show everyone that he rules the roost there. We know McDowell is a great iron player and pressure putter; add to that some local knowledge and a willingness to fight all the way to the line, and I think you might just have the 2012 Irish Open champion. Expectations and pressure can overwhelm some players – Graeme McDowell seldom gets more than whelmed. I’m ready to jump back on the G-Mac bandwagon – I think he goes very close this week.

Prediction: Champion

Padraig Harrington gets an awful lot of stick for constantly looking to make changes to his swing – “you’ve won three major championships,” they cry – “Why change anything?” The fact is that that’s just the kind of player he is. He’s a technically-minded man, and is always looking to improve how he hits the ball. Those majors are due in no small part to this attribute, and when he gets back in the winner’s enclosure, it might finally silence the nay-sayers.

Certainly, anyone who’s been watching him for the last 15 months or so must accept that he’s been close to playing very well, and in the last two months alone he looks to be hitting it brilliantly. Oddly enough, the problem holding him back from winning in the last few weeks seems to be his putting from 6-15 feet – usually his strength, his stroke just looks a little bit tentative at the moment. You can’t win if you’re not holing those putts, and the quality of his performances of late just shows how good his long game is. Harrington birdied 7 of 8 holes last Saturday – that is not a very Harringtonesque performance. Where is the grinder of Carnoustie?

I don’t believe you lose as good a putting stroke as that at his age, and I’m confident he’s going to start holing them again and start winning again.

With all the focus on the Northern boys this week, you can bet your life that Harrington would love to remind them who has three majors in the cupboard, not to mention an Irish Open title. However, having played 7 of the last 8 weeks, and with three in a row taking place in California, Connecticut, and Ireland, you’d have to worry that fatigue might be beginning to set in. He’ll get a rousing reception from the crowd, and I hope he can ride that to success, but I can’t quite see him doing the business this week. Closing out a tournament isn’t easy when it’s been nearly 4 years since your last, and I think we might have to be patient and allow Harrington a few Sundays where he goes close before he brings home the bacon again. He’s still got plenty of wins left in the tank and, in my opinion, one more major.

I think tiredness might be an issue this week, but I’ve no doubt that his good form will carry him through to a strong performance once again.

Prediction: 15th - 25th place

Graeme McDowell recently reminded the world that “it’s been nearly ten months since a Northern Irishman won a major championship”. No one doubted McIlroy’s or McDowell’s rise to the top, but there were plenty of joyfully surprised fans who watched Darren Clarke lift the Claret Jug last July. Back in the day, I was convinced that Clarke would taste major success (and fairly sure that Harrington wouldn’t) but I have to admit that I had given up hope by the time the Open rolled around again last year. In absolutely foul conditions, Darren Clarke delivered, quite simply, the finest exhibition of links golf that I have ever seen. He schooled the field in how to play the course and the weather, and put the gloss on his career that it richly deserved.

Since then, Clarke’s form has been pretty poor. He spoke of struggling to set new goals for himself – given his age and achievements he seemed to be lacking the hunger necessary to contend. He’ll be as proud as anyone that the Irish Open has returned to Northern Ireland, however, and you can be sure that he’ll do his utmost to lift his game. Form isn’t his only worry – he’s been struggling with a groin problem which caused him to miss the U.S. Open two weeks ago. The word is that he’s recovering well from it, but you never know exactly how fit you are until you’re tested in tournament conditions.

I can’t see any way that Clarke will be a force in this championship, but I hope that he can find some form, and make the cut, if only to give his many fans a couple more days to watch him play.

Prediction: Missed Cut

But for a 77 on Saturday, Paul McGinley could well have been in the final shake up for the BMW Championship last week in Germany. As it was, a closing 66 left him one shot out of the playoff. He has to be disappointed with the 3rd round performance, but a third top-7 finish in four weeks is proof that McGinley is rediscovering the type of form that saw him lift the Ryder Cup three times with Europe. Without a tournament win since 2005, McGinley’s career has been steadily waning since that last Ryder Cup appearance at the K Club in 2006. Tipped by many to lead Europe in Gleneagles in 2014, the Dubliner seems to want to show the world that he’s not quite ready for the desk job yet. Always a tidy player, he’ll be looking forward to taking on what he describes as one of his favourite courses in the world and improving on his 5th place finish in Baltray in 2004.

I don’t think McGinley has what it takes to win the event, but as a man in form, he’s another prospect for the fans to get behind.

Prediction: 30th - 40th place

Supporting Cast

There are several other Irish hopefuls playing, from the bigger names of Damien McGrane and the in-form Peter Lawrie all the way to Alan Dunbar, the 23-year old Amateur who captured the British Amateur with a courageous final hole victory last week. Lawrie is the most obvious to give it a real crack, but on a links course, you never know which Irishman might just find a purple patch.


Outside of the Irish, here are just a few names to watch. Although Simon Dyson won his Irish Open title in Killarney, he has shown that he enjoys his links, and I would expect Dyson to put up a strong defence of his crown.

Paul Lawrie is playing his way on to his second Ryder Cup team, and if you don’t back a Carnoustie champion on a tough links course, who do you back?

Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano still looks wobbly over his shorter putts, but the Spaniard has thrown in a couple of good finishes with some missed cuts. I’d expect him to be in the mix this week.

Francesco Molinari already has a win this year, and will be keen to show his game is ready for the Open Championship. As solid a ball-striker as you can get on the European Tour, look for the Italian to be in the top 10 on Sunday.

Ross Fisher is playing well again. His 2010 win in Killarney shouldn't be given too much weight as it was on a parkland course, but when he's in form, he's a very dangerous player.
Finally, Chris Wood had his chances last week, but he can temper the disappointment with a return to links. With top-5 finishes in the 2008 and 2009 Opens, and a strong showing at Baltray 3 years ago, the tall Englishman has displayed his aptitude for links golf. Back in form this season, he should contend once again.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Open Season

The U.S. Open always promises a feast for the spectators. Never easy for the competitors, we can expect long, tough courses with penal rough and slick greens. The Olympic Club in San Francisco is the venue chosen for this edition, when the USGA will want revenge for Rory McIlroy’s deconstruction of Congressional last year. Lee Janzen won the U.S. Open in 1998 on level par here, and I’d imagine a similar score will be enough to triumph on Sunday. Who has the game to take the title this year?

Big Guns
The last month has seen a dramatic fall for Rory McIlroy. From the man who seems to churn out top-10s to beat the band, his last few tournaments have been a stark contrast. I’m sticking to my opinion that he’s not a good putter, but he has always contended and sometimes won by virtue of his incredibly consistent long game. Watching him at Sawgrass and Wentworth, however, it was remarkable to see simply how many bad shots he hit. He’s always had hook issues, and they seem to be returning to the driver right now. He had a decent finish last week at the St. Jude, but he still wasn’t playing well. That he could still be in contention down the last when hitting it so badly is a testament to his talent, but the fact that he hit such an awful drive on the 72nd is worrying. The mental scar that causes is not what you want before heading to defend a major championship. McIlroy doesn’t have a dependable putting stroke that can get him out of trouble consistently, and on these small U.S. Open greens I expect to see him struggle to make the cut once again.

The fact that we remain unconvinced about Tiger Woods despite two wins in his last five starts speaks volumes for the man. True, during the weeks where he didn’t win he played some of the worst golf I’ve ever seen him play. After giving a masterclass in shot-making at Bay Hill, he played horrible shots at Augusta and Sawgrass, before heading to Memorial and reminding everyone that he’s still Tiger Woods. The 5-shot win at Arnie’s tournament was impressive, but it was the guts he showed down the stretch to win Jack’s that are all the more ominous for his fellow players. If there was any doubt that he could still close out a win under pressure, it’s gone now.
The question is whether he can put four solid rounds together on an extremely difficult course. He did it at Memorial, but the Olympic Club should be a tougher test again. Tiger’s got the driver working well at the moment, while it’s the putting that’s still causing a few problems. Four years ago, if he needed to make a putt, whether it was 3 feet, 10 feet, or 20 feet, you could put the house on it. He made a good few at Memorial, and his chip on the 16th at Memorial shows the killer instinct and the magic are still there, but he’s got to pull it out on the biggest stage if he’s to satisfy his detractors.

I’m confident Lee Westwood will do well this week. He’s in good form, coming off a win in the Nordea Masters, and he just hits the ball too well not to enjoy a long, tough course like this. I’m equally confident that he won’t win. You can reel off his top-5s in majors as much as you like – for me, they’re just must evidence of his inability to pull it off. Like McIlroy, he doesn’t have a putting stroke he can depend on when the going gets tough. Time and again, he misses putts inside 10 feet on the back nine, and you just won’t win majors that way. I see him having another “good” tournament, but faltering on Sunday again and finishing about 6th.

Luke Donald is the best player on the world at the moment, but he will not be accepted by many until he fills the obvious gap on his golfing resumé. His major record isn’t particularly good, but it must be remembered that he experienced something of a golfing rebirth two years ago. I mentioned Westwood’s and McIlroy’s lack of a putting stroke that they can rely on down the stretch. Luke Donald knows that he’s going to make everything within 10 feet on the back nine of a big tournament. He hits it straight, and on a course featuring closely-mown run off areas around 7 of the greens, his deft short game skills will be invaluable. People will argue that he doesn’t have the length to attack a course like the Olympic Club, but when you strike your long irons as purely as he does, you’re not going to be too far off.

A word for last week’s champion? When Dustin Johnson plays well, it’s tough to find a better player to watch. He’s already delivered plenty of excitement in major championships, not always in ways he’d care to remember, and he looks like a good fit to have another go this week. Some players struggle the week after they win, but I can’t see DJ going cold – he’s as fit as they come on Tour, and he’ll be anxious to make up for lost time with another triumph. The Olympic Club might not be the perfect fit, but his length will allow him to hit shorter irons than most into the small greens, which is a huge advantage to begin with.

Weekend Tips?

How can you talk about a U.S. Open without looking at Phil Mickelson? With five 2nd place finishes, no win would be sweeter. He’s been quiet since the Masters, but you’ve got to expect him to turn it on this week, particularly when playing with Tiger in the first two rounds, as well as Bubba Watson. Phil’s got a history of letting U.S. Opens escape him at the last moment, but like Westwood, you can be sure he’ll be there or thereabouts.

Matt Kuchar is playing some really good golf at the moment, and his win at the Players came as a big relief to a man who’s had trouble crossing the finish line. He’s got a great all-round game, and he’ll have fond memories of Olympic, where he finished top amateur in 1998.

Jason Dufner is having one of those seasons. I love watching him play; no other player has that placid look as they go around shooting the lights out. He’s got as smooth a swing as you could want, and if the putter behaves this week, he’ll be in contention.

Jim Furyk is a grinder. He won a U.S. Open 9 years ago, and is having a very solid season in 2012. Expect him to be close.

On the European side of things, keep an eye on Sergio Garcia and Peter Hanson. I just don’t know what to make of Sergio’s mental attitude, but the fact remains that he’s in the top 5 ball-strikers in the world. If he sinks any putts this week, he’s going to be really close. Hanson, meanwhile, is just the sort of solid, dependable Swede that will suit a U.S. Open down to the ground. His last-group pairing on Sunday at Augusta will have taught him a few lessons, and he’ll be eager to have another crack at a big one.

Justin Rose is another European who’s been playing great golf this year; like Sergio, if he can just make a few putts when it matters he should feature.

Who to avoid?
Bubba hasn’t been out much since the Masters, and I don’t think he’s in the right place to do back-to-back. He’s already said he’s not happy with the course, and I’d expect to see a blowout from him in at least one round. I’ve already said I think McIlroy might miss the cut, and I think Bubba could be joining him.

Steve Stricker is a real U.S. Open player, but he’s been pretty quiet for a while now, and I don’t see him turning it on this week.

Graeme McDowell and Martin Kaymer are two players who I think are very close to being back to their best, but if you’re not firing on all cylinders, the Olympic Club is not the place to find your game. Both will be back later in the year, but I don’t think they’ll feature this week.

But in reality, who knows? Just sit back and enjoy.

Friday, September 30, 2011

To Pick Or Not To Pick?

Although never viewed with the same awe as the Ryder Cup, for those who play the President's Cup it is a highlight of the year. It allows international players the chance to experience something of that team golf feel that the Ryder Cup split denies them. One of the great shames in golf is that legends such as Gary Player, Peter Thomson, Bobby Locke, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh never played a Ryder Cup, and for the new generation - Jason Day, Adam Scott, Charl Schwartzel - the same applies. Two greats will face off as captains this year, with Fred Couples and Greg Norman taking the reigns.

The big story of the match so far is Fred Couples' selection of Tiger Woods as one of his two wildcards picks, which he both decided and announced publicly several weeks in advance of the due date. Both the pick and its manner drew much criticism, not only from the media, but also from Couples' own team, with senior man Phil Mickelson protesting on behalf of 2011 U.S. PGA winner Keegan Bradley, who can count himself unlucky to miss out on a seat on the plane to Australia.
Bill Haas took Couples' second pick, and after a playoff FedEx win which involved two incredible par saves before taking it at the 3rd hole, it's tough to say he doesn't deserve it.

What about Tiger? Can Couples justify picking a man in such poor form, who hasn't been playing much golf? The arguments against are obvious. Since that famous car crash in 2009, shortly after the last edition of the President's Cup, he has shown little form at all, his best finishes coming through a couple of hard-fought major top-10s. Respect amongst his peers is not what it was, and he has certainly lost the aura that he had when winning 14 majors. As players like Day, Schwartzel and Graeme McDowell have shown, youngsters today are no longer afraid to take him on down the stretch.

So why do Fred Couples and I think he should be on the team?

He is the greatest player of the generation, and arguably the greatest player of all time. No one has exerted the dominance over quality opposition in the same way as Woods. While that dominance may be at an end, he showed flashes of brilliance over the last year that tells us that he is not yet done. Matchplay is the perfect format for Tiger at the moment - he can afford a couple of errors as long as he can come back strongly, and no one has a mental approach like him.
He took the maximum 5/5 points from his last President's Cup appearance, when he played the four team games with Steve Stricker, and there is no doubt that the U.S. have finally found the perfect partner. Corey Pavin kept the partnership together at Celtic Manor last year, and was rewarded with Tiger returning 3 points from 4.
That Ryder Cup appearance came after the revelations, after his slump in form, after that disastrous performance at Firestone; the lowest point of his playing career. In the team scenario, he was able to pull himself together and build a telling partnership with Stricker, before taking out Miguel Angel Jimenez in the singles. Couples is banking on a similar performance in Melbourne - it is a strange reversal of the days where those said that Tiger couldn't play good team golf, that singles was where he belonged - a good dose of team golf might be just what he needs.

We all know that Tiger is not what he once was. We all know that an era is over. We disagree on his future - I remain convinced that he has another green jacket with his name on it, and maybe some of the other top prizes as well. The imminent drop out of the top-50 in the world should not be seen as too diabolical an omen - he will be back. To what degree, not even he knows. But he will be back, and this vote of confidence from Fred Couples might be just the fillip to get him going again.

One more reason to pick him? Who can wait now for the President's Cup?