HAVEN, WISCONSIN | The Ryder Cup matches at Whistling Straits are still a year away – technically 51 weeks and counting down – which was reason enough Tuesday for captains Steve Stricker and Pádraig Harrington to sit with the little gold cup between them in a stylish rock-walled barn just a few hundred yards from Lake Michigan.
The Ryder Cup ultimately comes down to 28 matches played over three days but like nothing else in golf, it percolates for two years.
That in itself is a tribute to what the Ryder Cup now means on this side of the Atlantic, the underlying angst and anticipation among the American side having finally risen near the perpetual fever that runs through the European side. With just three wins in the last 10 Ryder Cups played, the U.S. team still seems to be swimming upstream five years after the semi-transformational task force that was born following the ugly loss at Gleneagles.
At this point, midway between the Europeans’ emphatic victory at Le Golf National in Paris and whatever will happen at Whistling Straits, it’s a bit like waiting for a new house to be built with just the footings in place.
“I’ve done a lot of little things like help design the bags, look at clothes, I’ve been to Whistling Straits a couple of times,” said Stricker, who lives just more than 100 miles west of where he will captain the American team.
The most fun part, Stricker said, is “the constant thinking about it.”
Harrington said the same thing. He and Stricker are strikingly different people and players – Harrington is an incessant tinkerer capable of turning the answer to a simple question into a soliloquy while Stricker’s more stoic, methodical nature fits the classic Midwestern mold – but they are bound by the honor of captaining Ryder Cup squads.
“I kind of have the feeling we’re going to turn the corner soon,” Harrington said.
When the European points list was flashed on big screens flanking him, Harrington shook his head. The points process began just two weeks ago so it feels like the first pitch in a baseball game. Harrington said he keeps telling himself not to look at the list in these early days – Victor Perez, the surprise winner of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at St. Andrews last week, is second behind Danny Willett.
“Yes, I looked at it and I said I wouldn’t,” Harrington confessed.
With Whistling Straits just outside beneath a low gray sky, the captains talked about what they have learned in their time as players and vice captains in previous Ryder Cups. Harrington played on six European teams and has been a vice captain three times. Stricker played on three teams and assisted on three more.
Asked why he opted for one fewer captain’s pick than Stricker, Harrington said it’s important for players to feel like they qualified rather than had to rely on a captain’s pick.
Now it’s their turn to mold their teams. The Americans will have eight automatic qualifiers, the Europeans nine, giving both captains the ability to massage their 12-man rosters to their liking.
Asked why he opted for one fewer captain’s pick than Stricker, Harrington said it’s important for players to feel like they qualified rather than had to rely on a captain’s pick. There’s an extra stress, he said, to being picked for the team and if he can eliminate that for one of his players, that’s one less thing to worry about.
As players, both Stricker and Harrington said they were able to be insular even within the team structure. Players think first about themselves and their games, accommodating teammates in four-ball and foursomes play.
They’re largely separated from what the captain and his assistants do. It’s different now that they’re in charge.
“It’s an interesting job, a fun job,” Stricker said.
Harrington remembers playing for captain Bernhard Langer in 2004 at Oakland Hills. In the team room after the first day, Harrington remembers Langer’s first words being, “We will have no one lay up in the hazard on No. 5 tomorrow.”
It was Harrington who had done that. Langer, he said, would stand on tees and tell players what club to hit. Other past European captains, such as Sam Torrance and Ian Woosnam, did not micromanage. Harrington, like Stricker, intends to take the best from previous captains and eliminate what he didn’t like.
“I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Harrington said.
The Europeans will always have Paris and the memories of what Tommy Fleetwood and Francesco Molinari did on a golf course that swallowed the Americans’ aggressive tendencies.
Next September at Whistling Straits, the pressure will be on Stricker’s American team to win back the cup. He is the right man for the moment, a native son of Wisconsin whose strength of character will underpin the U.S. team.
Standing near the 10th tee Tuesday morning, the warm air damp with approaching rain, Stricker and Harrington posed for the obligatory photos, holding the Ryder Cup together.
It was quiet enough they could almost hear the clock ticking toward next September.
U.S. captain Steve Stricker and European captain Pádraig Harrington pose with the Ryder Cup during a press conference Tuesday. Photo: Andrew Redington, Getty Images
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