Ryder Cup 2018: Advantage America as Tiger Woods gets inside Rory McIlroy’s head

The last thing Team Europe needed was a diminished-looking Rory McIlroy trailing in Tiger's wake in Atlanta ..

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It is a tried and tested formula for European Ryder Cup team members. Wallets stay at home and egos are left at the gate as the best players on the continent suspend individual ambition and unite behind a singular cause.

To that checklist, 2018 captain Thomas Bjorn will be asking an additional favour, from Rory McIlroy: please dispatch bad memories of a distinctly uncomfortable final day at the Tour Championship on Sunday to the bottom of the River Seine before he sets foot in the team room.

If ever a European skipper needed a clean slate at the start of a Ryder Cup week it is Bjorn at Le Golf National ahead of the 42nd edition of the biennial matches with the United States.

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The sight of Tiger Woods running away with things at East Lake as his main, European, rival faded dramatically from view rather than chased him down will have made for sobering viewing in Bjorn’s hotel room near the Palace of Versailles on Sunday night.

It was as if the mere presence of the fit-again, firing-again 14-time major champion was enough to run up the white flag as last-round playing partner McIlroy rapidly lost pace with the front-running Tiger.

The sound of McIlroy, who started the day three shots back on Woods but was eight shots adrift by the 16th hole, resorting to expletives as he missed yet another fairway off the tee does not bode at all well for Team Europe as it prepares its bid to regain the trophy it lost to the Americans two years ago at Hazeltine for the first time since 2008.

That Justin Rose hung in with a birdie at the last to scoop the $10 million bonus pot as FedEx Cup champion with a tie for fourth after a three-over final round will have brought some much-needed cheer. However, from a performance point of view, nothing surpassed Tiger’s achievement.

The Americans were already looking strong. Having Woods, one of captain Jim Furyk’s four wild cards, back to his imperious best in his comeback season from serious back problems as he claimed a first tournament victory in five seasons for PGA Tour win number 80 looks like the sort of psychological turbo boost that could power the team flight across the Atlantic.

The second coming is complete and the roars of USA! USA! USA! that followed Tiger up the 18th fairway in Atlanta made Europeans everywhere offer silent thanks to higher beings that the Yanks won’t be at home this week.

For sure it has made Bjorn’s task harder this week ahead of Friday morning’s opening fourballs. However, history is on Europe’s side on home soil since the side was extended from a Great Britain and Ireland team to players from the entire continent in 1979.

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Since that moment the Americans have only won twice away from home and the most recent of those was a 15-13 victory at The Belfry in 1993.
What is more, playing this year’s event at Le Golf National, home of the European Tour’s annual Open de France means Bjorn has a group of players reasonably familiar with the inland links 20 miles west of Paris and certainly more at home than their American rivals.

There was a time when even Team Europe would have struggled to contemplate a Ryder Cup in France, never mind the Americans, though none would have been quite so ignorant as Bubba Watson, whose visit to Paris in 2011 involved a sightseeing tour of the City of Lights which took in “a big tower” he managed to correctly remember as the Eiffel Tower and “an arch” which we must assume was the Arc de Triomphe.

Dear old Bubba has not been back since and only Justin Thomas of Furyk’s team made the trip over for the 2018 Open de France, finishing tied for eighth alongside European captain’s pick Sergio Garcia in week when automatic qualifier Alexander Noren took first prize at seven under par.
But enough of the Americans, we’ll come to them another time.

For all the scars of Sunday night in Atlanta, this is a European home game and Bjorn’s team have every right to feel all advantages this week, their foes much more likely to be disdvantaged on their travels, no matter their collective strength on paper.

Sweden’s Noren is one of five debutants on the team, one fewer than the half dozen Darren Clarke took with him to Minnesota in 2016, and none of whom looks out of place in Bjorn’s set-up. Tommy Fleetwood, Jon Rahm, Tyrrell Hatton and Thorbjorn Olesen are rookies in name only, and though there are no major victories between them, all have proven themselves in the white heat of elite competition over the past two seasons.
As always, the jury will remain out on the captain’s picks on either side.

For America, Woods’s success is tempered by the backward step Bryson DeChambeau took on Sunday while Phil Mickelson looked all at sea as he failed to break par in each of his four rounds, finishing 30th and last. As for Europe, Paul Casey finished a creditable 11th at the Tour Championship but Ian Poulter and Henrik Stenson failed to make the fourth and final play-off while the most controversial of Bjorn’s picks, Sergio Garcia, will take heart with a closing 65 on the European Tour at the Portugal Masters.

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In Rose, the $10m dollar man, and Open champion Francesco Molinari they have senior figures with Ryder Cup success in the memory banks, as does McIlroy, a star at Celtic Manor and Medinah in 2010 and 2012.

Two years ago, it was McIlroy who bounced up the hill to the 18th at East Lake and won a play-off with Kevin Chappell to scoop not just first place but the $10m jackpot as well, seemingly the perfect send-off for him and Europe en route to Hazeltine.

It didn’t end that day of course, Team USA winning 17-11 and McIlroy, despite forging a great partnership with rookie Thomas Pieters, went down slugging in an epic duel with Patrick Reed in Sunday singles.

Maybe Sunday’s no-show in Atlanta and being tamed by Tiger could be just the jolt McIlroy needs heading to Paris. Captain Bjorn will certainly be hoping so for a diminished, cowed talisman was not in the European script.

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