Who’d be a Ryder Cup captain? You spend 20 months meticulously planning for five sessions of match play and when it all goes pear-shaped on the first morning, you have to start all over again.
That’s what happened to European skipper Darren Clarke two years ago at Hazeltine. He had pored over the data and dissected his players’ games in the hope of finding the ideal pairings to stick it to the Americans in their own backyard.
What could possibly go wrong? Well, everything did for Clarke. His solid-gold opening foursomes pairing of Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson were beaten 3&2 by “Captain America” Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth in the alternate-shot format and it went downhill from there. By the end of that first morning in 2016 Europe had suffered a 4-0 American whitewash. So much for research.
Europe’s Thomas Bjorn has gambled a little in giving four of his rookies game time in the early fourballs.
Not many observers may have seen Rose/Rahm v Koepka/Finau, McIlroy/Olesen v Johnson/Fowler, Casey/Hatton v Thomas/Spieth & Molinari/Fleetwood v Woods/Reed coming. But it’s done now – so deal with it.
It just highlights the capricious nature of Ryder Cups. At least by being back in Europe this year, the schedule returns to fourballs in the first session, the better ball format putting the ball of both players in a pairing in play and therefore less of a conundrum to put together pairings.
That is not to say Bjorn and counter-part Jim Furyk just plucked four names out of a hat, five minutes before unveiling them during Thursday’s opening ceremony at Le Golf National.
By finding the right balance to get off to the perfect start on Friday morning, they can not only get players comfortable with their partners in a competitive setting ahead of the trickier foursomes but also blood rookies in a slightly less pressurised format. Get it right and get off to a flyer and you vitally set the tone for the rest of the contest.
“I wouldn’t say that anybody could be with anybody,” Furyk said on Wednesday of his selection process. “It’s not that… maybe these two don’t get along. It could be personalities.
“Rarely do you see two really fiery guys paired together or two real complacent guys paired together. Bernhard Langer and Bernhard Langer, one of my favourite guys, but you might not pair him together with himself because they are just even keel. You pair him with a guy that’s feisty, a Seve, and you kind of get the ham-and-egg effect of things.”
And it’s not just the specific pairings a captain puts together but the overall balance of each session’s four duos so they can give themselves the strength in depth to put the team in the best position to win each session.
Bjorn arrived in Paris saying he was already quite fixed on his pairings for the opening session but, perhaps with his good friend Clarke’s experience in mind, he was also expecting events to take over during the week-long preparations in Paris.
“In any Ryder Cup, things come out of the blue and things develop during the week,” the Dane said. “You get yourself there 80, 85 per cent, and then during the week there’s certain things that can change, but I’m pretty set in my mind where I want to go with this from the beginning, and obviously over the two days with pairings, things can change a lot, but I’m pretty set in my mind.”
If things can change a lot in the course of a week, then think about what can happen between Ryder Cups.
Furyk on Wednesday nipped speculation in the bud that was about to reunite Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods as a partnership in Paris, 14 years after the pair flopped for predecessor Hal Sutton at Oakland Hills.
Woods and Mickelson may have been box office but they weren’t compatible and far from friendly. They lost their morning fourball and afternoon foursomes in Detroit and the pairing was mothballed.
“You know, I won’t ever say it wouldn’t happen, but it’s probably not too likely,” Furyk said of a possible reunion for the now much firmer pals.
In the European team room, McIlroy, for one, needs a new partner for his fifth appearance after Pieters failed to get a captain’s pick to build on his dream, four points from a possible five debut at Hazeltine.
The four-time major winner practised with Jon Rahm on Tuesday and Wednesday to fuel speculation an Irish-Spanish pairing was in the works putting together players ranked six and eighth in the world respectively.
That both are also fiery characters would go against the widely-held feeling articulated by Furyk that such a combination doesn’t work although Bjorn may well like the idea of sending out two big-hitters who have practised together regularly on tour in search of early birdies.
Then again, on a tight course in which European rookie Alex Noren won the French Open in July at just seven under par when the rough was not as penal as it is now, Le Golf National will not provide the birdie-fest that Hazeltine delivered in 2016.
As we have seen over the years at Ryder Cup, these things can sometimes get overthought. Sometimes all it takes is a gut feeling that statistics can never provide.