European top guns will look to lead the onslaught

Europe's Graeme McDowell looks over a shot during a practice round
Europe's Graeme McDowell looks over a shot during a practice round
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Having four of the world’s top five did not do America any good in the Ryder Cup two years ago.

Starting today, it is Europe’s turn to try to show it can make a difference.

At Celtic Manor, 14-major Tiger Woods, four-major Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker and ex-US Open champion Jim Furyk – fresh from winning £7m for one week’s work – could not stop Colin Montgomerie’s men winning back the cherished gold trophy.

In Chicago for the next three days Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Justin Rose – only two majors between them, both to the phenomenal 23-year-old Northern Irishman – have the chance to write another chapter in an amazing success story.

Europe, now under Jose Maria Olazabal’s captaincy and with the late and great Seve Ballesteros their inspiration, have won four of the last five and six of the last eight matches.

And the main reason why? As Paul Azinger, America’s successful 2008 captain, said: “We want to win – it’s on our mind and it’s in our head – but for Europeans the Ryder Cup is in their heart and in their blood. It’s their passion.”

Azinger did a wonderful job in negating that in Louisville, but with opposite number Nick Faldo’s leadership constantly questioned the fact remained that the latter’s biggest stars – Padraig Harrington, winner of the previous two majors, Westwood and Sergio Garcia – combined for a paltry two points all week.

McIlroy is the undisputed world No 1 now and will be expected to contribute far more than two points himself, almost certainly in partnership again with 2010 match-winner Graeme McDowell on the opening two days.

The Americans will be hoping to strike early blows against McIlroy, knowing that in the overall context it would carry far more significance than beating anyone else – just as has been the case with Woods over the years.

“I don’t think I have a bullseye on my back,” McIlroy insisted, downplaying his role.

“I think it’s a huge compliment that people are saying they want to beat me and whatever. Whoever wants to take me on, they can take me on.”

He avoided Woods throughout his debut in Wales, but with the world No 2 – still with much to prove in the match after being on just one winning side in six appearances – having outscored McIlroy on seven of the nine times they have gone head-to-head in strokeplay tournaments he could well be the American most wanting to take him on.

All 24 players this time, however, are ranked in the game’s top 35, an unprecedented situation for the contest and one which should guarantee low scoring on a course specifically set up for it.

Donald and Westwood, after all, began practice on Tuesday with a better-ball 59.

This is also, though, where Woods has made two visits for major championships and won both times.

He won a battle with 19-year-old Garcia in 1999 – the week is best remembered for the Spaniard’s brilliant, but risky eyes-shut shot from the base of a tree on the 16th – and then went head-to-head with Donald in the final round of the 2006 US PGA and won the event by five. But the Ryder Cup is different to any other golf tournament. Way different.

Donald, hoping for at least a modicum of support this week as someone who has lived in Chicago for 15 years, remembers the start of his first game in Detroit in 2004 and said: “I had a hard time putting the tee in the ground because my knees went wobbly.”

Olazabal recalls “shaking like a leaf” just before beginning a partnership with Ballesteros that brought 11 wins, two halves and only two defeats – the greatest record any pair have amassed.

Ballesteros told him then “you play your game and I’ll take care of the rest” and before his death in May last year following a long battle with brain cancer he gave his compatriot words of advice about the captaincy.

The time has arrived to put everything into action – and then cross his fingers.

Westwood commented: “People ask me if captains matter at the Ryder Cup and I always say a captain cannot get it right, but they can get it wrong.”

He felt he was a victim of that himself four years ago, Faldo telling him he was being benched from the next session just as he was equalling Arnold Palmer’s record of 12 successive unbeaten games.

American captain Davis Love believes – probably hopes – the match will be decided by putting.

His side might have the edge there on paper and, with home advantage as well, it will take a mighty effort for Europe to win for only the fourth time on American soil.

“You’re going down,” somebody from the audience was heard to shout when Olazabal was introduced by Justin Timberlake at the gala dinner.

The fans have the power to be an extra man for the Americans, but even though he is no longer here, the memory of Ballesteros can inject extra energy and emotion into Europe’s bid for yet more glory.

Olazabal yesterday mixed things up for Europe’s final nine-hole practice session.

McIlroy was no longer with regular partner McDowell, but with Rose, Garcia and Martin Kaymer instead.

McDowell went out with Ian Poulter, Donald and Francesco Molinari, while the first group was Westwood, Paul Lawrie, Peter Hanson and Belgian newcomer Nicolas Colsaerts.

Europe’s players continued their efforts to garner some support from the home fans, wearing caps from some of Chicago’s sports teams which they signed and gave away to fans.

Lawrie went so far as to bring one fan from the crowd on the par-three 17th to hit some putts on the green.