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Rory McIlroy will be Europe’s big Ryder Cup star – and their big headache – against USA at Gleneagles

dust-up is unlike any other golf event and, indeed, unlike any other sporting encounter. Just ask the likes of Hal Sutton, Curtis Strange, Tom Lehman and, most recently, Davis Love about the propensity for a supposedly outrageous strength to turn into a defining weakness.

Quite enough has been said about Woods, kryptonite, Ryder Cup and unstoppable momentum to acknowledge the bizarre perils of having the indisputable No 1 on side. That is why McGinley is as yet undecided on McIlroy. “He’s obviously going to have a big role at Gleneagles, but I haven’t yet crystallised exactly what that role will be,” McGinley said. “My communication with Rory will determine that. I want his feedback first.”

But he already knows what McIlroy will say. Dare he hide him to protect his team? One captain’s quandary is another’s opportunity and Paul Azinger, the one United States captain to have cracked the code this century, believes Tom Watson has little option but to go hunting McIlroy as he seeks to gain the early impetus which is so vital for any away team.

Azinger speaks of “breaking” McIlroy and has urged Watson to go “all William Wallace on his ass”. If that smacks of desperation then so it should. As should the PGA of America, the US organisers, labelling Watson’s men “Redeem Team”. No expectation, then.

It is difficult to see how else they can win for the first time on foreign soil in 21 years, particularly as that Perthshire soil will plainly favour the home side. Tight fairways, penal rough, slow greens and plenty of run-off areas will not exactly play into the hands of the Americans and neither will the Scottish support, which is sure to be as respectful as it is noisy.

All this considered, it is little surprise that Watson has gone to Azinger – the man who plotted Sir Nick Faldo’s downfall in 2008 – for advice. Watson, at 65 the oldest ever Ryder Cup captain, is not accustomed to playing the outsider. Never mind his own status as a legend of the game – having won eight majors, which included five Opens – when he last captained America they were favourites, despite the opposition boasting the likes of Severiano Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Faldo, José María Olazábal and Ian Woosnam. That was when the US won at the Belfry in 1993.

More than two decades on and the Stars and Stripes have been raised only twice since Watson stood proudly in the Midlands, hand on chest. It has been an extraordinary run of dominance by Europe and Watson will need more than the respect his greatness demands to rally his team to a famous win.

Watson needs a gameplan and, as well as all that McIlroy mayhem, Azinger has apparently persuaded Watson to employ his pod system, in which the players are split into “gangs of four”. Azinger is a smart man and is astute in declaring that sending the men out as rabid underdogs in small packs to hunt down the game’s pedigree performer is as good a gameplan as any.

Except McGinley does not have to enter this game of bluff or double-bluff. The truth is he has so many experienced Ryder Cup winners on his team that he can avoid putting all his eggs in the McIlroy basket. In Ian Poulter, Sergio García and Lee Westwood he has a trio who have 13 winning appearances between them, which is more than twice as many as on the entire US team. Graeme McDowell, Martin Kaymer and McIlroy are other multiple winners, while Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson and Thomas Bjorn have also tasted victory.

Meanwhile, this US team have 25 defeats between them, which is three times the number of Europe. Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk have played 17 and won four. They are experienced but as Azinger says “they are experienced in losing” and this applies to Zach Johnson, Bubba Watson and Matt Kuchar – all on multiple losing teams. The impetus must come from the new generation.

The problem for Watson is that his three rookies – Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed and Jimmy Walker – are all out of form and, unlike misfiring veterans such as Poulter and Westwood, debutants find it almost impossible to turn around their games in golf’s most intense arenas. And because of his wildcard selections of Webb Simpson and Hunter Mahan, the two hottest Americans – Billy Horschel and Chris Kirk, who were first and second in the FedEx Cup play-offs – will be on their couches.

Rickie Fowler and Keegan Bradley provide some hope, regardless of the latter also not being in the best shape. The duo have proved in their single appearances that they have what it takes to be renowned Ryder Cup campaigners. Fowler was only 21 in 2010 at Celtic Manor when winning the last three holes to claw a half against Edoardo Molinari while two years ago in Medinah, Bradley finally breathed team life into Mickelson, with whom he played three and won three.

That partnership will be resumed and Fowler could well link up with Furyk, while Simpson and Watson won their two games in Chicago 5 & 4. Watson will obviously find optimism from Medinah’s opening two days, as he inevitably will from the rather incredible stat of Europe having only won two sessions from the last 11.

Yet, without performing anywhere near their best, the “Ole, Ole, Ole” brigade have mustered the will and the way to march through in the last two Ryder Cups – both decided by a mere point – and, as far as the laws of averages go, they are just as likely to play well and ease clear as America are to receive the breaks.

Mother McNature could also hinder Watson, although the forecast is not for the wet weather which Bubba, for one, would detest. However, that could mean morning fog which would play havoc with the schedule.

Who knows what will happen on that front, but in terms of the golf a prediction of a two-point European success seems appropriate. And Watson’s Bravehearts can search for McIlroy until they are blue in the face.


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