Tour Confidential: Ryder Cup heroes, ignitors, irritators — and Brooks and Zinger

Ian Poulter and Sergio Garcia, after Europe's victory at the last Ryder Cup, in 2018.

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Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week, we discuss Ryder Cup storylines, the next heroes, ignitors and irritators, Brooks and Zinger, and more. 

1. After a one-year delay and three years since the last meeting, the 43rd Ryder Cup is officially, and finally, here, as the U.S. takes on Europe at Whistling Straits Friday to Sunday in Kohler, Wis. Europe has won seven of the past nine events, including the last one, a seven-point thumping in Paris. As usual, there are storylines aplenty, but what’s the one you can’t wait to see unfold this week?

ian poulter ryder cup
Team Europe’s greatest villain is back at the Ryder Cup … because of course he is
By: Michael Bamberger

Nick Piastowski, senior editor (@nickpia): The Ryder Cup-iness of the Ryder Cup. We’ll all, no doubt, be looking forward to Bryson unsheathing driver on 1, Brooks saying something spicy and Ian Poulter thumping his chest. But the fans, the chants, the ebbs and the flows are what make this event so meaningful — and we’ve had to wait a while for it, too. The fact that not many Euro supporters will make the trip is a bit of a downer. But, Wisconsin born and raised, I know how much this event means to golf in the state. It’ll be a fun one. 

James Colgan, assistant editor (@jamescolgan26): Given his match play record (0-5 across the Presidents and Ryder Cups) and headline magnetism (long-drive championships, anyone?), Bryson DeChambeau hasn’t quite given us reason for optimism. But that’s precisely why I’m excited to watch him. Bryson will face the music if he doesn’t answer the bell for the Americans, but no one stands more to gain from a brilliant week.

Josh Berhow, managing editor (@Josh_Berhow): I want to see if Jon Rahm, likely irked by not winning PGA Tour Player of the Year, takes out his fury on the U.S. side and has a big week. I’m super interested to see whom Bryson is paired with. I can’t wait to see how Brooks performs, especially since he was recently so outspoken about his views of the event (more on that below). I’m curious if the controversy that always swirls around the U.S. team will be a thorn in its side. There’s lots more, too. Can Westwood and Poulter still bring it? What kind of an assistant captain will Phil be? There are so many great stories to unpack. It’s gonna be a blast.

Josh Sens, senior writer (@joshsens): All good candidates above. Beyond those threads, it’s always interesting to watch how first-time Ryder Cuppers respond to the moment. The Europeans will be counting heavily on Shane Lowry and Viktor Hovland, both first-timers. As one of the straightest hitters in the game, Hovland stands to be a match-play pest, as he proved in the U.S. Amateur. And Lowry just somehow seems custom-built for an event like this. On the U.S. side, Scheffler has been so good on big stages. Will that same success carry over? And then there’s the captain’s picks element, and all the praise and second-guessing that invariably comes with it.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer: Which team will win.

2. Brooks Koepka spoke candidly about his indifference for Ryder Cups in a recent interview with Golf Digest, saying things like: “There are times where I’m like, I won my match. I did my job. What do you want from me? I know how to take responsibility for the shots I hit every week. Now, somebody else hit a bad shot and left me in a bad spot, and I know this hole is a loss.” And: “It’s different. It’s hectic. It’s a bit odd, if I’m honest. I don’t want to say it’s a bad week. We’re just so individualized, and everybody has their routine and a different way of doing things.” Former Ryder Cup captain and current NBC analyst Paul Azinger chimed in, saying, “I’m not sure he loves the Ryder Cup that much. If he doesn’t love it, he should relinquish his spot and get people there who do love it.” Do you have an issue with Koepka’s comments, and what’s your take on Azinger’s rebuttal?

brook koepka ryder cup
Paul Azinger rebukes Brooks Koepka for Ryder Cup comments: If you don’t want in, drop out
By: James Colgan

Piastowski: If Brooksie wins, if he plays like Major Brooks, he can say whatever he wants. If he wins his points, that’s all you can ask of a teammate. Not even everyone has to be Poulter. Energy can be drawn on success. However … he has all the potential to be a longtime alpha for that room. If the outspoken, four-time major champ says let’s kick butt today — but in words only Brooks could concoct — then I’d sure as hell would want to kick butt today. But if Brooksie treats this like a Tour stop in mid-July, and plays like it, Azinger is right. His record be damned, get someone in there who will be a stone-cold killer.    

Colgan: Fortunately, it’s not like the U.S. side enters the Ryder Cup with massive concerns about its ability to form a cohesive unit, or else those comments could’ve come across the wrong way. Wait a second …

Berhow: I don’t have a problem with Koepka’s comments, because we want our athletes to be honest and outspoken, but I’m also not Steve Stricker, who probably wasn’t thrilled to read it. As for Azinger, I get why he’s bothered by it, but I do think once the lights go on, Koepka will perform as best he can. (He’s 4-3-1 in it.) There’s pride on the line once golf balls go in the air.

Bamberger: I think Brooks spoke truthfully, and for himself. Azinger did the same. Brooks is playing. Azinger is offering commentary. The system at work.

Sens: Like Berhow, I appreciate Koepka’s honesty.  But I also understand why Azinger is irked by a guy who isn’t all-in on everything the Ryder Cup is about, because Azinger lives and breathes the stuff. I have no doubt that Koepka will play his heart out on his own ball. But is he the ideal guy to have as your partner or in the team room? Doesn’t sound like it. If he hadn’t auto-qualified, I wouldn’t pick him.

3. In an interview on SiriusXM PGA Tour Radio last week, European stalwart Ian Poulter was amused by one topic that often comes up during Ryder Cup week, which is how the Americans are usually the favorites but are often out-played. “On paper, on paper, on paper, the U.S. team should have delivered,” he said. “It’s for us to enjoy and for the American team to figure out, right?” How does Europe seemingly come together and play better during these weeks, and why has it been so hard for the U.S. to do the same?

Ian Poulter is a Ryder Cup legend, boasting a lifetime record of 14-6-2.
‘On paper, on paper, on paper’: Ian Poulter dishes on Euro Ryder Cup dominance
By: Dylan Dethier

Piastowski: Brooks would like this answer: The underdog, me-against-the-world, chip-on-your shoulder mentality can do miracles. If the U.S. just looked at the recent ledger in this event, they might get a little of that, too.     

Colgan: Nick, you’re spot on. It also helps that the Europeans putt the living daylights out of the ball. 

Berhow: Could you imagine a European Ryder Cupper ever saying what Brooks Koepka did about the Ryder Cup? Never. That’s the difference.

Bamberger: I do think the Europeans actually do come together because they seem to have the ability to park their egos at the jetway when leaving for the Ryder Cup and play for Continent. That’s harder for the American golfer to do, for whatever reason. But in the end, and we’ve seen many times, the Europeans just flat-out play the Americans, particularly with mid-length and short putting. Close matches always come down to that. That’s skill, stroke, confidence, nerves, sense-of-balance in your life, and a bunch of things you cannot measure.

Sens: All of those points above are on the mark. They bring a team spirit and an underdog attitude into the event, which often allows them to play looser. But I also think the “better on paper” theme is oversold by a golf press that gets easily intoxicated by world rankings and length of the tee, neither of which are the real difference-makers in this event. Look at the European players and their Ryder Cup records. Should they really be the big underdogs that Vegas has them as this week? I don’t think so.

4. Three years ago, it was Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood who stole the show, leading Europe to an easy win. Which player will be the most crucial to each team’s success this time around?

Jon Rahm
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By: Nick Piastowski

Piastowski: On the American side, I’m going with Patrick Cantlay. He gives off a match play-winning vibe to me. Go out, win 4 and 3, rinse and repeat. Patty Ice, for sure. For the Euros, let’s go with Viktor Hovland. Is he this event’s next big thing for the team across the pond? He has all the talent in the world to be. 

Colgan: For the Europeans, I think it has to be Jon Rahm. How does the best player in the world follow up a killer performance in ’18 as a Ryder Cup rookie? For the U.S., it’s the guy most likely to follow in Rahm’s footsteps: Collin Morikawa. He was gassed leading into the Tour Championship, but would seem to enter Whistling refreshed after a few weeks off.

Berhow: Jordan Spieth is now a veteran, seasoned Ryder Cupper. He’s the heart and soul of that team and needs to play like it. I think he will. As for Europe, I’m expecting a big week from Jon Rahm. The big-time players have to show up.

Bamberger: That steal-the-show thing comes on Friday and Saturday, when you’re playing with another player. On Sunday, you’re grinding out a point. I’m guessing Sergio and Rahm will be put together, they’ll produce some magic in a Spanish tradition we all know well, and that could steal the show. You can have only one star act, so I’m going to leave it at that.

Sens: I’m thinking Shane Lowry for the Europeans. The guy just has the air of a Ryder Cup bulldog. Paired with Rory, I expect him to be especially dangerous. On the U.S. team, I look for Xander to eat this stuff up.

5. There will be nine first-time Ryder Cup players this week. The U.S. has six in Collin Morikawa, Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele, Harris English, Scottie Scheffler and Daniel Berger, while Europe has just half that many in Shane Lowry, Bernd Wiesberger and Viktor Hovland. Which one of these nine will be the most impactful?

Patrick Cantlay has earned a new nickname, new fans and a whole bunch of new money in recent weeks.
Patrick Cantlay explains why ‘unfiltered’ answers just got more interesting
By: Dylan Dethier

Piastowski: Whoops, I kind of answered this above. But I’ll toss in another: Shane Lowry. The 34-year-old is obviously a “rookie” in name alone. The Open Championship winner told his team three years ago he wanted to be at this event, and here he is. I think that’s the kind of spirit Azinger was talking about above. Lowry is great — but you get the feeling he’ll play above his head this week and be even greater.   

Colgan: Xander!! We’ve heard legends about his match play ability in money games against fellow pros, and we saw him win a gold medal representing the U.S. in July. There may be no rookie more prime to make himself a hero.

Berhow: Patrick Cantlay has been on a tear the past two months and was 3-2 at the last Presidents Cup. He’s gonna have himself a week.

Bamberger: Bernd Wiesberger. Isn’t it obvious? The most impactful player is often the one you expect the least impact from. In this nine-person subset of the 24 players, Bernd’s the leader in the house by a touchdown.

Sens: At this point, they get talked about in tandem so often we should really have just one name for Brooks and Bryson, kinda like Brangelina. Combined, they are going to have a massive impact on the U.S. team. What kind of impact is the big question.

6. With Patrick Reed left off the U.S. team, it begs the question: Who on the U.S. will play the ever-important role of opponent irritator and crowd ignitor? And who will that be for Europe?

two men walk
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By: Zephyr Melton

Piastowski: It’s a tough question for the U.S. side — few on this team have done something like that before, and it may take them out of their comfort zone if they tried. Spieth would be an obvious answer, but man, I’d love to see Morikawa stuff iron after iron and work the crowd along the way. He can certainly do the former. For the Europeans, it’s more a question who won’t be this guy. But it’d be a blast to see Tyrrell Hatton go on a birdie binge and go nuclear on the crowd.   

Colgan: It’s Ian Poulter for Europe. It’s always Ian Poulter. For the Americans, how about Brooks Koepka? He certainly has the mentality for it.

Berhow: Not everyone can play that role (sorry, Harris English), but Justin Thomas is a good fit, and I also think he wants to be that guy who can get a point, be a leader and put the team on his back. As for Europe, it’s Poulter, with Hatton waiting in the wings.

Bamberger: Sorry, maybe I missed something: Is Bryson DeChambeau not playing in this Ryder Cup? Bryson DeChambeau. He’ll irritate and ignite American fans, any European fans who will be there, European players, his own teammates. It’s his special talent, or one of them. As for the Europeans, you have to go back to the well: Ian Poulter. It’s his eyeballs. They speak a language all their own.

Sens: Poulter is a Hall of Fame irritant for sure. But let’s not forget Sergio, who has played that same role throughout the years (and who has been flashing some pretty tidy form of late). Michael’s right that Bryson will be the most polarizing on the U.S. side. But the guy best suited to fire up the crowd is Spieth. It’s all about those backbreaking putts in the Ryder Cup, and no one makes more big ones than he does.

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