On Monday evening, I joined TalkinGolf’s Rod Morri, along with Bruce Young, in an internet radio/podcast to chat about the most exciting Ryder Cup in recent history. Near the end (I don’t expect anyone to listen to all 50 minutes), Rod asked Bruce and me for our assessments on the players — basically, who played the best and the worst? I figured that my thoughts might sound more coherent typed out (as much fun as it is to listen to me stammer!), and hell, while I’m at it, I might as well follow suit and give them grades (as others have). Here we go. Europe has the honors.
Graeme McDowell (2-1-1): With the way McDowell handled himself coming down the stretch at Pebble Beach, there wasn’t a doubt that he was going to be tough to beat. Handling the pressure of closing a major championship is huge, but rising to the occasion to clinch the Ryder Cup is another thing. With the weight the entire continent of Europe on his shoulders, McDowell pulled off key shots. And I’m sure he’ll celebrate like a rock star.
Luke Donald (3-1): The best bunker player in the world was ridiculously clutch and just fantastic around the greens. He was virtually unbeatable (in my opinion) in his singles match against Jim Furyk (I was shocked it went to the 18th hole). Donald was also partnered with Lee Westwood when they clobbered Stricker/Woods 6&5. A friend told me this before the matches and I didn’t entirely understand until I saw it with my very own eyes — playing against Luke Donald in match play instills the fear of God in people. Yeah, the same guy who has a disease named after him to describe golfers who are underachievers. Performing under pressure in the Ryder Cup and in majors are two different beasts, but it baffles me that Donald hasn’t notched a big one yet. He’s got a long career ahead of him, but he can always follow Monty’s path and the Ryder Cup can become his major if it never pans out. By the way, Donald’s career Ryder Cup record is 8-2-1.
Ian Poulter (3-1): As much as Poulter’s bug eyes and self-absorbed antics annoy me, it’s mostly because it’s effective (and I suppose entertaining). He lives for the Ryder Cup and thrives in situations when it’s all about him. One thing’s for sure, Poulter puts his money where his mouth is — at least in match play (but it was nice to see Tiger/Stricker beat him in the first fourball match). It seemed like every time the telecast showed Poulter, he was draining a huge putt. He was one of the several who played brilliantly in the singles, routing Matt Kuchar 5&4. Even Johnny Miller, who called him a bad ballstriker at Cog Hill, gave him credit and begrudgingly said, “Ian, you can tweet that you hit it like Hogan and putted like Watson.”
Lee Westwood (2-1-1): Two months off? No problem! Westy was Europe’s leading man in the first three sessions. He, along with Luke Donald, whupped Stricker/Tiger 6&5 to set the pace in the key third session on Sunday afternoon. Stricker upset him in singles, otherwise, he would have been the clear MVP on the European side. As of Monday, Westwood became the No. 2 player in the world, passing Phil Mickelson in the rankings. But he’s arguably playing like the No. 1 in the world (Intern Kevin has been preaching this for the past year or so — happy now?).
Rory McIlroy (1-1-2): A year ago, the young McIlroy called the Ryder Cup an “exhibition match.” And now? It was the best week of his life. As for his performance, he choked and he came up big. After McDowell threw a dart at the 17th pin, Rory missed the four-foot birdie putt on No. 17 that ultimately cost them the match against Stewart Cink and Matt Kuchar. But he also drained clutch putts a match before and after on the same hole. There were times where it seemed like McIlroy was almost overwhelmed by the pressure to perform in front of the home crowd. Overall, a pretty impressive performance by the Ryder Cup rookie.
Ross Fisher (2-2): He was streaky with his putter, but with veteran Padraig Harrington reading Fisher’s putts and providing moral support, Fisher carried them to two victories. Basically, he justified Paddy’s presence as Colin Montgomerie’s controversial captain’s pick. Fisher lost his lead in singles to Jeff Overton and a big match.
Miguel Angel Jimenez (2-1): The Mechanic is one cool dude — I mean, just look at this picture. He also came up clutch several times with the putter. Paired with Peter Hanson, Jimenez led the way to beat Bubba Watson and Jeff Overton in the third session. And in singles, the oldest player in the field drained important putts and easily closed out Watson.
Martin Kaymer (2-1-1): Blame it on the sleep deprivation and waking up in the middle of the night to watch the the matches from start to finish, but Kaymer didn’t look like he played as well as record suggests. It seemed every time the camera turned to Kaymer, he was missing putts or his partner (Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter) was making them. Actually, I don’t think I was hallucinating. I checked his scorecards and in the two fourball matches, he carded one birdie each round while Westwood and Poulter racked them in. And in singles DJ was winning on pars the front nine before he hopped on the birdie train. But it’s not small feat for a rookie to walk away with two and a half points.
Padraig Harrington (2-2): Poor Paddy. He struggled, but with strong partners, he won two points. Paired with rookie Fisher, Paddy read all of his putts and Fisher sure made a lot of them on Sunday. Even though Paddy wasn’t effective with a club in his hands, Monty and Fisher both claim that his presence and leadership were major contributions to the winning European squad.
Edoardo Molinari (0-1-2): Edoardo and his brother Francesco were supposed to be the greatest player on the planet in foursomes, but they didn’t live up to the hype. In fact, the two were the only players on the European squad that failed to win a match. However, Edoardo played better than his brother, who seemed to weigh him down at times. He was fantastic with the crowd and revved them up with his massive fist pumps. To be fair, Fowler was incredible in those final holes that I’m not sure I’d call Edoardo’s effort (or lack thereof) a choke job. He still got the half point, not to mention another important one in the third session.
Peter Hanson (1-2): Um, honestly, he wasn’t very memorable. I know he was partnered with Jimenez and they beat Bubba and Overton in Sunday’s foursome match, but beyond that and losing to Phil Mickelson on Monday, I’m at a loss. Well, he did post a pair of 7s on par-5s in singles.
Francesco Molinari (0-2-1): His ballstriking was passable, but his short putting was a serious weakness. As I mentioned above, he and Edoardo won a big half point in Sunday’s fourball matches, where Francesco knocked his approach on 18 to tap-in range…for just about anyone else, but him. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration — I’m just taking it personally because I was really excited to see him and his brother play together. Given the circumstances, he made a crucial putt and even his half point was a key contribution. I was also impressed that he gave Tiger a fight in the first nine holes of singles. Who can blame him for losing to a guy that was 9-under in 15 holes?
Steve Stricker (3-1): From start to finish, Stricker was the MVP for the Americans. He carried Tiger in the first two team matches with his fantastic scrambling and putting. Matched against Lee Westwood to kick off the singles, Stricker upset him in a 2&1 victory that propelled the American comeback. He even showed some fire (more than usual) with a spirited fist pump after making eagle on 15. I’d say he was nearly perfect, but he was on the team that got throttled 6&5.
Stewart Cink (1-0-3): As a captain’s pick, the expectations were set relatively low for Cink just because his 2010 season was totally unmemorable. I can’t even recall a single tournament where he made an impression. But he proved to be a vital asset for the Americans and showed experience is a factor at the Ryder Cup. Oh, how classic was his lunch break on 17 in the match against McIlroy/McDowell? In attempt to slow the Europeans’ momentum (and rattle McIlroy), he took his sweet time eating a PB&J sandwich, taking a swig of water and reading the putt from just about every angle possible. Sure, it was a blatant act of gamesmanship, but hey, it’s match play, and if you let it get to you, then bad on you. And then he drained the huge putt, while McIlroy missed his short one. Cink played a riveting singles match against McIlroy, where the two almost traded holes. However, the master tweeter couldn’t close out, three-putting from short range on 15 and missing a few other makeable putts down the stretch. Then again, Cink halved the match and made a bunch of big ones throughout the weekend to fuel American momentum.
Tiger Woods (3-1): I’m fully aware he notched three wins, but remember two of them were largely thanks to Stricker. But I’m also aware he fluffed a chip (which brought about one of the greatest pictures in golf) on the 18th hole in the first session fourball match. With his ball in his pocket, Stricker closed the match for the point. Now, of course it’s a partner effort, and in the alternate shot format, he had to hit great iron shots to get Stricker within striking range. But like I said for Stricker, the 6&5 loss? Yikes. As for his brilliant performance in singles against Francesco Molinari, where has that been all year?! Tiger posted seven birdies and an eagle — 9-under in 15 holes. His delayed reaction to the eagle hole-out was also lovely. Intern Kevin texted me, “So, Tiger is the one who holes out and acts like a civilized human being. My, how times have changed.” To clarify, that’s a compliment…maybe a little backhanded. Anyway, Tiger Woods playing like vintage Tiger Woods is always a treat. Oh, and he seemed to really embrace the whole team concept this year. Extra points!
Grade: A- (/B+?)
Zach Johnson (2-1-0): I was a little confused with why Pavin chose to bench him in the first match, but oh well. Zach was pretty solid the other four matches. Despite the short missed putts in the last few holes in singles against Harrington. Johnson was reliable. He tallied seven birdies on his way to routing Paddy on Monday.
Jeff Overton (2-2): For those who didn’t know who Overton was, he certainly left a lasting impression. From the very first hole in the opening session when he sank the long putt from off the green to the “Boom, baby!” moment, he held his own. He also rallied in singles against Ross Fisher in the third quarter to contribute to the US comeback effort.
Rickie Fowler (0-1-2): With the pressure of forcing the Cup to the final match on his shoulders, he came up HUGE. He simply defined the moment. There was no fear when he stepped up to that putt and no question that he knew it was going to drop. Three-down with four to play, he rallied to halve the match! Fowler was quiet most of the week, but he also made a putt on 18 for another half point on Saturday. (There was that rules blunder on No. 4 of that same match, though…) Had he missed, his rookie legacy would have been a totally different story (and Pavin would have been killed for the controversial captain’s pick — in other words, Rickie coming in the clutch vindicated Captain Corey.)
Matt Kuchar (1-1-2): He stepped in at critical times when Cink was in trouble to help win those points. He wasn’t at his best, but he didn’t completely botch anything, either. Besides a few times he bailed out Cink, like on 18 in the foursomes match against McIlroy and McDowell, I didn’t find his performance particularly memorable. In singles, Poulter played out of his mind in the 5&4 victory over Kooch, who made two birdies and two bogeys in 14 holes.
Jim Furyk (0-2-1): Furyk contributed the least points-wise with only a half, but this is deceiving — his efforts and leadership are worth at least an extra point. He gave the indomitable Luke Donald a tough time in singles. In the last 10 holes, he birdied five, but only won one hole. Furyk played his heart out and it was mighty impressive that he took the match to 18. Sure, he knocked his third in the bunker on 18, but with the way Luke was playing, it could have been over much earlier.
Dustin Johnson (1-3): To be fair to DJ, a Ryder Cup rookie, he seemed out of sorts and unable to find his natural rhythm because he was paired with Phil Mickelson, who analyzes and complicates every single shot to death, and Jim Furyk, who is meticulous and deliberate. Johnson, who only requires his yardage before grabbing a club, looked like he was taking more time than usual because his partners boggled him down with information. Not to mention, when he played with Furyk, it looked like DJ missed a lot of putts — well, a number of those times, Furyk was helping DJ read the putts because he had his ball in his pocket. Finally, without the burden of a partner, he just played golf and racked four consecutive birdies on the back nine to rout Martin Kaymer 6&4.
Hunter Mahan (1-2): Mahan was brilliant in the foursomes on Saturday and tried to rally for a nearly impossible comeback against McDowell. Tough finish for Mahan. From the looks at the presser, he’s taking it pretty hard. To my understanding, he takes the Ryder Cup rather seriously (his fiancee told me at the Tour Championship that his No. 1 goal of the year was to make the team on points). Even though it was essentially over after McDowell drained the birdie on 16, Mahan is probably embarrassed with the duffed chip and thinks he should have played better overall — but there’s plenty of blame to go around if we want to play that game. If anything, Mahan’s emotional reaction humanized him and showed how much he cared.
Bubba Watson (1-3): The long-hitting lefty spent most the time in the long, thick rough. Playing alongside Overton, who perhaps carried Watson a bit, the rookies won the first. Bubba looked like he was going to puke in singles against Jimenez, who beat him decisively 4&3. When Bubba had the flatstick in hand, there were countless times that I wanted to yell, “Get it to the hole — greens are slow!”
Phil Mickelson (1-3): For all the flak Tiger gets about being a “bad team player” with an “awful Ryder Cup record” (uh, Tiger hasn’t lost a singles match since ’97), Phil certainly has gotten a pass for the most part. I know he’s a “team player” in the sense that he’s a leader and takes younger guys under his wing, but that doesn’t mean he’s a good partner. With his third defeat at Celtic Manor, he notched the 17th of his Ryder Cup career to break Raymond Floyd’s record of most losses by an American. He finally showed up in singles and started making birdies. Rumor has it that he was fired up after hearing Johnny Miller’s comments (“If he couldn’t chip, he’d be a used car salesman in San Diego.”). Good news is this was Phil’s first singles win since ’99 when he beat Jarmo Sandelin. But Phil wins huge bonus points in the post-match press conference when he swooped in to save an emotional Mahan and also shouldered the blame for the American loss, admitting his own three defeats. That was classy and compassionate and — wait for it — made me like Phil.