Rookies in name only
The term rookie usually conjures up images of a raw, fresh-faced youngster. Green, inexperienced, possibly naïve. Sometimes lacking in confidence.
The rookies at this Ryder Cup, though, would appear to be a different breed.
You’ve got 21-year-old Rory McIlroy creating a storm by calling out Tiger Woods. You’ve got Germany’s Martin Kaymer, who comes to Celtic Manor as a major winner.
And you’ve got a host of super-confident Americans who hit the golf ball a country mile and come with serious pedigree.
Of course, anyone who makes a team can play (and has probably earned millions doing so) but the Ryder Cup is a completely different kettle of ball games. It’s just that your modern rookie just doesn’t seem that, well, rookie-ish anymore.
US captain Corey admits his hands were shaking so much he struggled to get his ball on the tee when he made his debut in 1991, while Stewart Cink says that when he came to hit his first shot in foursomes in 2002 he completely forgot what his pre-shot routine was and had to pause for a few seconds until it came back to him.
Hair-raising antics as Europe share a joke with McIlroy
“This time around, our rookies are incredibly talented, world-class players. What can you tell Rory McIlroy about world-class golf that he doesn’t already know?” said team-mate Graeme McDowell, who admitted he was “like a rabbit in the headlights” when he made his debut at Vahalla two years ago.
Europe have six rookies, the most since Brookline in 1999, and captain Colin Montgomerie arranged for his side to speak with Ryder Cup great Seve Ballesteros and Wales and Lions rugby legend Gareth Edwards on Tuesday night.
“I just feel it was right for the rookies to hear that passion, more than motivation, from two of Europe’s greatest sportsmen,” said Montgomerie.The skipper, though, seems happy enough so far with their ability to cope with the pressure of a Ryder Cup.
"Having been a rookie myself I'm surprised how relaxed they've been," he said.
That's because of Monty's rookies, Kaymer, 25, is ranked sixth in the world after lifting the USPGA title in August, and has already tasted the Ryder Cup environment as a guest with Sir Nick Faldo’s side two years ago.
And the bouncy McIlroy, once credited by Mark O’Meara as having a better swing than Woods at the same age, has enjoyed a phenomenal surge into the upper echelons of the game and is the world number nine after finishing third at both the Open and USPGA this year.
McIlroy’s “provocation” of Woods, and the ensuing media frenzy forced his team-mates to don black curly wigs on the first tee in solidarity on Tuesday. The match-up, though, is mouth-watering.
Then there's Edoardo and Francesco Molinari, who won the World Cup together last year and are being trumpeted as one of Europe’s dream pairings. Francesco, dubbed “the quiet” one, is a solid performer who many say should have won more, but for a faltering putter. Ryder Cup team-mate Ross Fisher once asked him when he last missed a fairway and Francesco replied “1990”.
The 29-year-old Edoardo is "the more excitable one" and booked his place after a stunning three-birdie finish in the final qualifying event at Gleneagles.
As for Fisher, he was one of the top performing players over the four majors in 2009, won the World Match Play title against Anthony Kim in November and won the Irish Open last month. The 29-year-old admits he used to get given Ryder Cup videos for Christmas and as a youngster growing up at Wentworth he got to see the Cup first hand when captain Bernard Gallacher brought it into the clubhouse after the victory in 1995.
Sweden’s Peter Hanson, 32, could be seen as being more in the traditional “rookie” mode - a lower profile player who may only have a bit part this week.
But Hanson has played in three Seve Trophy matches and has won twice this season to make the team, displacing Paul Casey in the process, and make it four European Tour wins in total. That’s four more than Oliver Wilson took to Valhalla.
Lee Westwood, playing in his seventh Ryder Cup, said all the rookies were "fairly handy". "They have travelled the world and played majors and proved that they can cope with the ultimate pressure, which this is this week."
The USA, meanwhile, have five rookies, one less than in 2008. But the new generation of "bombers" suggests the team could be the longest-hitting squad in Ryder Cup history. Two years ago it was the American debutants that fired their side to victory, with the likes of Kim, top-scorer Hunter Mahan (four points out of five) and the talismanic Boo Weekley igniting the home crowd as the rookies contributed 11 of the US’s 16.5 points.
There were certainly no shrinking violets in that rookie line-up - who can forget Weekley "riding" his driver up the 1st fairway - and Jim Furyk said the more experienced players were "energised" by their presence.
This week they have Matt Kuchar and Dustin Johnson who are ranked at 11 and 12 in the world, alongside big-hitters Bubba Watson, Jeff Overton and 21-year-old rising star Ricky Fowler.
“I like these rookies, they are aggressive, positive and they are going to come out firing,” said US captain Corey Pavin. “I think I just want to make sure that they are emotionally under control.”
The 32-year-old Kuchar admits he feels like a rookie this week, but he is the most consistent player in the America this year with 11 top 10s, and he came second to Jim Furyk in the $10m Fed Ex Cup.
Johnson has simply been one of the hottest properties on tour this year.
The lanky 26-year-old blew a three-shot lead with a final-round 82 at the US Open in June and lost a play-off spot in August’s US PGA when penalised two shots for falling foul of a controversial bunker rule. But the US Tour’s third longest hitter (with average driving distance of 308.5 yards, behind Watson and Robert Garrigus) has also won twice this season.
Then there’s wise-cracking Watson, the loose left-hander with the self-taught swing, who is the second longest player on tour at 309.8 yards (Garrigus averages 315.9). The fast-talking Floridian, who has his own TV show, uses pink-shafted drivers and always does the top button up on his T-shirt, lost to Kaymer in the play-off at Whistling Straits. Afterwards, he said he didn’t mind losing because it got him into the Ryder Cup.
“Bubba is a character,” says team-mate Steve Stricker. “He’s probably the Boo Weekley of the team.”
Watson admitted he hadn’t really grilled any of his team-mates on what to expect this week. “It’s just golf,” he said. But his eyes filled with tears when he said he wanted to win for his Vietnam war-veteran dad who has cancer and has been given three months to live. Watson says he cries a lot, and admitted he was in tears as the US team listened Major Dan Rooney, an F16 fighter pilot, give a speech at Celtic Manor on what it means to represent your country.
“More than likely I’ll never be in the military so this is the chance to be like my dad,” said Watson.
The 27-year-old Overton is the first player to make the US team without having won on tour but has steadily accumulated almost $3.5m this season. And finally there’s Fowler, the first US wildcard not to have won a pro tournament but a winner of seven of his eight matches in the Walker Cup and the first player to go from the amateur event to the Ryder Cup the next year.
When picking him as a wildcard, Pavin said he had a “feeling” about Fowler, the long-time world amateur number one, who was nine when Woods won the first of his 14 majors in 1997.The Californian, one of the new breed of young guns bringing some dash and dynamism to the game, is usually decked out in some block of lurid pastel colour ad always wears orange on the final day of a tournament in honour of his college, Oklahoma State University.
“I guess my playing style, I’m very old school, but I guess very new school with the stuff I usually wear,” said Fowler, whose middle name is Yutaka after his Japanese maternal grandfather. “I like to play fast. I don’t have the perfect video swing. It’s just step up and go.”
Like McIlroy, Fowler exudes confidence but insists he is not brash.
“I’d go on the confident side, I don’t like to build myself up or anything,” he said. “Being confident is, I guess, just staying humble, in a way quiet, collected. Cocky may be when you start to throw out predictions or say, I want to beat this guy or feel like I could beat him. It’s a fine line.
“If you gave me time I might be able to come up with some dictionary stuff and bigger words that might work out a little better.”
There is a changing of the guard, but no matter how confident a player is, the Ryder Cup is likely to take the breath away.
“You are not just playing for yourself, you’re playing for 11 other guys, plus all of the backroom staff and most of Europe as well,” says McIlroy.
Put like that, maybe the rookies will feel the pressure after all.