Golf expert Ben Coley provides a comprehensive preview of the Ryder Cup, where Ian Poulter is fancied to once again star for Thomas Bjorn's European side.
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By rights, we should be in for a classic Ryder Cup. Europe the hosts, USA the holders; the former able to call upon a home record whose last blemish came when The Bodyguard was more Kevin Costner than Robb Stark, the latter a level of depth and quality surely never seen before. One side boasts the FedEx Cup champion, the other Tiger Woods.
There is of course more to the case for Europe than home advantage, but that's nonetheless where it begins. Le Golf National represents familiar terrain, having been a mainstay of the European Tour schedule for close to three decades now, and the last two editions of the Open de France have been won by 2018 team members.
Not only is the course familiar, but it also promises to undermine much of what makes their opponents so dangerous. Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, Tony Finau - these are players blessed with destructive power, whose favourite club is the driver. Here at Le Golf National, they're not so much discouraged from using it as they are denied the opportunity altogether, with water cutting short fairways and forcing a more strategic approach.
Europe are arguably better balanced as a result, the prodigious length of Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose and Jon Rahm set against the metronome that is Francesco Molinari, the flair of Sergio Garcia, the sheer will to win of Ian Poulter. Talent alone puts the United States in front, but there is at least some chance that Europe have found precisely the right course with which to swat it aside.
Certainly, Le Golf National provides a stark contrast to Hazeltine, where the USA won 17-11 two years ago, never looking back after winning each of Friday's first four matches. Where Hazeltine was long and wide and simple, Le Golf National is short and narrow and complicated. It's also expected that pin positions will more closely resemble tournament golf than those unashamedly selected by Davis Love and the details, such as they are, can be considered blue rather than red.
Team USA, however, edge the fight on the things which matter the most and are worthy albeit narrow favourites as a result.
Eleven of their 12 are in the world's top 17, and in the aftermath of Brooks Koepka's second major of the year they have, thanks to Woods and Bryson DeChambeau, picked up three more high-profile titles to Europe's none. In fact, since Molinari won the Open there have been no more European victories; you can add Johnson and Thomas to DeChambeau and Woods where America are concerned and if your measure is form, the tide turns in favour of the visitors.
It's also worth mentioning that Jim Furyk was able to leave out the world number 19, Xander Schauffele, from a side packed with experience. If a team is only as strong as its rookies, then this really is the best US side in history. It's remarkable to think that Thomas's ascent to the top of the sport began just after the 2016 renewal, while it's hard to remember when Finau last played poorly and DeChambeau has won twice in four weeks.
These are world-class players, attuned to the demands of high-pressure golf. Even if the Ryder Cup is considered something bigger altogether, their preparation surely puts them ahead of those who've gone before.
Europe have their rough equivalents - Rahm and Tommy Fleetwood - but Tyrrell Hatton and Thorbjorn Olesen, more so than Alex Noren, remain left with something to prove. Olesen is the epitome of the form horse and deserves his place in the side, but his appearances at the highest level have been fleeting and are certainly not comparable to Thomas and company. He simply hasn't played all that much golf against players of this calibre and while he knows and has performed well at this course before, it's difficult to know just what to expect from the Dane.
As for Hatton, it's easy to suggest that his temper will either undermine his and the team's efforts or represent the foundation for a Poulter-like figure whose best play comes in this competition, but the truth probably lies somewhere in between. The bigger concern for me is that, like Olesen, he is a rookie in the purest sense, one with relatively little experience in the heat of battle against the likes of Woods, Johnson, Koepka and Thomas.
Of course, not one of these factors represents unequivocal evidence of anything whatsoever. There's precedent for the stronger side to win convincingly, just as there's precedent for the underdogs to do the same, particularly when those underdogs are Europe, and they're playing at home. The market makes the visitors narrow favourites and that looks right - the better side may just about overcome the enormous obstacles in front of them.
Top overall scorer
One market which does look ripe for a couple of decent bets is top overall points scorer. It's become so rare for an American to win this - the last time one did so clearly was in 1995 - that unearthing a European or two has to be the way to go.
Of course, there's a chance that the absence of an outright US winner since Corey Pavin could be nothing more than random, but to me it makes some sense. First and foremost we are talking about a period of European dominance, but where there have been exceptions, namely Valhalla '08 and Hazeltine '16, a player from the weaker European side has forced their captain to lean on them as things go awry.
It's also easy to argue that the US side always boasts greater depth, to the extent that Johnson for instance has not yet been asked to play five matches whereas McIlroy hasn't missed a session since his 2010 debut at Celtic Manor.
All such factors could be in play here and so strong is the American side that it's possible no individual features in all five matches. Only Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth did at Hazeltine and with neither at the top of their game, a comment which could be levelled at certain other high-profile visitors, most of whom have been embroiled in FedEx Cup, world number one and major battles of late, it's easy enough to envisage such a scenario.
Europe will surely lean heavily on Rose and McIlroy, but the former looked shot to pieces come the end of the FedEx Cup and when Rory won that before Hazeltine two years ago, he couldn't quite maintain the absurd intensity levels set by Reed in their enthralling singles match. With McIlroy considered by some to be hard to pair and Rose's go-to partner Henrik Stenson appearing fallible, the stage looks set for Ian Poulter to deliver once more.
Poulter was given no chance to star on his 2004 debut, making his first appearance on Saturday and just his second on Sunday, but has since proven himself a Ryder Cup machine. In 2008, he was clear top-scorer as he was again in 2012, while in 2010 he was part of a dead-heat brought about by the rainfall which demanded a change in running order at Celtic Manor.
Only at Gleneagles in 2014 has Poulter disappointed, but he'd been struggling all year and, even for a player who lives and breathes Ryder Cup, it proved too much to rediscover a workable game. Even so, one wonders what might have happened had Poulter not been paired with a nervous Stephen Gallacher in the first session, the only one of three matches he lost but a defeat so crushing that he was benched for Friday afternoon.
In essence, you need to play four or five games to be the top scorer at a Ryder Cup, and on the three occasions Poulter has been given that opportunity, that's exactly what he's done. In a team of five rookies, at a course which suits him better than most and having missed Europe's 2016 defeat through injury, Poulter can reward his captain by leading from the front and confirming his place in Ryder Cup folklore.
If Rose is running on empty, Stenson can no longer be fully relied upon and Garcia hasn't done enough to take a lead role on the course, then Europe will be on the lookout for others capable of playing four or five times and carrying them towards the required 14.5-point total.
Francesco Molinari is made for the layout and returns to the Ryder Cup a major champion, but I'm not totally convinced a player who confessed previously to being poor at match play will complete his transformation here. At a similar price, I am much sweeter on Tommy Fleetwood.
A course winner, who is as consistent as any player on the planet right now and boasts a wonderful temperament, Fleetwood is precisely the sort of player on whom Bjorn could rely and I really like that he's quickly built up experience playing with the world's best this season.
Just last Thursday, he got a front-row seat to the start of Tiger's TOUR Championship procession and having earlier made Koepka pull out all the stops in the US Open, he knows that he need only respect rather than fear those he tees off against. Indeed the victory which triggered his ascent came at the expense of DJ and he's seen off a big-hitting American at this course, too.
Fleetwood went unbeaten at the EurAsia Cup at the start of the year and while that's hardly form to rely on, it did hint at a possible partnership with Paul Casey. Whatever your thoughts on the latter, the idea of the pair of them around Le Golf National is one I'm increasingly sweet on.
It's also easy to envisage Fleetwood playing the straight man in a partnership with the more hostile Poulter but one way or another, he deserves to be sent out in the first set of matches and it's hoped that he does enough there to keep the ball rolling and perhaps emulate Thomas Pieters by top-scoring on debut.
Pieters was a surprise winner of the market two years ago and there was fortune involved for his backers, with an opening-round defeat alongside Lee Westwood provoking a dramatic change of plan, but it was clear throughout the week that he would not shirk the issue against Americans he knew well from his college days at Illinois.
Fleetwood now has similar experience in terms of playing with and even outperforming the very best Team USA has to offer and he's fancied to be among the key men for the home side. Savers on the above duo to top-score for Europe are also worth considering but for reasons mentioned I'm happy to roll the dice, before moving on to find the pick of the US team.
Top US scorer
So strong is Jim Furyk's line-up that any one of the 12 - including even Phil Mickelson or Bubba Watson - could top score, but I think it's worth speculating that the course will encourage Furyk to lean on PLAYERS champion Webb Simpson, who is an attractive bet at 25/1.
Simpson might not be a fearsome opponent of demonstrable talents, capable of scaring someone to death with a 350-yard tee-shot, but the strength of his form in 2018 stands up to the closest scrutiny and the standout performance came at a course with definite similarities to Le Golf National.
As well as winning at Sawgrass, he's been second at the Wyndham, fourth in the Sony and last week at East Lake, fifth in the Honda and in the Heritage, sixth at the BMW and eighth at the Valspar, plus 10th behind Koepka in the US Open, 12th in the Open, 20th in the Masters and 19th in the PGA. Week in, week out he has performed at or close to the top of his game.
Crucially, the very best of his efforts have come on courses which cannot be overpowered, where his driving weakness is not exposed and his accurate iron play, sharp short-game and hugely improved putting are allowed to do the damage. He could be absolutely ideal for Le Golf National.
I find it hard to imagine Simpson being left out of Friday's matches, regardless of the depth of talent in this US side, for precisely that reason. He'd be a wonderful foil for a much more aggressive player and I don't believe that Furyk, the short-hitting grinder on whose game Simpson's could well have been modelled, will underestimate what he's done this year.
The former US Open champion arrives on the back of another fine performance at East Lake, where he played well yet again without being under any real pressure, and if used correctly - i.e. not simply alongside friend Bubba Watson - could be a huge weapon for the away side.
Simpson's past Ryder Cup exploits deserve credit, too. Yes, he skied the opening tee-shot at Gleneagles and, after a 5&4 thumping, did not feature again until Sunday. But he did go on to halve that game with Poulter and took the same opponent down the 18th at Medinah, where he'd gone two-from-three with Watson previously. He's entitled to more respect than he's being given by the market.
Tiger is tempting, because he'll relish the demands of the course and this return to a playing role, but I am worried about the potential impact of East Lake and his first win in five years. I'm beyond underestimating Woods, who knows how to deal with expectation and fanfare, but he looked physically exhausted just as Rose did and it can't have been an ideal way to prepare for this at 42 years of age.
Woods' Ryder Cup record is better than it perhaps looks and he top-scored for the US in both 2006 and 2010, but on balance he has to be left alone at the price and there are also sufficient concerns to overlook Rickie Fowler at 12/1.
Fowler impressed on his 2010 debut at Celtic Manor when paired with Furyk early on and I just wonder whether his narrow defeat of Rose at Hazeltine two years ago will trigger an improvement in his contribution following a disappointing performance at Gleneagles.
He's fresher than most having skipped the first two events of the FedEx Cup Playoffs and has returned at the top of his game, too, while he's also well-travelled and a fine player in colder, more European conditions.
However I can't escape the fear that he's used either sparingly, alongside the wayward Mickelson, or indeed both, and he's left alone as a result along with Justin Thomas, the pick of the market leaders.
DJ is a hard man to beat and breezed through the field last weekend, but the rumours that persist about his life away from the course are off-putting, and Furyk will be prepared to leave out any player whose head isn't in the right place given the back-up options at his disposal.
Koepka was brilliant on debut at Hazeltine and has plenty of experience in Europe, but despite his major achievements I still have Thomas ahead of him and probably slightly better-suited to Le Golf National, where he finished eighth on a scouting mission this summer.
Those four competitive rounds at the course will serve JT well and can give him the edge with Koepka liable to fall victim to any lack of focus or general waywardness from Johnson. That being said, there's too much second-guessing involved so I'm happy enough to take a chance on Simpson and leave it there.
The best markets are often those with the most imponderables, those which don't come along very often and therefore pit one opinion against another. That's very much my view when it comes to first and last out in Sunday's singles.
Here we have so many variables, chief among which are the match situation and the performance of individuals to that point. For instance, when Europe were left chasing the game at Hazeltine they front-loaded the line-up, McIlroy first and Matt Fitzpatrick last. The rookies who'd played well - Pieters and Rafa Cabrera Bello - went out early, with those who'd struggled pushed towards the bottom.
The US, carrying a healthy lead, struck a balance. They fought fire with fire at the top with Reed and Spieth, but kept DJ and Koepka for the later matches with the experienced, reliable, tough-as-teak Zach Johnson out last.
Johnson had also been the anchorman at Gleneagles, where Paul McGinley offered a fairly even spread, and again the chasing team had to go top-heavy just as Europe were forced to at Medinah. If you've a strong view as to who will lead once the pairs games are done with, there has to be an angle.
Whatever the match scenario, Garcia must be a candidate to play the anchor role for Europe. He's perhaps not playing well enough to lead from the front but has the absolute faith of Bjorn, which makes for a nice option at the bottom should the match require it.
Among the many words of praise Bjorn found for Garcia when unveiling his wild cards, one line stood out - "Sergio is, for me, the one person that I really feel like I can trust with everything that we do that's Ryder Cup" - and to me it screamed last out in singles, notwithstanding the prospect of Europe trailing by a distance and needing him earlier.
At 9/1 with Paddy Power or 8/1 with bet365, Garcia is worth a small play in preference to the rookies, among whom Noren's winning course form and winning mentality do make for an appealing combination at a couple of ticks shorter for those wanting a saver.
Molinari is the other experienced player who makes some sense, having played the anchor role at Medinah where he effectively sealed victory for Europe after Martin Kaymer had taken them to the magic 14-point mark. However, his status as Open champion might entitle him to a more prominent position this time.
The equivalent US market is hard to unravel but I do believe Reed is worth backing at 5/1 (Paddy Power) to lead out the singles.
Reed has won both singles matches so far, taking down a European behemoth or two in the process, first Stenson from the second match at Gleneagles and then Rory at Hazeltine, where he took everything his opponent had to throw at him and came out on top.
That performance was so strong, so significant, that he looks to me to have earned the right to go from the front again - especially as he's since become the Masters champion and embodies the patriotism on which many US successes have been built. It's simplistic, but I see no reason for the US to change a winning formula, the risk here being that Reed struggles badly through the first two days. It's one worth taking.
If you subscribe to the view that this should be a Ryder Cup classic - which I certainly do - there must be some scope in backing Europe 14.5-13.5 USA (12/1), 14-14 (12/1) and USA 14.5-Europe 13.5 (10/1) at around 3/1 combined.
Since 1979, seven of the 19 renewals have ended 14.5-13.5 either way and there's been one draw for good measure, testament to how close many have been, and on bare figures alone the price about another renewal going down to the wire looks generous.
Throw in all of the above - home advantage and history versus quality and confidence - and all the ingredients are there for, at the very least, a close-run contest which depends on the outcome of the final few singles matches on Sunday evening.
I still find myself uncertain as to how exactly the 2018 Ryder Cup will end. I can't wait for it to begin.
Ryder Cup 2018: Tournament schedule, format & timings
- Venue: Le Golf National
- To win: 14½ points from the 28 available are needed to win the Ryder Cup. As holders, USA will retain the trophy if it finishes 14-14.
- TV: Sky Sports
Friday Morning, 0710 BST start
- 4x Fourballs matches (better ball)
* Both players in each pairing play their own ball. A hole is won by the team whose member has the lowest score.Friday Afternoon, 1250 BST start
- 4x Foursomes matches (alternate shot)
* Both players in each pairing take it in turns to play one ball. A hole is won by the team who completes it in the fewest shotsSaturday Morning, 0710 BST start
- 4x Fourballs matches
Saturday Afternoon, 1250 BST start
- 4x Foursomes matches
Sunday, 1105 BST start
- 12 x Singles matches
Ryder Cup: Team line-ups
EUROPECaptain: Thomas BjørnPlayers:
- Paul Casey
- Tommy Fleetwood
- Sergio Garcia
- Tyrrell Hatton
- Rory McIlroy
- Francesco Molinari
- Alex Noren
- Thorbjørn Olesen
- Ian Poulter
- Jon Rahm
- Justin Rose
- Henrik Stenson
- Luke Donald
- Padraig Harrington
- Robert Karlsson
- Graeme McDowell
- Lee Westwood
UNITED STATESCaptain: Jim FurykPlayers:
- Bryson DeChambeau
- Tony Finau
- Rickie Fowler
- Dustin Johnson
- Brooks Koepka
- Phil Mickelson
- Patrick Reed
- Webb Simpson
- Jordan Spieth
- Justin Thomas
- Bubba Watson
- Tiger Woods
- David Duval
- Zach Johnson
- Matt Kuchar
- Davis Love III
- Steve Stricker
Posted at 0930 BST on 25/09/18.