HAVEN — When it was his turn to step to the microphone Thursday during the opening ceremony for the 43rd Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits, Madison's Steve Stricker welcomed the world to his home state and exclaimed with great pride: "Those are my people!"
By the time the final layer of pomp and pageantry was finished at Pete Dye Plaza, it was clear the U.S. Ryder Cup captain was as passionate about that statement applying to his team and his Friday morning foursomes pairings as to the scores of fans from "my backyard" who turned out to celebrate the long-awaited start of this global golf event 16 years in the making.
Stricker will send to the first tee at 7 a.m. Friday eight of his straightest drivers and top iron players against some of Europe's most experienced and successful Ryder Cup golfers — mixed and matched with two rising stars — in the alternate-shot format. It was Stricker's option, choosing the order of formats, and he said Thursday he went with foursomes because "stats have shown over the years that's a better format for us," despite a 7-17 record in the alternate-shot discipline over the last three Ryder Cups.
Gary D'Amato breaks down Friday morning foursomes pairings
|Pairing||Gary D'Amato's Breakdown||Gary's pick||Rob's pick|
|1||Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth (USA) vs. Jon Rahm and Sergio Garcia (EUR)||Team Europe captain Padraig Harrington sent out his strongest team first, a smart move. Rahm is ranked No. 1 in the world and Garcia is the career leader in Ryder Cup points with 25.5. But Thomas and Spieth have great chemistry and went 3-1 at the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris. They beat Rahm and Ian Poulter in a Saturday morning fourballs match.||USA||EUR|
|2||Dustin Johnson and Collin Morikawa (USA) vs. Paul Casey and Victor (EUR)||Johnson's length and Morikawa's precise iron play make them potentially a strong foursomes team. The guess is that Morikawa hits first on the odd-numbered holes, which puts him on the tee on the par-3 third, seventh and 17th holes. Johnson would get the par-5 second and 16th and the long par-4 fourth, eighth and 18th. Both teams feature Ryder Cup veterans (Johnson and Casey) and rookies (Morikawa and Hovland).||USA||USA|
|3||Brooks Koepka and Daniel Berger (USA) vs. Lee Westwood and Matt Fitzpatrick (EUR)||Koepka and Berger have similar personalities -- cool on the outside, fire on the inside. They'll face a cagey veteran in Westwood and Fitzpatrick, who went 0-2-0 in the 2016 Ryder Cup. It will be interesting to see how many matches Koepka plays just three weeks after suffering a wrist injury at the Tour Championship.||USA||USA|
|4||Patrick Cantlay ande Xander Schauffele (USA) vs. Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter (EUR)||This should be a great match. Cantlay and Schauffele are close friends and have similar games. McIlroy and Poulter have a huge edge in Ryder Cup experience. One could easily see McIlroy hitting great tee shots and stuffing approaches and Poulter converting birdie putts.||EUR||USA|
Then again, as the guy tasked with doing what nine of the last 12 U.S. captains have been unable to do against a European squad for which winning the Ryder Cup has seemingly become a patriotic duty, Stricker has maintained since making his six captain's picks two weeks ago. To that end, Stricker will send out three of those six picks (Jordan Spieth, Daniel Berger and Xander Schauffele) and four of Team USA's six Ryder Cup rookies (Berger, Schauffele, Collin Morikawa and Patrick Cantlay) in the morning session looking to finally turn the tide for the Americans.
"I feel great about our pairings," Stricker said at a news conference following the opening ceremony. "You know, some teams that have played together over the years, whether in Ryder Cups or some Presidents Cups, so we wouldn't put them out there if we didn't feel good about them, let me just put it that way. So we are extremely excited about how these guys are playing, and the order of which they are going out."
It figures to be a raucous scene of anticipation Friday morning as the two captains went with heavyweight pairings in the opening match.
Spieth and Justin, who went 3-1 as partners in France in 2018, will lead things off for the Americans against a pairing that is being called the "New Spanish Armada" — Spain's Jon Rahm and Sergio Garcia, the world's No. 1-ranked golfer and the Ryder Cup's all-time leading scorer, respectively. Both captains anticipated the pairing and it will certainly be a tone-setter for the matches.
"We would have been aware that J.T. and Jordan were going first, obviously, so we were obviously going to lead ourselves with a strong partnership with Jon and Sergio," European captain Padraig Harrington said. "The whole world will be watching that one."
Both sides mixed one of their Ryder Cup stalwarts with a rookie in the second match as Collin Morikawa, who led the U.S. Ryder Cup points standings, will play his first international team match of any kind in the company of Dustin Johnson, the Americans' oldest and most experienced Ryder Cup golfer making his fifth appearance. They draw European veteran Paul Casey and rookie Viktor Hovland, the first golfer from Norway to play in a Ryder Cup.
Likewise, the third match finds four-time major champion Brooks Koepka, who won the 2017 U.S. Open on Wisconsin fairways at Erin Hills, leading Daniel Berger into his first Ryder Cup match. They will draw 48-year-old Lee Westwood, making his record-tying 11th Ryder Cup appearance, and fellow Englishman Matt Fitzpatrick, who went 0-2 in his only Ryder Cup start at Hazeltine National GC in Chaska, Minn., in the European's 2018 loss.
"I know he didn't have a very good week, comfortable week that week in 2016," Harrington said of Fitzpatrick, who did not make the 2018 team in France. "You know, we had a tough week as a team. But Matt's been an underestimated player, for whatever reason, for the whole of his career, he continually delivers on a big stage. He is a great player."
As for his pairing, Stricker said he likes the chemistry Berger and Koepka have developed playing together near their homes in Jupiter, Fla. It already stood to be an important match for Koepka, who was critical of the media for the way it represented his recent comments to Golf Digest that team sports "weren't in his DNA" and can now work with Berger to let his clubs say where his mind is starting out this Ryder Cup.
"Daniel is a wonderful foursomes player," Stricker said. "He controls his ball really nicely. Good short game. Great putter. He's a natural fit for the foursomes. They like playing together, bottom line, and they do well together."
In the anchor match of the morning session, the Europeans will send out Ian Poulter and Rory McIlroy — a combination that has a 3-1 record having played with each other in each of the last three Ryder Cups, but only a 1-1 mark in foursomes — against Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele. Both Americans are Ryder Cup rookies, but they went 2-2 in the Presidents Cup in 2019 and, because of their close friendship and status as rising stars, are seen as a pairing that could become a familiar one for Team USA the way Spieth and Thomas have.
"They just enjoy being around each other, and that's half the battle when you try to pair guys up," Stricker said earlier in the week. "Each of their games complements the other one, and that's another thing when you put guys together, especially in foursomes, that you want their games to complement each other, and theirs do."
Stricker said it is unlikely any of the outcomes in the morning will influence pairings for the afternoon, but told reporters they'd "have to wait-and-see" if all 12 golfers will play on opening day and Bryson DeChambeau's booming driver will be unleashed on the Europeans. in a likely four-ball pairing with Harris English. Harrington said emphatically that all 12 of his players would see action Friday, saying "everybody is ready to play and they have been ready for that for the last three days."
Then again, from a pure emotional standpoint, it might not matter who Stricker trots out against the Europeans. They clearly have his back because they know he has theirs.
"He cares very much," Koepka said. "He's passionate, you can see that, maybe not outwardly but when you're inside the team room or talking to him personally, it's very obvious he has a big passion for the game and big passion for all of us as players, the vice captains. He just truly cares a lot. He's a softy."
Koepka allowed himself to wonder how Stricker, famous for fighting back tears with each of his 12 PGA Tour victories, would handle his emotions as the winning Ryder Cup captain. "Yeah, it would be nice to see him cry," Koepka said.
Stricker let his emotions show while thanking his wife, Nicki, and daughters, Bobbi and Izzi, who were seated in the audience behind Herbert Kohler, the executive chairman of Kohler Co., for their support.
"I had a couple of beers to try and get me through that," Stricker told the crowd as he tried to collect himself. "I just couldn't do it."