MEDINAH, Ill. – Is there a five-point player in this Ryder Cup?
Winning five points in the biennial match might be the most difficult achievement in modern sports. To be totally on your game and reliant on a partner for four victories, then add the pressure of winning a singles match on Sunday? It doesn’t get much tougher in golf than that.
Though the achievement is mathematically possible, it requires a giant leap of faith: The five-point player actually has to play in five matches. Thus, it’s partly up to the captain as to which of his 12 will even play in five matches.
In the 2010 Ryder Cup at Wales, inclement weather prompted a change in format, and no player competed in five matches. In 2008 at Valhalla, Americans Hunter Mahan and Phil Mickelson and European Ian Poulter played in all five sessions.
Mahan earned 2 1/2 points and Mickelson two, but Poulter gained four for his team after losing his first-round match.
Since the Europeans have joined with the Great Britain and Ireland golfers in 1979 at The Greenbrier, only American Larry Nelson has won five points in a Ryder Cup match. He did it in those ’79 matches in West Virginia.
Last year in the Presidents Cup in Melbourne, Jim Furyk was an unlikely 5-0 after an otherwise forgettable season. So the five-point man is not beyond the realm of possibility.
After starting the 2011 season in the top 10 of the Official World Golf Ranking, Furyk had only four top 10s and had fallen to 39th in the world when he teed it up in Australia. But he played with Phil Mickelson for a majority of his matches and got hot with the putter to salvage his season.
“I want to thank my partners,” Furyk said on that Sunday after the U.S. won the cup. “I had Phil for three days, and he was playing great. He had a positive attitude.”
After working a short time with an old putter at home before the Presidents Cup, Furyk poured in putts during his 110 holes at Royal Melbourne. He averaged 1.341 putts per hole versus 1.781 during the 2011 season, which ranked 95th on the PGA Tour.
“I don’t think there’s anyone else out of 24 guys that putted better than me this week,” Furyk said after the matches.
For Nelson, 1979 was a surreal year. The Atlantan had won twice, at the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic and the Western Open. Nelson recorded 14 top 25s in 23 events, including nine top 10s and six top 3s. He never missed a cut that year and would finish the year second on the money list, with $281,022.
So is it possible to determine who has a chance at 5-0?
U.S. captain Davis Love III and his European counterpart, Jose Maria Olazabal, have some candidates, but it’s a balancing act.
“As a captain, when a guy says, I’ll play as many as you want me to play, you’ve got to decide how many is right for him,” Love said on Wednesday, the day before he has to announce his fist session pairings. “And we talked about it yesterday, that you want to play five, but it might not be the smartest thing to do.”
Love is certain to play Tiger Woods in all five matches. In Woods’ first five Ryder Cups, from 1997 to 2006, he played in all five sessions.
During that time, Woods was the prohibitive World No. 1. He posted his best showing in 2006 at The K Club in Ireland, winning three points. That underscores how difficult it would be to win five.
Mickelson was the workhorse in 2008. Playing in five matches, the left-hander garnered only two points, but he still is likely to tee it up in five matches at Medinah.
On the European side, World No. 1 Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Lee Westwood and Poulter would seem to be good bets to play in all five sessions. In fact McIlroy, at age 23, is prepared for it.
“I want to play as much as I can,” McIlroy said on Wednesday at Medinah. “I want to help the team out as much as I can. So I’d be very comfortable playing all five matches.”
The top point-getter does not necessarily guarantee a team victory, as Poulter would attest after his European side lost, 16.5-11.5, at Valhalla, the team’s worst defeat since 1981 at Walton Heath.
That year, Jack Nicklaus was 4-0, leading arguably the best American squad in the history of the Ryder Cup, but captain Dave Marr sat Nicklaus in the afternoon session on the first day or he might have tied Nelson’s record.