Ryder rookies could play big factor in Wales

Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson during a Tuesday practice round at the Ryder Cup.


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NEWPORT, Wales – Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson were waiting to hit their tee shots on Celtic Manor’s third hole Tuesday, but their group’s fourth member was nowhere in sight.

Rickie Fowler was still signing autographs in the walkway between the second green and third tee. He was still signing, some 40 yards from the tee, when Watson hit his tee shot.

Fowler quickly has won over the crowds in Wales, but that won’t help his team win the Ryder Cup. Fowler and the rest of the rookies will have to play well if their team is to retain the cup. Eleven of the 24 players at Celtic Manor are playing their first Ryder Cup.

There are five rookies on the U.S. team: Matt Kuchar, Jeff Overton, Johnson, Watson and Fowler. Europe has six: Ross Fisher, Peter Hanson, Martin Kaymer, Rory McIlroy and the brothers Edoardo and Francesco Molinari.

The rookies’ biggest challenge will be managing their nerves.

When Johnson stepped to the first tee at the ‘07 Walker Cup, his first experience in international competition, his adrenaline was flowing so fast that he hit a 407-yard tee shot.

“It was crazy,” Johnson said. “I was a little nervous, so I was a little jacked up and I swung really hard and caught it in the middle.”

U.S. captain Corey Pavin has confidence in his hard-hitting rookies.

“I like these rookies,” Pavin said. “These guys are aggressive, positive, and they are going to come out firing. There’s not really much to tell them.

“I think I just want to make sure that they are emotionally under control. I watched some of them today, and they seemed quite fine out there, very relaxed.”

European captain Colin Montgomerie had specific advice for his first-timers.

“I’ve always hit my putts slightly firmer in Ryder Cup play, and I’m trying to pass on that knowledge to the rookies,” he said.

The European rookies have had better recent results than their American counterparts. Of course, most of those finishes have come against weaker European fields. They’re impressive, nonetheless.

Four of the six European rookies – Fisher, Hanson, Kaymer and Edoardo Molinari – have won at least once in their past five starts. Kaymer has won his past two starts, including the PGA Championship.

Johnson and Kuchar are the only Americans to win in that span. Those victories came against strong FedEx Cup fields.

Johnson won the BMW Championship and has finished in the top 10 in three of his past five starts. He closed the Tour Championship with a 66 after three over-par rounds.

Kuchar won The Barclays, and has finished 11th or better in five of his past six starts.

The U.S. rookies are coming off a dismal performance at the Tour Championship. Watson’s tie for 17th in the 30-man field was the best finish among the four U.S. rookies who played. The other three – Johnson, Overton and Kuchar – finished 22nd or worse.

Fowler didn’t qualify for the Tour Championship, but Overton may be the team’s biggest concern.

After a hot start to the season, he hasn’t posted a top 10 since the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in early August. He’s finished 71st, 56th, MC, 57th before a 29th in the 30-player Tour Championship.

The 2008 Ryder Cup showed the impact rookies can have.

The United States’ six rookies – Anthony Kim, Ben Curtis, Boo Weekley, J.B. Holmes, Hunter Mahan and Steve Stricker – went 9-4-8 in a 16 1/2-11 1/2 victory. Half of the rookies – Weekley, Holmes and Mahan – were undefeated.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself to play great and hit every shot stiff,” said Mahan, who went 2-0-3. “I realized from that, that it’s just golf. It’s still something I’ve done since I was 9 years old.

“I’m going to tell these guys, have fun.”

Come Sunday evening, the side that’s having the most fun may well be the one whose rookies performed best.

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