Anticipation builds for U.S. on eve of Ryder Cup

Phil Mickelson, left, and Keegan Bradley of Team USA during a practice round at the 2012 Ryder Cup Thursday at Medinah (Ill.) Country Club.

Phil Mickelson, left, and Keegan Bradley of Team USA during a practice round at the 2012 Ryder Cup Thursday at Medinah (Ill.) Country Club.

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MEDINAH, Ill. – Keegan Bradley hoisted his prize overhead, displaying it to the cheering crowd. American fans hope to see this sight Sunday evening at the Ryder Cup. This was Thursday afternoon, though.

Bradley’s Ryder Cup debut begins Friday, but regardless of what happens over the next three days, he already can claim a victory. The wad of bills in his hand had once belonged to Phil Mickelson, who handed them over after missing a 20-foot putt at Medinah’s finishing hole.

Bradley’s victory was short-lived, though. The American pair immediately took turns hitting 30-footers from the back of the green. Mickelson went first and held his putter aloft when his ball dropped into the hole. He held his hand open as Bradley attempted to match the feat. The money was returned to its previous owner when Bradley’s ball remained above ground.

We’re getting closer to what may be the most anticipated tee time of the year. The two dozen actors in the 2012 production of this biennial drama are accustomed to their workweeks beginning Thursday, but this is no average event. The Ryder Cup’s three-day format means an additional day to let the excitement build, as if the wait weren’t difficult enough.

It’s hard not to think this year’s match will be something special. We have two tightly-matched teams whose star players enter in top form, set to compete on a course that will allow them to let loose.

Expectations are so high that American Webb Simpson compared the prep days to playing in the final pairing at a major championship. “You don’t really get butterflies in practice rounds or pro-ams, but it was a different story Tuesday,” the U.S. Open champion said.

There are big expectations for this U.S. team, and they’re playing in front of a hungry home crowd that has witnessed only two stateside victories in the past two decades. It was obvious by the throaty chants of “U-S-A!” that fans are ready to get this thing under way. “I assume come Friday these fans are going to be ready to rock and roll,” Bradley said. Players feel the same way. They can play only so much pingpong. It’s time for some golf.

There’s a lot to look forward to, too.

There’s hope that Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, new friends and frequent playing competitors during the FedEx Cup playoffs, will become foes this week. McIlroy continues to establish himself as the world’s best player. Woods is a three-time winner this year and at a course where he’s undefeated as a professional, having won the 1999 and 2006 PGAs at Medinah. They’re not the only players who arrive here in good form, though.

Four members of the European team have won since August, including McIlroy, who has won three of his past five starts in impressive fashion. His eight-shot PGA Championship victory was followed by consecutive 20-under-par performances at the Deutsche Bank and BMW. Sergio Garcia, winner of the Wyndham Championship, is back on the European roster after missing the 2010 affair. And he’s at a site, Medinah, where he was introduced to American fans. He's finished no worse than third in two PGAs at Medinah, in fact.

On the American side, Bradley (WGC-Bridgestone) and Brandt Snedeker (Tour Championship) are recent winners, while Mickelson, Woods and Dustin Johnson are coming off strong playoff performances.

Adding to the anticipation is the fact that the matches are close again after the brutal years of 2002-06, when the United States lost by a combined 52.5-31.5. The U.S. won the last time the matches came to the States, winning at Valhalla in 2008 for the first U.S. victory in nine years. The last Ryder Cup, in 2010 at Celtic Manor in Wales, came down to the final match, with Europe winning by a point.

All of these facts are irrelevant at 7:20 a.m. Friday, though. Then it’s all about the golf. Finally.

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