Olazabal brings trophy to Medinah
Jose Maria Olazabal stepped off the plane carrying the Ryder Cup, a familiar sight considering that Europe has won six of the past eight times.
It was who followed the captain off the plane that showed how much the dynamics of this event have changed over the years.
Olazabal flew from London with only three of his 12 players: Paul Lawrie, Francesco Molinari and Ryder Cup rookie Nicolas Colsaerts.
Everyone else was already here.
Five of the Europeans — Ian Poulter, Justin Rose, Peter Hanson, Graeme McDowell and Sergio Garcia — have homes at Lake Nona in Orlando, Fla.
Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood, among four players who were in Atlanta on Sunday for the Tour Championship, are moving to south Florida. Luke Donald lives about 45 minutes away on the north side of Chicago.
It wasn't that long ago that Team Europe came over together because that's where so many lived and played — Howard Clark and David Gilford, Sam Torrance and Mark James, Ian Woosnam and Colin Montgomerie.
Olazabal didn't see that as a problem.
''When you look at some of the European players, they have their home base here,'' he said. ''They play the tour over here. They are very familiar with the golf courses around here, with their opponents, and in that regard, I think they feel really more comfortable with the whole situation of coming here to the States to play The Ryder Cup. It has changed in that respect, and also that they have realized through the years that they have been able to compete against the players here.
''And that somehow boosts your confidence, and that is a very important part when you are playing match play.''
Still, there was a certain charm about having the team arrive as one.
U.S. captain Davis Love III remembers his first Ryder Cup in 1993 at The Belfry, when Tom Watson assembled his group in New York and spoke of a grand adventure to Europe with the sole purpose of bringing back the cup.
Golf is different now.
''I miss that a little bit,'' Love said. ''We all gather and fly over. They fly over here. That was a really cool thing. But I think what we have got now is a much bigger event.''
Noting that so many of the world's best players are at Medinah Country Club, Love said that golf has become ''incredibly better.''
''What we have in our team rooms now and the camaraderie between the two teams is just incredible, and it's amazing how much it's changed over the years,'' Love said. ''And we're playing against our friends, but it's still as intense — maybe even more — because we are more familiar with them.''
One thing hasn't changed. Both teams desperately want that 17-inch gold trophy.
Europe is coming off a 14 1/2-13 1/2 win two years ago in Wales, a week of slogging through the rain that forced a Monday finish that made everything worth the extra day when it came down to the final match, with Graeme McDowell delivering the winning point.
Medinah, the tree-lined course that has hosted five major championships, doesn't look anything like those events. Love has asked for the rough to be virtually eliminated and the greens to be slick as ever, hopeful that's an advantage to a U.S. team that he tried to stock with good putters.
Even though Europe seems to have owned this event, The Americans have lost only once at home in the past 15 years: at Oakland Hills in 2004.
''We are playing here against a very strong team,'' Olazabal said. ''We are playing away. The crowds are going to be rooting for the home team really strong, so in that regard, we have to be prepared for that. I think I've said it all along, I think both teams are pretty much even and it's going to be a close match. From that point of view, I don't see any favorites, and it will have to be decided, obviously, on the golf course.''
The golf course was relatively quiet on a sunny, breezy day in the Chicago suburbs, which began with temperatures in the 40s and warmed beautifully by late afternoon.
Steve Stricker drove from his home in Wisconsin straight to Medinah, dressed in shorts as he worked on his chipping and putting. Keegan Bradley, one of four Americans making their Ryder Cup debut this week, also was practicing along with Matt Kuchar. Assistant captain Fred Couples took four players to the movies.
Tiger Woods, FedEx Cup champion Brandt Snedeker and Jason Dufner were due to arrive Monday night.
The first official practice day is Tuesday, along with the team photos. Love said his pairings for the opening day on Friday were close to being finished, and the Tuesday practice sessions would offer a strong hint whom he has in mind as partners.
Both sides have been busy.
The entire U.S. team and five of Europe's team members reached the FedEx Cup finale at the Tour Championship. Snedeker has had only one week off dating to the British Open, while Kuchar has missed only two weeks.
Love jokingly said Snedeker would have been at Medinah earlier except that he had to go to the bank and deposit the $11.44 million he won Sunday at East Lake from his victory in the Tour Championship that gave him a FedEx Cup title.
''Brandt doesn't ever need a week off. He's perpetual energy,'' Love said. ''But I've been stressing to them to make sure that they get some rest, and that they are prepared. We have four guys at the movies with Freddie this afternoon, four guys out chipping and putting and we've got another four coming in all during the afternoon. I think they are taking it easy today and they will be ready to go.''