PARIS – The 41st Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National two years ago in Minneapolis yielded a fireworks show, with players making so many birdies that fans went home with aching hands from applauding so wildly. In an epic singles match, Patrick Reed and Rory McIlroy went out and made 18 birdies on the final day; a few groups behind them, Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia would top that by one, Mickelson making 10 on his own.
But this week at Le Golf National, the setup dictates that golfers will face a far more stern and demanding test. The fairways pinch the longer hitters in places, and players who miss them will face consequences. The rough is lush and thick and difficult to escape. The theater itself will be must-watch great, as this event has grown into one of the great spectacles in all of sport. And this Ryder Cup will be historic, too, being contested for the first time in France.
But the style of golf to be played at Le Golf, which stretches 7,183 yards and plays to a par of 71? Players expect it be a little different from the norm at a Ryder Cup. Certainly different from the last time these teams met.
“I don't think you'll go anywhere else where you'll see as many fist-pump pars as you'll see this week, especially in the afternoon foursomes when the wind picks up,” U.S. player Jordan Spieth said with a wry smile. “It was windy yesterday (Tuesday) and we were playing best-ball, and there weren't that many birdies outside the par 5s.”
Adds U.S. teammate Webb Simpson, “There's going to be plenty of holes won in alternate-shot (foursomes) with pars, and I even venture to say, I think there's going to be holes won in four-balls with pars, I really do. I mean, (No.) 18, there's a bunch of holes out there where you have to hit not only a great tee ball, but you have to hit a great second shot.”
The home-team captain – in this instance, Europe’s Thomas Bjorn – holds control over how the golf course is set up. There are things he can try do to possibly offset, say, the brute power of the American team, which features five of the top 11 players from this season’s driving distance category on the PGA Tour (one of Bjorn’s players, Rory McIlroy, led that list at 319.8 yards). Bjorn could urge the staff to perhaps slow down the pace of the greens, something that European players would find more comfortable than most American players. But with so many of his players quite familiar with Le Golf National, Bjorn was hesitant to greatly alter the conditions players see in the French Open each summer.
— Ryder Cup USA (@RyderCupUSA) September 27, 2018
“This golf course is very similar to what we are used to when we come here, and that's probably more the thing that I like,” Bjorn said. There's guys on this team that's played a lot of French Opens. I don't want them to show up and it's a completely different golf course to what they are used to. This is very similar to what it is normally.”
For Bjorn, that’s a good thing. Ten of his 12 team members have recorded at least one top 10 in their playing days at Le Golf in the French Open. In fact, the last two tournaments here were won by players that are on Bjorn’s team (Alex Noren in 2018, Tommy Fleetwood a year earlier). Bjorn himself has been a top-10 finisher at Le Golf, and one of his vice-captains, Graeme McDowell, has won twice here.
The acres of playing fields in golf change from week to week, venue to venue. That's one of the inherent beauties of the game. And while Hazeltine and its more lenient setup (as influenced by then-U.S. Captain Davis Love III) lent itself to some vibrant scoring, Le Golf National won’t give anything away this week. Every birdie, every par, will be hard-earned.
The finish also should prove exciting. Three of the last four holes at Le Golf feature water, the exception being the uphill, straight-away 480-yard 17th. The finishing hole is rugged – 471 yards, water left off the tee and fronting the green, and a cluster of deep bunkers right of the fairway in the bailout zone. It’s a demanding closer with little room for error.
Also, given that the Ryder Cup will be played on Le Golf National in a different window of the year (autumn, instead of mid-summer), the characteristics of the course are bound to change. Le Golf, sometimes compared to the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, especially with its water-guarded finishing holes, plays firmer and faster in summer. This week, it’s a tad softer. The rough is longer in summer, but drier and wispier. This week it's thick, and mown from green to tee to increase difficulty of hitting shots from it.
As for comparisons with the last Ryder Cup venue? It’s a totally different ballpark.
“It's a completely different golf course, to be honest,” Bjorn said. “It's tight. Hazeltine was wide. It was a long golf course. There's a lot of rough. There's no rough in Hazeltine. All the differences you can come up with, they are here.
“That doesn't make Hazeltine a bad golf course and it doesn't make this one a bad one, either. They are both great golf courses in their own rights, and that's what it is. But this is the course we're playing this week, and all those 24 out there now trying to figure out how to play it the best way.”
Noren won this summer’s French Open by shooting 7-under 277 over 72 holes. He played his first two rounds in 3-over, and then shot 10-under (65-67) on the weekend.
“This course is all about, you know, patience, and I think it's an unbelievable match-play course,” Noren said Thursday. “There are a lot of birdies out there … but you've got to hit great shots, and it's going to be very interesting, I think, how the matches play out on this golf course.”