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Len Ziehm On Golf

Ryder Cup is the real climax to this PGA Tour season

Let the greatest show in golf begin.

With all due respect, it’s not any major championship. It’s not the FedEx Cup Playoffs. It wasn’t the return of the sport to the Olympics for the first time in 112 years.

No, the greatest show in golf isn’t even a tournament. It’s the Ryder Cup, and the 41st playing of the matches between the U.S. and Europe is coming up Sept. 27 through Oct. 2 at Hazeltine National Golf Club in the Minneapolis suburb of Chaska, Minn.

The Ryder Cup wasn’t always the greatest show in golf. It only became that after the Europeans started winning regularly. Now it’s one of the great team competitions in all of sports. Patriotism abounds, creating a memorable spectacle no matter which team wins.

I’m happy to say I’ve been involved with Ryder Cups beyond just being a reporter of what goes on in the matches every couple years. In both the Ryder Cup at Medinah in 2012 and this year’s version at Hazeltine my involvement has included participating in a book — along with Nick Novelli, the great Chicago photographer — for the host club’s membership.

For Hazeltine’s members, they learned the Ryder Cup would be coming via a PGA of America announcement in 2002 but their preparations really heated up at Medinah. They came and learned there, then refined their plans after watching the 2014 version of the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, in Scotland. Now it’s Hazeltine’s turn to show what it can do as the host club.

Hazeltine is even better qualified historically to host this Ryder Cup than Medinah was four years ago. Given Medinah’s rich tournament history, that may be hard to believe. Consider this, however. Hazeltine didn’t even open until 1962, roughly 40 years after Medinah, but it has already hosted two U.S. Opens (1970, 1991), two U.S. Women’s Opens (1966, 1977), two PGA Championships (2002, 2009), the U.S. Senior Open (1983) and the U.S. Amateur (2006).

The Ryder Cup is all that’s missing from the club’s resume, and that will soon be corrected. Only one club has hosted all those big events plus the Ryder Cup. That would be North Carolina’s Pinehurst No. 2, which opened in 1907 – 55 years before Hazeltine. Pinehurst became the first course to host both the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens in back-to-back weeks in 2014. It also hosted the U.S. Senior Open (1994), the PGA Championship (1936), the U.S. Opens of 1999 and 2005 and the Ryder Cup (1951).

Enough about history, though that’s always important for any serious golfer’s perspective. Now it’s about choosing up sides, and that’ll take the entire month of September.

Because of the schedule changes made to accommodate the Olympics, the team selections were pushed back roughly two weeks. The first eight players on the U.S. team were finalized on Aug. 28 after The Barclays – first of the four tournaments of the FedEx Cup Playoffs – concluded in New York.

U.S. captain Davis Love III will announce three of his four captain’s picks on Sept. 11, after the BMW Championship concludes at Crooked Stick in Indianapolis. The final pick will be announced on Sept. 25, at The Tour Championship in Atlanta. This is a change from previous Ryder Cups, and there’ll be more suspense with the captain’s picks announced so close to the matches themselves.

Darren Clarke, the European captain, got the top four players off the European Tour point list and the next five off the World point list after the Race to Dubai’s Made in Denmark tournament that concluded on Aug. 28. That leaves him just three captain’s picks, to be made in early September.

Though Europe has won the last three stagings of the competition, Clarke’s team figures to be a younger one this time and will be without Ian Poulter, always an emotional leader of his team’s Ryder Cup effort.

Poulter is in a four-month long rehab from a foot ailment which caused his to drop out of tournament play in June. Poulter, though, will be one of Clarke’s vice captains, the others being Thomas Bjorn, Padraig Harrington, Paul Lawrie and Sam Torrance.

The U.S. has a 25-13-2 edge in the series but hasn’t won the Ryder Cup since 2008 and has triumphed only three times since 1999. The last loss on home soil, at Medinah, was especially deflating. The U.S. had a huge meltdown in the concluding singles matches and went down to a 14 ½-13 ½ defeat.

Love has four vice captains – Minnesota native Tom Lehman, Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods. The staffs from both teams will make appearances at Hazeltine to arrange practice sessions for the players in early September.

As for the club, Hazeltine looks much different than Hazeltine. Medinah has the bigger clubhouse but Hazeltine has the newer one. It was built in 2010.

Medinah has three courses on its premises. It also offers a variety of other activities for its members – like tennis, swimming and skeet and trap shooting. Hazeltine is all about golf. Though it has only one, very respected, course there is plenty of open space around the club and that makes it a most desirable tournament venue.

Tom Bendelow was the original designer of Medinah’s No. 3 course, which was the site of the 2012 Ryder Cup and most of the tournaments played at the club, but other designers made updates over the years to ready the course for big events. Robert Trent Jones designed the Hazeltine course, but it won’t play as he envisioned it for the Ryder Cup.

The hole rotation has been altered since the 2009 PGA was played there to accommodate the construction of chalets for corporate hospitality. The last four holes of each nine were switched to make for a better spectator experience.

At Medinah overall course conditioning was a major problem leading right up to the start of play, but all went well in the end. At Hazeltine there wasn’t as much tension. What there was came in the installation of a new bunker system. Work on that was completed in the dead of winter, two months before the course even opened for play.

Bunkers are a key part of the Hazeltine playing experience, and the course has 108 of them. They account for the same square footage as the putting surfaces – about three acres each. That’s an eye-catching statistic, because bunkers typically are about one-third the size of the putting surfaces.