With The 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah just over seven weeks away, Captains José María Olazábal and Davis Love III took to the stage at Kiawah Island ahead of the US PGA Championship to deliver their own ‘State of the Nation’ reflections.
“51 days to until the first ball is struck at The 39th Ryder Cup at Medinah Country Club,” declared Kelly Elbin of the PGA of America.
51 days; a shade over 1,200 hours to go. The time for talking is almost over. Almost.
Seven weeks on Friday, the battle to claim the coveted Samuel Ryder Trophy will commence once more over Medinah Country Club’s renowned Number Three Course, when European Captain José María Olazábal will lead his troops out in a bid to retain the crown his predecessor Colin Montgomerie – and his heroic team – captured so dramatically at The Celtic Manor Resort in 2010.
And on the eve of the 94th US PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, Olazábal, and his long-time friend and now rival Captain, Davis Love III, took centre stage on another steamy day in South Carolina to give their assessment of where their respective Teams are at as the race to become one of the chosen 12 reaches its final furlong.
For the US Team, the US PGA Championship represents the final week to attempt to break into a top eight that will guarantee a seat on the plane to Chicago in September, with only Tiger Woods – currently in the Number One spot points-wise – mathematically secured his place in the American team so far.
With an enormous $8,000,000 prize fund on offer at the final Major Championship of the year, there are 29 players not currently in the automatic qualification places that can still surge into the US Team with victory at Kiawah so the incentives are plain to see, as Love testified.
“This is obviously a big week for us, the US PGA Championship, and the end of the points on Sunday,” Love remarked. “I know there are several guys that are working really hard to try to make the team.
“Hopefully they will relax and just play the PGA this week and work their way in. But our team is shaping up very well.”
Interestingly, Love himself would make his own team should he return victorious on the Ocean Course this week as he currently sits in 36th place in the US Ryder Cup rankings, just within shooting distance of a top eight spot.
While the US Team’s top eight is set to be determined come close of play on Sunday, plus a further four Captain’s Picks to be announced in New York on September 4, the European Team has three more weeks in which to accrue points to secure one of the ten automatic places in Olazábal's side in Medinah.
Those ten places will be confirmed at the climax of the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles on August 26, with Olazábal then making two Captain’s Picks the following day.
“At the moment, I'm really happy,” said Olazábal. “Every one of those ten players that are in today have Ryder Cup experience, so in that regard, I'm really pleased.
“Obviously there are certain players that might not be at their best at the moment, but as you said, there is 51 days to go and I'm pretty sure that they will be okay by then.”
Olazábal had dinner with the majority of the current top ten in the points-list on Tuesday at Kiawah, a summit Olazábal referred to as “a little chat”, and the Spaniard was his usual level-headed self in his description of the evening, preferring instead to keep his cards close to his chest.
“We got together because this was the only week that I could have the top players that are at the moment in together, because after this week lots of the guys will stay here in the States to play the FedEx tournaments, and some of the rest of the guys obviously will go back to Europe.
“So this was my only chance to really have them together. We had just a little chat and that's it, I won't say any more.”
While many of the European Team’s automatic spots are fairly secure – Rory McIlroy leads the way in the Number One spot as it stands – those in the latter places have plenty of potential suitors lurking not far behind.
The likes of Peter Hanson, Martin Kaymer and Sergio Garcia – who are third fourth and fifth in the World Points List – have Nicolas Colsaerts and Ian Poulter – to name but two – nipping at their heels and within striking distance of the team.
Olazábal commented: “I do have three more weeks and quite a few things can change. There are a couple of guys there that at the moment are on the bubble, Sergio being one of them. He will have to be on his toes these next three weeks to secure his place.
“We have a couple of players that are nearby that can make the team but there's always going to be a few guys that you would love to have for different reasons that might not be making the team.
“You might have to make a few phone calls or you might have to approach two or three players and tell them face to face, ‘Listen, you tried hard but you're not going to make the team.’
“I've always said that that is going to be one of the toughest moments of the Captaincy without a doubt. But that's the way things are, I'm not going to change that.”
Olazábal did, however, reserve special mention for a man that embodies the raw passion and unbridled spirit of the biennial transatlantic contest.
“Ian Poulter is really close,” Olazábal admitted. “We all know how great of a match player he is. He did extraordinarily well the last two Ryder Cups at Valhalla and Celtic Manor. Obviously he's one of the players that I am keeping an eye on, to see how he does the next three weeks.”
The relationship between the two Captains is inherently amiable and at points both men openly broke into laughter at each other’s comments in the midst of what was an entirely good natured exchange.
However, come the Friday of match week their friendship will be put aside in Illinois as for three days they will go head to head for the most sought-after prize in team golf.
Out of the 156-man field assembled for ‘Glory’s Last Shot’ at the US PGA, Olazábal is the only man that competed in The 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island, an event in which he won three of his four team matches in partnership with the great Seve Ballesteros before halving his singles match.
Both of the Captains were in agreement they would take inspiration from the men they had played under during the continental clash, from Jacklin to Ballesteros and Pavin to Watson, while also effusing the classic risk-and-reward nature of great match play courses, like Kiawah’s Ocean Course, and like Medinah’s Number Three course.
For Olazábal, though, a return to Kiawah Island is particularly poignant in its evocation of special memories, many of which, as you would expect, involve his long-time ally Ballesteros.
One story involving the compañero de armas left the Ocean Course media centre in stiches, a tale that bears repeating in full.
“I remember playing with Seve here at The Ryder Cup in ’91,” said Olazábal, with a smile already toying at the corners of his mouth. “We were hitting the ball all over the place. We ended up winning the match but there were certain moments.
“At the second hole, the par five, he snap hooked the tee shot way left into the water and I had to drop it on the ladies tee, that's how bad he hit the tee shot. I hit it onto the fairway.
“Obviously the US Team was, as always, right in the middle of the fairway; they hit the second shot short of the green in two. Seve hit a four iron and blocked it right into the trees, left me against the tree, and I had to chip it out.
“So we are lying five and the US Team is there in two, and I look at Seve, and I said, ‘What the hell are we doing here? Let's pick the ball up and go to the third hole.’ In those days the green had water front and water on the back. Seve said, ‘Just hold on a second. If we chip and putt, we make seven.’
“’Yes, correct, Seve. That's true,’ I replied.
"’Well, if they miss the chip and hit it in the water and drop it and chip it on to the green and make two putts, what do they do? Seven. So we still have a chance. Let's go.’"
And with that they were all but done; finished but for a meeting of the Captains’ eyes, a hand shake, a ‘well done’ and a smile, a closing gesture that brought to mind one of Ballesteros’ most iconic statements.
"I look into their eyes, shake their hand, pat their back, and wish them luck, but I am thinking, 'I am going to bury you.'"