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37TH RYDER CUP

The betting for this year’s Ryder Cup reflects a significant shift in world golfing power. Until very recently any European side, while containing its share of stars, would also have a few obvious weak links. Players who nobody ever expected to cut it beyond the European Tour.

No disrespect to any of them, but this was the general consensus about players like Phil Walton, Constantino Rocca or Phil Price.

Those three actually went on make significant contributions for successful teams, but within the customary context where Europe started as outsiders before utilising their greater determination and team spirit to upset the odds.

All that has changed and for the first time ever, Europe start as favourites away from home. Only Oliver Wilson and Soren Hansen lack big-time experience amongst this year?s European line-up. More to the point, consider the quality that missed out on qualification – Ryder Cup legends Montgomerie and Clarke, recent Euro stalwart Paul McGinley and future legend Martin Kaymer.

In contrast, even with four wild-card picks, US captain Paul Azinger had no ace up his sleeve to frighten Europe. His four choices were 41 year-old rookie Steve Stricker, PGA Tour also-rans Chad Campbell and JB Holmes plus the most controversial selection, Hunter Mahan.

Mahan blurted out in a recent interview that the US players felt like ‘slaves’ for having to work unpaid when representing their country. I’m truly astonished he won a place after such remarks, and can only assume that he was repeating the consensus view.

Until they prove otherwise, there’s no reason to assume the US have suddenly mastered the art of team matchplay golf. In the last five renewals, Europe holds a massive 18 point lead over the first two days of fourballs and foursomes. Only Stricker has ever won a matchplay title, and that was nine years ago against a much weakened WGC line-up. Before Stewart Cink finished runner-up to Tiger this year, none of the others had ever reached a WGC Matchplay final.

This does not compare favourably with Europe. Lee Westwood and SERGIO GARCIA look set to challenge their captain’s all-time record points total in the Ryder Cup. Whereas Faldo accumulated 25 over a twenty year career, Westwood already has 15.5, Garcia 15 before hitting the age of 30. HENRIK STENSON and PAUL CASEY have both won World Matchplay titles and at least a 50% Ryder Cup points strike rate, a figure which none of the Americans can boast.

After his heroics in the Majors, Padraig Harrington looks an equal match for Phil Mickelson, who takes over as the top-ranked player on either side in Tiger’s absence. The rest of the European side also looks strong. Robert Karlsson dispelled any fitness doubts with an impressive win in Germany last week, where fellow team-members Hansen, Graeme McDowell and Miguel-Angel Jiminez also confirmed their wellbeing.

The only very minor doubt concerns Ian Poulter’s controversial selection as a wild-card ahead of the more experienced Clarke. Personally, I would have picked Darren to keep his partnership with Lee Westwood alive, but Faldo had to make a marginal call here. In fairness, Poulter is the superior player on the world stage nowadays and has shown a liking for head-to-head golf in the WGC Matchplay before.

In the interests of playing devils advocate, a few pro-US arguments deserve consideration. Firstly, support from a home crowd is always an advantage, and was probably the pivotal factor in their last success, at Brookline in 1999.

Reports suggest that Valhalla will be devoid of penal rough, set-up to produce attacking golf in low-scoring conditions. Conventional wisdom argues that the US, with their ‘target’ golfers, are favoured by this, but I’m not so sure. Conditions may favour big-hitters like Mickelson, Antony Kim and JB Holmes, but less so in the cases of short, steady grinders like Jim Furyk, Justin Leonard and Ben Curtis. A test of target golf would just as equally suit the likes of Karlsson, Stenson, Casey and Rose.

And what of the argument that the US will gel better as a team without the superstar Woods? I can imagine PHIL MICKELSON improving on recent Ryder Cup disappointments now he?s the centre of attention, but its hard to argue that any side would be better off without Tiger. After all, he did finish as his country’s top scorer last time.

The only thing positive I can say for the Americans is that they will surely improve on those 9 point thrashings in 2004 and 2006. One-sided matches are a rarity in team golf, a format that usually lends itself towards momentum swings and exciting finishes.

As always, the most attractive betting options lie in the top scorer markets. The crucial point here is that, unlike a strokeplay tournament, these markets are not a level playing field because its perfectly obvious certain players won’t play anywhere near the maximum five matches.

In the last five Ryder Cups, the overall points scorer played all five, a figure which can only be realistically reached by six to eight players. Occasionally, a player finishes as his side?s top scorer after playing less than five, though eleven of the thirteen players to have either won or tied either market from 1997 onwards did play the maximum.

The key therefore, is to identify who will be selected for all five matches. SERGIO GARCIA has played the maximum in each of his four previous appearances and looks certain to do so once again. His amazing record in the pairs rounds – 14 points from a possible 16 – makes him very much the man to beat on either side. Expect to see Sergio resume his prolific partnership with Westwood at some stage.

Westwood has also never missed a round, so will probably play all five again. As mentioned above though, there is a tiny doubt that he will accumulate his usual total without long-term playing partner Clarke. For this reason I marginally prefer Garcia.

Others in contention to play all five for Europe are Harrington, Stenson, Karlsson and Casey. There aren’t enough spots available for them all to do so, but at decent odds the last three named all look fair each-way value.

Casey particularly strikes me as ready to assume a more senior role in Team Europe in his third Ryder Cup. He’s won two-thirds of his previous matches, and is known to be super-fit. Perhaps as importantly, Casey seems a better player on US courses, and as a long-hitter should thrive around Valhalla.

Stenson also looks good each-way value in this market at 16/1, and is marginally preferred to his compatriot Karlsson because I rate him slightly more likely to play the maximum number. Again, this excellent match-player could make hay with the lack of rough on the course.

Because Europe are fancied to win, it may make more sense to back Americans in their own national top-scorer market. Fewer of their side look in contention to play the maximum. Mickelson does look certain to do so, making him a rock-solid favourite at 11/2. Furyk may do so

too, but has a very disappointing previous record in the event.

Beyond this front pair, big question marks surround their experienced core. Justin Leonard has never won a full point in eight previous tries, while Stewart Cink and Kenny Perry have looked badly out of form in recent weeks.

Of the six rookies, the only with prospects of playing the maximum are ANTONY KIM and Stricker. Arguably the most exciting young player in the world, Kim represents his country’s best hope in my view. He has the type of shot-making brilliance that usually thrives in this format, and could well make the type of immediate impact we saw with Garcia nine years ago.

With so few stars, it would make sense for Azinger to ask Kim’s young legs to carry the maximum workload this week, and he also looks certain to figure in high-profile partnerships. He’s been reported to have been practising with Mickelson, though equally I could see him gelling with the contrasting style of Furyk.

Here’s the betting strategy then. Besides backing Europe to win the Ryder Cup, I’m backing the three of their number to be overall points scorer, along with Kim. I’m also backing Kim in the uncompetitive looking top US scorer market, along with Mickelson. Finally, I also recommend four cheap each-way doubles in the two top team scorer markets.

Good Luck!

ADVISED BETS

20pts EUROPE TO WIN RYDER CUP @ EVS (TOTE, BETFAIR, 21/20 PADDY POWER)

TOP OVERALL POINTS SCORER

6pts ew SERGIO GARCIA @ 8/1 (GENERALLY AVAILABLE)

3pts ew ANTONY KIM @ 14/1 (GENERAL)

3pts ew HENRIK STENSON @ 16/1 (GENERAL)

2.5pts ew PAUL CASEY @ 22/1 (STANJAMES, SKYBET, BETDIRECT)

TOP US SCORER

8pts PHIL MICKELSON @ 11/2 (SKYBET, SPORTINGBET)

5pts ew ANTONY KIM @ 7/1 (GENERAL)

PLUS 4 X 0.5pts EACH-WAY DOUBLES (BEST ODDS BOYLESPORTS)

MICKELSON & KIM @ 5/1 & 7/1 TOP US SCORER

GARCIA & CASEY @ 4/1 & 10/1 TOP EUROPEAN SCORER