NEWPORT, Wales — A young woman working at the Celtic Manor this week did a double take when she saw Corey Pavin getting into a golf cart. She didn’t realize he was the U.S. captain. What got her attention was what he was holding.
“Is that the Ryder Cup trophy?” she said excitedly before holding up her credential to show an image of the gold chalice.
Pavin and the American team own the real thing. The question is whether they go home with it.
After a night of travel on a charter flight out of Atlanta, the defending champions arrived in Wales for the Ryder Cup matches they will try to win on foreign soil for the first time since 1993.
Europe is considered the stronger team on paper with two major champions, Graeme McDowell and Martin Kaymer, and a 12-man side that has produced 17 victories this year, five of those on the PGA Tour. The perception of strength also is based on who didn’t make the team — Justin Rose, Paul Casey and Sergio Garcia.
European captain Colin Montgomerie isn’t buying into that.
“Yes, we might be favorites,” he said. “But I don’t see it as much as you guys might be putting this together. This will be very, very close and very competitive, as they always are.”
The Americans have the top two players in the world ranking, which in this case might be misleading. Tiger Woods has not won a tournament all year — he hasn’t even come close — while dealing with an embarrassing scandal that cost him his marriage. Phil Mickelson won the Masters, but he has been in the top 10 only once in the last three months.
Even so, Pavin has reason to feel his U.S. team is ready to defend.
Jim Furyk won the Tour Championship on Sunday, making him the third U.S. team member to win a FedEx Cup playoff event. Matt Kuchar won The Barclays, while Dustin Johnson won the BMW Championship.
“I like the way Team USA is playing right now,” Pavin said. “I think there’s a lot of guys that have been playing well, and that’s always a good thing. Any captain is going to want his players to be up on their game. But then again, anything can happen during a week of golf. I just would like my guys to be out there and be comfortable, relaxed, and get some good practice in the next couple of days.”
They were plenty relaxed on the way over.
It was the first time since at least 1997 the entire American team came over on the same plane. Some travelers and airport workers were stunned Sunday night to see Woods leaning against a wall having a casual conversation with Mickelson as the U.S. team, wives and caddies gathered outside one of the gates in the international concourse.
Odds are Woods and Mickelson weren’t talking fourballs strategies. That experiment of them playing together didn’t work so well in the 2004 matches at Oakland Hills.
Montgomerie already has told his players their partners, and Pavin has given his players an indication of who might be playing, and when. He just wasn’t about to reveal anything until the opening ceremony Thursday.
“I have a very good idea of what we’re going to do,” Pavin said. “We’ve talked about it quite a bit, and the players have an idea of the direction that I’m going to go. But there’s no reason for me to discuss it too much until I actually write the pairings down on paper and turn them in.”
Some pairings could become clearer when the teams begin practicing on the Twenty Ten course at Celtic Manor, the first golf course specifically designed with a Ryder Cup in mind.
Steve Stricker and Dustin Johnson took in a few holes of practice, Stricker dressed in a blue rain suit. The sky was gray and dreary, and rain was in the forecast for much of the week.
Celtic Manor otherwise looked ready to stage the biggest team event in golf. The grandstand behind the first tee was in the shape of an amphitheater, with towering bleachers behind the 18th green, and a stage already erected for the opening ceremony. Casual observers might not know if they were at a golf tournament or Woodstock.
It was an otherwise routine day, the big news that both captains have asked their players not to use Twitter or Facebook during the Ryder Cup. Stewart Cink and Ian Poulter each have more than a million followers.
Montgomerie doesn’t tweet. More strange to him is not playing.
“Strange in many ways,” Montgomerie said. “Biggest event in my golfing career and I’ve come here with no clubs. Quite weird, really. I stood on the first tee on Friday when I arrived. Had my own thoughts about ever playing in the Ryder Cup. And after this great honor and responsibility that this is, I intend to do my utmost to try to make the team in 2012.”
The first order of business, however, is getting that gold trophy away from Pavin and the Americans.