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Ryder Cup 2016: Will US end Europe’s 20-year domination?

_91453468_rose_gettyJustin Rose and Henrik Stenson will open Europe’s defence of the Ryder Cup on Friday as Darren Clarke’s men chase a record-breaking fourth victory in a row.

The pair will take on Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed in the first foursomes match before world number three Rory McIlroy and rookie Andy Sullivan go up against Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler.

These are heavyweight contests for one of the great global sporting events, the USA team captained by Davis Love desperate to end a sorry run that has seen them win just one of the last seven stagings of the 87-year-old biennial competition.

A raucous, partisan atmosphere is expected across this lengthy course south-east of Minneapolis and the build-up these past four days has been typically fervent and full of controversy.

The foursomes – in which players in each pair take alternate shots with the same ball – are completed with Sergio Garcia and Martin Kaymer versus Jimmy Walker and Zach Johnson, before veteran Lee Westwood and Thomas Pieters take on Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar.

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Love and Clarke came up against each other in four successive Ryder Cups from 1997 to 2004, playing twice in fourballs, once in foursomes and once in singles.

Clarke had two wins to Love’s one, but should he lead a team featuring six debutants to another win here in autumnal Minnesota it would rank alongside his Open victory in 2011 as his greatest triumph.

The Northern Irishman said: “I’m very happy with our team and the way the matches have come out.

“Justin and Henrik are a proven, successful Ryder Cup pairing. They were always going to be my choice for leading Europe off in this match – that was never, never in doubt.

“It’s not a case of having to inspire the guys, to build the guys up. They are ready to go out and play.”

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Love was captain of the US team that fell apart in such spectacular fashion on the final afternoon at Medinah in 2012, while four of his five vice-captains were playing members on that team.

But, bolstered by an 11-man task-force and borrowing much from the European textbook on team-building and preparation, the 51-year-old has appeared in relaxed and confident mood this week.

He said: “Our guys are really, really excited to play golf. You can see it in their practice, their enthusiasm when they got back to the team room. They are ready to go.

“Every time I look at this line-up, I just get more and more excited about all four matches.

The hour-long opening ceremony on a warm, sunny evening at Hazeltine on Thursday featured a tribute to the legendary Arnold Palmer, who died aged 87 last Sunday.

Just as Seve Ballesteros became a touchstone for that extraordinary European comeback four years ago, so the shadow of Palmer – unbeaten in six Ryder Cups as a player and two as captain – is likely to hang across the next three days of competition.

“Arnold loved this competition as he loved all things in golf,” said Love. “Arnold, this one is for you.”

A ceremony introduced by old Ryder Cup foes and friends Tony Jacklin and Jack Nicklaus closed with fireworks and a performance from Grammy-nominated singer, Aloe Blacc, the preamble as always drawn-out compared to the rapid-fire thrills of the three days to follow.

The traditional pre-Cup hype has been stirred both by an “ill-timed and wrong” ‘satirical’ column penned by the brother of European debutant Danny Willett and the remarks of several members of the US golfing elite.

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After Pete Willett described American Ryder Cup fans as a “baying mob of imbeciles” in a magazine article, Masters champion Danny admitted the controversy had “put a downer” on his first Ryder Cup.

Mickelson, the US team’s most experienced Cup player, was then forced to make a public apology after criticising former US skipper Hal Sutton for his selections 12 years ago.

Love, meanwhile, described his side as “the best team, maybe, ever assembled” while double Major champion and twice Cup winner Johnny Miller, now a prominent commentator in the US, claimed Europe had “their worst team for many years”.

But then there was the fan who had the temerity to criticise Europe’s putting abilities and, when invited onto the green, show them how it should be done, earning himself $100 from the pocket of Rose.

It is all great Ryder Cup fodder, the bookmakers favouring the home team and the USA’s 12 men having won two more majors between them than their opponents.

But Clarke’s team contains the reigning Open champion (Stenson), Masters champion (Willett), Olympic gold medallist (Rose) and FedEx champion (McIlroy) – with talismanic four-time major winner McIlroy admitting he was desperate to win the trophy for his childhood hero and mentor Clarke.

At 7,628 yards Hazeltine is a monster of a course, its rough cut short and greens kept quick to favour the big drivers and sharp putters in the home line-up.

But it has also seen much European success down the years, Jacklin winning the US Open here in 1970, and several of the current team finding it to their liking at the 2009 PGA Championship – Westwood and McIlroy finishing in a tie for third, Kaymer and Stenson tying for sixth.

The first tee will be the inevitable focus of attention as dawn breaks here on Friday, yet it is the closing five holes – the usual 5th to 9th – where the biggest galleries will gather and most matches be decided.

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After an unseasonably wet September the forecast for Friday, Saturday and Sunday is much improved, bright sunshine expected as the quintessential backdrop for a US Ryder Cup.

Friday afternoon will see four fourball matches, the better ball format, with the foursomes/fourball order reversed on Saturday before the concluding 12 singles matches on Sunday.

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