MEDINAH, Ill. — The question used to come up every other year when the Americans began looking ahead to the Ryder Cup.
"Who's their Peter Baker?"
Europe always had at least one player the Americans didn't know anything about until losing to him. Baker played in only one Ryder Cup, going 3-1 in 1993 and winning a singles match against Corey Pavin, one of the toughest guys to beat in match play.
Those days are gone. As golf has expanded its borders, the Ryder Cup no longer has any mystery guests.
Eight of the Europeans have joint membership on the PGA Tour, and all eight have homes in Florida. Luke Donald of England, who has the best winning percentage of anyone at Medinah, lives about 45 minutes away on the north side of Chicago. The only Ryder Cup rookie for Europe is Nicolas Colsaerts, the big hitter from Belgium. With the majors and World Golf Championships, he already has played eight times in America this year, and has been invited to play in a PGA Tour event in two weeks in California.
There are no surprises in this Ryder Cup, only stars.
"Both teams are pretty much even and it's going to be a close match," European captain Jose Maria Olazabal said. "I don't see any favorites."
When the matches get under way Friday at Medinah, they will feature the two strongest teams in the 85-year history of the Ryder Cup. The entire 12-man team for the United States was part of the 30-man field at the Tour Championship last week in Atlanta, joined by five of the seven Europeans who were eligible.
For the first time, the 24 players from both sides are among the top 35 in the world ranking.
Europe has four major champions and four players who have been No. 1 in the world. Three of the four rookies for the U.S. team have won majors in the last 13 months — Keegan Bradley, Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson. The Americans have experience at the top — Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk collectively have played in 21 Ryder Cups and 90 matches. The Europeans have experience where it matters — winning.
It all starts to unfold Friday morning before a raucous crowd in the Chicago suburbs with a Ryder Cup that has all the trappings of a heavyweight prize fight.
Olazabal fought back tears at the mention of his mentor, the late Seve Ballesteros, during the opening ceremony. And while he won't be the same kind of captain as Ballesteros in 1997 at Valderrama, he seems to be following the same principles.
"Just play hard, play with passion and win the damn points," Olazabal said.
He sent out two of his best teams for the opening session of foursomes — Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell (Furyk and Brandt Snedeker), followed by Donald and Sergio Garcia, a tandem that has never been beaten in four alternate-shot matches. They will face Mickelson and Bradley.
So strong are the teams that among the four players U.S. captain Davis Love III sat Friday morning were two of the four major champions this year — Watson and Simpson.
"We had a tough decision, and it wasn't who to send out. It was who to sit down," Love said.
About the only thing missing has been fodder for the tabloids. Familiarity in this event is breeding civility, not contempt.
"This is not a war. It's a golf watch," Love said. "It's a friendly golf match."
During the opening ceremony, after host Justin Timberlake was finished reading a poem, both captains made a point of emphasizing friendship.
"These matches are not life and death," Love said. "Golf has to be played with a certain spirit of graciousness or it's not golf at all."
It wasn't always that way, especially when Europe began to win and then the Americans started to care. Ballesteros was the spiritual leader of those European teams, using the Ryder Cup as a chance for them to prove they were not second-class citizens to the PGA Tour. And it didn't help when the marketing slogans promoted a contentious week, whether it was the "War on the Shore" or the "Battle at Brookline."
By the sound of so many players, they might as well be cuddling in Chicago.
"Love Ian Poulter to death," Watson said Wednesday.
Most evident about this shift in the Ryder Cup was Monday afternoon at an airport some 45 minutes away. Olazabal flew over from London with the gold Ryder Cup trophy. Only three players from his team traveled with him, because the rest already were in America.
Paul Lawrie, back after a 13-year absence in the Ryder Cup, remembers 11 players on the plane when they traveled to Boston in 1999. The exception was Jesper Parnevik, who had moved to Florida years earlier.
"I think there's definitely less of a 'them-and-us' type of thing now from everybody's point of view," Lee Westwood said. "The players play with each other a lot more regularly since the start of the World Golf Championships, and the fact that the top world-ranked players get pulled together a lot more regularly. There's a feeling that the crowd knows the European players a lot better."
Has it become too friendly?
Not long after the Presidents Cup began in 1994, the International team complained that they should have a home game instead of always playing in America. Fred Couples suggested moving the matches to Lake Nona in Florida, where most of the international players lived. Now, there are five Europeans at Lake Nona — Poulter, Graeme McDowell, Justin Rose and Peter Hanson are permanent residents, and Sergio Garcia also has a home there.
The mere suggestion that the Ryder Cup turns soft was enough to make Poulter shudder.
"It means too much," Poulter said. "It means too much to Europe. It means too much to us for it to ever lose that edge."
Olazabal made that clear during the opening ceremony when he turned to Love and said, "I know how much you and your team want to win this love gold trophy back," Olazabal said. "But I have to tell you, we have every intention of taking it back with us."
Not even Medinah figures to produce much of an advantage to the Americans. About half the members on each team played in the PGA Championship on this tree-lined course in 2006, and so many of them play an American brand of golf these days, anyway. They are used to fast greens. Love has ordered the rough to be cut down to help his power hitters, but Europe has its share of power.
The difference figures to be the home crowd. Thousands of fans dressed in red, white or blue have crammed into Medinah over the last few days, yelling chants of "U.S.A! U.S.A!" when they see the Americans walk to the first tee or onto the driving range.
As the matches drew closer to starting, there was chirpiness to the chatter. The Americans felt as though Europe had some of its official party in the grandstand behind every hole, watching to see how the Americans practice and even counting off the steps by a caddie to figure out potential hole locations.
Poulter caused a brief stir when he said that he had many friends in America, "but, boy, do you want to kill them in Ryder Cup."
Mickelson has been involved in the Ryder Cup longer than any player on either team. He made his debut in 1995, playing alongside five players who would go on to become U.S. captains. The next seven captains for Europe played in that Ryder Cup.
The way Mickelson sees it, only the competition remains intense.
"I think over the last 20 or 30 years, a lot of the animosity that might be there because they don't know each other is gone, because we do spend so much time with each now, especially the best players on the team," Mickelson said. "I think a lot of strong relationships are formed. And I don't see one week affecting that."