Exclusive: Ryder Cup rookie Rafa Cabrera Bello relishing taking on Americans in their own backyard

The Spaniard, one of six Team Europe members participating in golf's biennial event for the first time, tells John McAuley he will "embrace the Ryder Cup atmosphere" when the action kicks off at Hazeltine on Friday.
Team Europe’s Rafa Cabrera Bello watches his tee shot on the sixteenth hole during practice for the Ryder Cup 2016 at the Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota, USA, on September 27, 2016. Tannen Maury / EPA
Team Europe’s Rafa Cabrera Bello watches his tee shot on the sixteenth hole during practice for the Ryder Cup 2016 at the Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota, USA, on September 27, 2016. Tannen Maury / EPA

Ryder Cup rookie, those dreaded first tee nerves, taking on the United States in their backyard and the unique atmosphere that engenders.

Rafa Cabrera Bello has considered it all ahead of his debut in the biennial clash with the Americans this week, but one of the European Tour’s most consistent golfers is still looking forward to it with relish. After all, he has been waiting a while.

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“I have been preparing to play in a Ryder Cup my whole professional career and it’s the culmination of much hard work to reach this goal,” says the Spaniard ahead of Friday’s opening day at Hazeltine National Golf Club, in which his European team, led by Darren Clarke, will attempt to retain the trophy that now seems theirs to keep. “So I will embrace the Ryder Cup atmosphere.”

And anyway, he has no other choice.

“Darren and his vice captains have prepared the rookies about what to expect and, of course, if you have not experienced a Ryder Cup in America it will be a challenge,” Cabrera Bello tells The National. “You must realise that the Americans are desperate to win back the cup on American soil.

“It is understandable that the crowds will be pulling for them to win – as a player that is something you need to embrace. There will be no greater motivation to win in America against the Americans. We know that will be a wonderful achievement.”

The feat would gain even greater kudos given the much-debated make-up of Team Europe. Of the 12 players, half have never before experienced a Ryder Cup. It has prompted much debate – Johnny Miller, a two-time US Ryder Cup participant and now prominent analyst for NBC Sports, labelled this the worst European side in many years – yet Clarke was quick to point out this week that he possesses in his stable the reigning Masters champion, British Open champion, Olympic champion and FedEx Cup winner.

Danny Willett, who slipped into the green jacket in April and ranks 10th in the world, is the marquee debutant. Cabrera Bello, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Andy Sullivan, Chris Wood and Thomas Pieters are also sampling the tournament for the first time. Yet Cabrera Bello does not see that as a weakness.

“There has been a lot about this in the press, however, the six European Ryder Cup ‘rookies’ play and win on the world stage and have experience in America and on the PGA Tour,” he says. “We all play the major championships and World Golf Championships against each other and, for example, Danny Willett is the Masters champion, which is a nice rookie to have.

“If we go back some years, there is a valid point regarding rookies, but these were times when players had little experience on American courses and playing against the Americans. I’ve been a successful professional golfer for many years and play regularly on the PGA Tour against all the American team, whom many I consider close friends.”

This week, friendships are put to one side. Even more so considering the recent record between the two teams. The US are on their worst ever run, losing eight of the past 10 duels, winning one in the seven since 2002.

The last time they met, at Gleneagles in Scotland two years ago, the 16.5-11.5 defeat was so comprehensive that it prompted the creation of a US Ryder Cup task force to try to stop the bleeding.

Home comforts may not necessarily work in their favour, either. The US hosted the event most recently in Illinois in 2012, when a European team captained by Jose Maria Olazabal and competing in the event for the first time since Seve Ballesteros’s death conjured the most remarkable comeback in the Sunday singles, rebounding from 10-6 down to triumph 14.5-13.5. The victory became known as the “Miracle at Medinah”. Little wonder it ranks as Cabrera Bello’s fondest Ryder Cup memory.

“What a remarkable spectacle and finish,” he says. “Olazabal as captain and with Europeans carrying the spirit of Seve in their hearts and on their shirtsleeves. I guess I’ve been influenced by the performance of the Spanish players since European teams have included players from the continent. I will bring Spanish passion to the event.”

Cabrera Bello’s commitment to the cause is obvious. He concedes every player, be they rookies or not, will feel the butterflies come first tee on Friday, a shot that seems to weigh heavier with each passing event.

Cabrera Bello, a Dubai regular who will join the rest of Team Europe in the emirate for November’s DP World Tour Championship, acknowledges this week will be one of the most “exciting and exhausting” he has experienced, but he has trained hard on the mental side of his game. He has worked closely for more than a year with Chris Henry, the former professional snooker player turned mind guru, a practice that has born fruit in his recent consistency on tour, a consistency that lifted him to fifth on Europe’s world points and secured a Ryder Cup debut.

In addition, Cabrera Bello can lean on Clarke, a five-time Ryder Cup participant who has both been there and done it, most notably in 2006 when he somehow won all three matches only weeks after the death of his wife. Understandably, Cabrera Bello wants to do well by the Northern Irishman.

“I have known Darren for many years and have the utmost respect for him as a player – I guess that is the key,” he says. “Respect for what he has achieved as a player in his professional career and in the Ryder Cup. Darren and his vice captains have been fantastic in sharing their time and friendship with me over the past 12 months.”

Cabrera Bello may be a Ryder Cup novice, but he is no stranger to team golf. Throughout his amateur career, he represented Spain at various tournaments, while he enjoyed playing under the Spanish banner at last month’s Olympics Games, where he finished tied-fifth. Representing not only his country but his continent is an honour, he says, the realisation of a long-held dream. That enthusiasm should carry him far at Hazeltine. It should also ensure he settles well within Team Europe, who have always cited their collective ethos as their finest attribute.

As such, Cabrero-Bello feels he can partner with anyone in the side. Compatriot Sergio Garcia appears the most likely, but there is Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose, Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood, too. Serious Ryder Cup know-how.

“The obvious natural fit would be with my good friend Sergio, but I am ready to play with any of my teammates,” Cabrera Bello says. “Darren would most likely pair up the rookies with experienced Ryder Cup players: Rory, Henrik, Justin, Martin, Lee and Sergio – not a bad group of players to have one as your partner.”

So Ryder Cup rookie, first tee nerves, taking on the United States in their backyard and the unique atmosphere that engenders? Bring it on.

“The Americans are a very strong team and they will have their home ground and fan support,” Cabrera Bello says. “That will be their greatest weapon. But we have a great team and team spirit that is not to be underestimated.”

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Published: September 28, 2016 04:00 AM

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