For so many years, the Ryder Cup didn't need a cast of stars to become the biggest spectacle in golf. The flags stitched onto the shirts and caps, and the colors on the leaderboards — American red, European blue — were enough to produce raw emotion, enormous pressure and compelling theater.
And that's what makes the 39th edition of the Ryder Cup seem even bigger.
Europe has the No. 1 player in the world on its side — Rory McIlroy — for the first time in two decades. Jim Furyk referred to the 23-year-old from Northern Ireland as a "marked man" because of his staggering success dating to his record eight-shot win at the PGA Championship, his second major in as many years.
"He's the best player in the world right now, and he's going to be the toughest guy to beat," Furyk said.
The United States counters with Tiger Woods, whose game has been restored enough for him to win three times on the PGA Tour this year. Woods is even starting to figure out this Ryder Cup business, producing a winning record (6-3-0) the last two times he has played.
The quality of the rosters doesn't stop with golf's two biggest stars, however. For the first time in Ryder Cup history, the 24 players who will be at Medinah Country Club in the Chicago suburbs all are among the top 35 in the world ranking.
Already the most intense competition in golf, this Ryder Cup has all the trappings of a heavyweight title fight.
"It does seem that way," Luke Donald said. "McIlroy is on a phenomenal run. Really, everyone is coming into form."
The Americans have four players who will be making their Ryder Cup debut, though these "rookies" have some major experience handling pressure — Masters champion Bubba Watson, U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson and Keegan Bradley, who won the PGA Championship last year.
"I've been looking at the U.S. team for a few weeks now and just going, 'Wow. These guys look really strong and really good,'" said Graeme McDowell, the Ryder Cup hero in Wales two years ago when he won the decisive point at Celtic Manor. "And there's so much young blood on there now who are right up for these things. There's a good buzz. It's great. I think it's set up to be an awesome Ryder Cup. I really do."
Europe has a team so strong that Padraig Harrington was left off for the first time since 1997, and defending champion has only one rookie. That would be Nicolas Colsaerts of Belgium, one of the longest hitters in the game whose lone win this year came at the World Match Play Championship in Spain.
Along with McIlroy, it features the only other three players to be No. 1 in the world since Woods abandoned the top spot two years ago — Donald, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer. Sergio Garcia, who has never lost a foursomes match in his previous five Ryder Cups, is back on the team after missing in 2010. One of the captain's picks was Ian Poulter, who has won all three of his singles matches before they reached the 17th hole.
The chatter at most Ryder Cup matches is which team looks better on paper.
This time, they're both mint.
"The U.S. team has a number of players high up in the ranking, as does Europe," Phil Mickelson said. "We're going to see some high-quality golf at the Ryder Cup."
Adding to the star power are the captains.
Jose Maria Olazabal is such a central figure in the Ryder Cup, dating to his "Spanish Armada" partnership with the late Seve Ballesteros, that when the European Tour committee set out to identify the next captain, it didn't even bother meeting. He was the only European captain selected by a phone call. The Americans have Davis Love III, a widely respected figure on the PGA Tour who made the cup-clinching putt in his Ryder Cup debut in 1993 and played on six teams.
So who has the advantage?
"On Friday, you still won't be able to tell who wins," Westwood said. "It will be a hotly contested Ryder Cup and everyone will enjoy watching it."
The Americans would seem to have one advantage simply by playing before a home crowd. And for Woods, it will feel like a home course. Medinah has hosted five major championships, the last two won by Woods at the PGA Championship, the last one in 2006 when he was tied with Donald going into the last round and won going away.
"I personally like Medinah," Woods said with a grin.
The Americans have lost only once at home in the last 15 years — in 2004 at Oakland Hills — and most Ryder Cup veterans believe playing at home is worth a point. That was the margin at the last Ryder Cup in Wales, when it came down to the very last match.
Medinah might look like a big stage, though it's not likely to play like a major test.
As the home captain, Love can have the golf course set up the way he likes. He is asking for the rough to be cut back as much as possible, giving a powerful team of Woods, Mickelson, Watson, Bradley and Dustin Johnson room to blast away. Love also wants the greens to be fast, certainly faster than how Europe grooms its greens.
"When the Ryder Cup is played here in Europe, for instance, the speed of the greens are not all that fast," Olazabal said. "We like to have them between 10, 10½ (on the stimpmeter), because we feel more comfortable around that speed. We know that in the U.S., they prefer the firm and fast greens, and most probably that's what we are going to find out we are going to have over there. Those little things help.
"And the crowds — the support of the crowds are massive," he said. "We saw that in Ireland. We saw that in Wales. It's huge. The players know that the atmosphere is going to be electrifying. So I need to prepare them for that, tell them that they cannot allow themselves to be bothered by that."
As evenly matched as these teams appear to be, experience still favors Europe.
Not only does it have only one newcomer to the Ryder Cup, most of them are used to winning. Europe has won six of the last eight times, and the only two American victories were nail-biters — the great comeback at Brookline in 1999 when Justin Leonard's 45-foot birdie putt banged into the back of the cup, and Valhalla in 2008 that was closer than the score indicated. In one of the pivotal matches, Hunter Mahan made a 60-foot putt across the 17th green.
"They putt better than us, it seems like, in the Ryder Cup," Love said.
Woods, despite 86 worldwide wins and 14 majors, still has a losing record in the Ryder Cup. For years, he was that "marked man," and Europe nailed him in singles (Costantino Rocca), when he was paired with the No. 2 player in the world (David Duval), or when he played well and Europe was simply better.
But it's not just Woods.
None of the eight Americans with Ryder Cup experience has a winning record. Woods chalks that up to the overall result. As much as Europe has been winning over the last 15 years, it's not possible for the U.S. players who have a winning mark — not as a team, not as individuals.
"I've only been part of one winning Ryder Cup team since my time in '97," Woods said.
"We didn't play well at the right time, and that's just the way it goes. Hopefully, this year we'll play well at the right time."