At the outset the United States was utterly dominant in Ryder Cup play, losing only three times to Great Britain & Ireland in the first 50 years the biennial competition was held. But since GB & I was expanded to include the rest of Europe in 1979, the United States has an unenviable record of 8 wins and 12 defeats, including losses in 7 of the last 9 competitions.
Obviously, the talent level of golf worldwide has grown significantly over the years, so it’s not unexpected to see the Europeans put up such a fight in recent years. What is unexpected, is for the US team to show up in Paris and lay a big, fat egg without looking all that surprised with the result. It’s almost as if they expected to lose. Were it not for a few spirited individual efforts on Sunday by the US squad, the 2018 edition of the Ryder Cup could have been a rout of historic proportions.
Task Force Failure
Following the 2014 loss at Gleneagles and Phil Mickelson’s infamous under-the-bus-throwing of Captain Tom Watson, the US formed some kind of task-force to examine the selection process and figure out a way to regain the edge. Despite a solid win in 2016 at Hazeltine, the United States Ryder Cup team as a whole is still more of a gathering of pampered millionaires than a cohesive team of golfers. I believe the task force is fundamentally flawed, but more on that later.
Team USA’s flaws were on display to anyone that was paying attention at Le Golf Nationale in Paris, France last month. For starters, I saw 2 or 3 players from the US team that seemed disinterested in even being there. From the way he played all week and his general demeanor, it looked to me like Bubba Watson couldn’t get the hell out of Paris fast enough. World No 1 Dustin Johnson is usually pretty stoic on the course, but he seemed particularly apathetic once his putting stroke failed him, and he managed to win only 1 point all week. Jim Furyk’s three captain’s picks went a combined 0-9. In Captain Furyk’s defense, it was nearly impossible for him NOT to pick Tiger Woods and Bryson DeChambeau for the team. DeChambeau won the first 2 FedEx Cup Playoff events and Tiger Woods finished a remarkable comeback season and easily justified his pick by winning the season-ending Tour Championship.
Phil Mickelson was playing pretty bad golf, yet he was picked for the team anyway, probably because he’s Phil Mickelson. Captain Furyk said he is great in the team room and has a lot of experience. Sure – losing experience. And the last time I checked, matches aren’t played in the team room. Sarcasm aside, you can’t win a Ryder Cup if your “leaders” and captain’s picks can’t earn a single point all week.
In the aftermath, we heard stories of players complaining about who they were paired with, players complaining about their position in the Sunday singles matches, and even about players fighting. I’m referring of course to Patrick Reed’s comments about his successful past partnership with Jordan Speith being broken up, and to the reported scuffle between Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson, which they both claim never happened. I’m not putting too much stock in these stories, but the overall vibe is one of dysfunction and lack of cohesion. If just one player in the team room has a negative attitude because he’s not happy about who he’s paired with, or has issues with another player, that team cannot be successful.
If you don’t learn from your failures, you are doomed to repeat them. Having said that, I don’t think it is beyond saving. The USA still has dozens and dozens of players that are more than capable of winning on the Ryder Cup stage, and the future looks bright for a whole new generation of young golfers. Here are 5 ideas that I think could help recreate the winning formula for the United States going forward:
Get players that want to be there – The PGA Tour season is long and it can be a grind. All jokes about 5-star hotels and private jets aside, it’s not easy to make a living playing golf. Most players on the PGA Tour don’t fly in private jets and drive Lamborghinis. But most US players aren’t used to playing in a team environment, and the demands of professional golf in the United States encourages more of a me-against-the-world mentality. Perhaps losing is partially responsible for the perceived decline in interest for the Ryder Cup in America lately. Either way, if a player doesn’t really want to be there and can’t commit 100 percent of their mental energy to represent their country for a week, they shouldn’t be on the team. This is why I think we need to change the process by which we pick the team.
Change the team selection process – The Ryder Cup selection process has been tweaked a bit over the years and the captain has another wildcard pick at his disposal, but I believe the captain should have more control over the makeup of the team. Why not let the captain pick half the players or more? The team should be made up of players that are playing well now and can be expected to play well at the host venue. The current points ranking system doesn’t work. Why should your team’s roster be determined by someone who played great 6 months ago and earned enough points to hold on and make the team now? That’s stupid.
The good ‘ol boy network needs to be scrapped and the USA should get a captain that is committed to winning, not just making everyone happy and letting them play with their buddies. Yes, that’s a dig at Jim Furyk who broke up several proven winning pairings like Reed/Speith so that Jordan could play with his childhood buddy Justin Thomas, and who’s pick of a flailing Phil Mickelson was not conducive to winning, given that Phil only played two matches anyway and didn’t earn a single point. Why pick a player to have him ride the bench all week?
We’ve seen several non-golf superstars hanging around the US Ryder Cup squad in recent years, like Michael Jordan, Condoleezza Rice, and John McEnroe. That got me thinking – Why does the captain have to be a golfer? Why not pick a knowledgeable sports figure or proven national leader to manage the team? Someone that will make decisions with the best interests of the team in mind, not egos. I think we should go with a respected leader that these players are willing to follow, and it doesn’t have to be a professional golfer. Think outside the box!
Pick a venue that gives us the advantage – There was a lot of talk about Le Golf Nationale in Paris as the venue for the 2018 Ryder Cup. It was set up almost like a US Open, with narrow fairways and thick rough. It’s no secret that the European squad did this to penalize the long-hitting US players. Our “bombers” are also some of the least accurate drivers of the golf ball on tour, and the Europeans took advantage of this to set up the course in their favor. This goes back to my first point – Instead of having most of the US Team automatically qualified on points, our captain needs to have the flexibility to pick players whose game is better suited for the venue. I think the results could have been very different if Captain Furyk had consistent ball strikers like Matt Kuchar, Kevin Kisner, Zach Johnson or Xander Schauffele on the team instead of Phil, Tiger, and Bubba. And on that note…
Retire the old guard – I’m not the only one who has suggested it and many people don’t dare speak of it, but I’ll say it anyway – It’s time to put Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods out to pasture in Ryder Cup competition. In 12 Ryder Cup appearances, Phil Mickelson has only won more than 2.5 points twice. In 47 matches played, he has only 18 wins. Tiger’s overall record isn’t much better at 13-21-3. While these guys are two of the best golfers in history and founding members of the so-called Ryder Cup Taskforce, they are also part of the problem and proven liabilities in this team format and need to be retired as Ryder Cuppers. Bring them on for a few more President’s Cups (We can still win that easily even with both of them in the lineup), or as vice-captains if you want their leadership and presence in the team room.
Scheduling & preparation – Only one player from the United States Ryder Cup Team had ever played Le Golf Nationale in tournament conditions – Justin Thomas. Is it a coincidence that he went 4-1 on the week and was the best player on the team? I don’t think so. The US team had two years to prepare and play the golf course, and they only had one guy with prior tournament experience there? That’s not only bad preparation, but it fed right into the European team’s strategy and setup. Because of the flawed team selection process, Jim Furyk’s hands were tied. He couldn’t field a team that would be able to drive it in the fairway and neutralize the European advantage. Instead, the United States brought a bunch of guys who can’t hit fairways to a course that puts a premium on hitting fairways. Not the best game plan.
To make matters worse, several US players looked quite weary after playing 4 out of 5 weeks chasing the FedEx Cup. Tiger Woods, in particular, looked mentally and physically drained after his breakthrough win at the Tour Championship just days earlier. Bryson DeChambeau appears to have peaked a bit early, winning the first two events of the FedEx Cup playoffs, but perhaps the season-long grind also got to him in Paris because he looked out of sorts all week. For some reason, the European players didn’t seem as affected by the season-ending playoff grind. I’ll chalk it up to the home course fans lifting their boys emotionally.
In terms of quality of play, I think it would be best for the Ryder Cup as a whole if the event was held at a time of the year where you can give the players at least a week off before the matches. It obviously would have helped the USA this year. The event only takes place every two years – would it be that difficult to give them a week off to rest up and get ready?
Will it Work?
Even if the United States implemented all these changes there’s no guarantee of success, but I think the odds would be much better. The US needs to field a team of players that are fresh, genuinely want to be there, want to play together and whose skills are well suited for the course. Team Europe has taken advantage of our flawed process to tilt the playing field in their favor. They relish the fact that their guys play better in pairs than us, and they consistently field a group of players that accept their role and form a cohesive unit towards a single purpose. It’s time for the USA to revamp their preparation, roster, and attitude towards the competition if they want to remain competitive in the Ryder Cup for years to come.