The roster was new. The organization was new. The approach was new. The result was the same: an embarrassing American Ryder Cup loss in Europe.
The overhaul that the ignominy of the 2014 loss set in motion was supposed to deliver this week in Paris. All the changes to the system, the one that yielded a win in 2016, were put in place to avoid what happened in Paris. Instead, the loss, on the scoreboard, was even worse than that 2014 breaking point.
The favorite to win the 2018 Ryder Cup was Team USA. It was the best group they’d taken to Europe in this 25-year winless drought. Major winners and studs at the top of the world rankings lined the roster. The team was not just stacked, but infused with young talent that’s turning over the roster and getting away from the group that put the U.S. through decades of Ryder Cup misery.
It did not matter. Now that young talent has their own scar tissue. The modern-day tradition of the United States Ryder Cup failure continued. Even worse, it was boring failure. It was just a sad blowout loss. Let’s diagnose where and how it went so wrong.
The Ryder Cup is the one event where we assign so much weight to all these peripheral effects, some tangible and others mythical. We cite the “spirit” of past legends for present-day success. We cite the leadership of certain players in the team room and their ability to rally others (golf’s version of a “great clubhouse guy”). We cite cohesiveness. We cite the motivational abilities of the captains. We cite the captain’s strategy for a given week.
Some of it matters and some of doesn’t matter at all. All of it is peripheral. The European team played well and the American team played like crap. The Euros were solid, but they should never be running up 17.5 points on this USA roster. They should never win eight straight points, an incomprehensible streak for any roster or collection of talent in a competition like this.
It was inexcusably bad golf by the American side. Pars won too many holes in four-ball. Scores in alternate shot foursomes were through the roof in the windy conditions of Friday. Birdies were few and far between in singles, the one format where American depth is supposed to shine through. Europe frequently picked up points by playing slightly better than par golf. They won some points playing great and they won several points just not playing horribly, like their American counterparts.
The U.S. team is fortunate scorecards aren’t kept because some of the numbers would have been embarrassing. Patrick Reed probably shot over 80 on Saturday morning. Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson were over-par in singles. So there’s a lot of breath wasted on marginal differences that might matter in a closer competition. This was not close because the Europeans were steady and the 12 USA players with an average world ranking of 11 played poor golf.
So there will be range of reasons produced for why Europe won and the mistakes that cost the United States. They lost because they hit a bunch of bad golf shots. The lineup and team room atmosphere matter less when you can’’t hit a shot.
The Ryder Cup is the one major golf event where you hear far less about the course. At the major championships, the course conditioning and every hole is examined throughout the week before we get a winner on Sunday night. It’s as much a part of the major championship as the field. At the Ryder Cup, it’s just supposed to be the arena, a backdrop for an adversarial match play competition.
This week, however, demonstrated just how much the course can impact the competition and favor one side. Le Golf National is the annual host of the French Open on the European Tour. The European team members, most of them, play it every year. They knew the set up and the hole layouts well in advance.
The greens were running at speeds in line with many European courses, but slower than American tour courses. An adjustment, but not the biggest problem. The rough was hack-out rough and the fairways were narrow. If you missed one and didn’t land in the rough, you were probably landing in water, of which there was plenty on multiple holes across the course. So the greens were on the slow side. The rough was brutal. And the fairways were narrow.
The conditioning favored their skill sets as ballstriking menaces, as Euro Tour pro Eddie Pepperell put it. So iron-game aces like Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood and Justin Rose and Alex Noren just carved it up on course they already knew well.
The USA roster, on the other hand, was loaded with big hitters and wild hitters. Phil Mickelson was 192nd in driving accuracy on the PGA Tour this year. Only 193 players qualified for the statistic. Half the roster fell in the bottom half of the PGA Tour’s driving accuracy stat. It’s an imperfect stat but it conveys the point here that the team was full of wilder hitters on a course that punishes that more than they’re used to.
The entire roster was dominated by the style of golf that succeeds on most of the American tour courses, where hitting it long, and not particularly straight, is the biggest advantage. If you miss a fairway, the rough is not that penal and you’re so far up the hole it’s still easy to get home and make birdie. Le Golf National didn’t require a driver on many holes, but it did require precision.
The USA’s biggest advantage was nullified and their weakness exposed. Does that mean they should have picked a different roster better-suited for this kind of golf? Probably, but that’s not really how the system works. Europe played better golf this week and deserved to win, and the course, more than usual for a Ryder Cup, helped them do it.
This week was not exactly good for the promotion of The Match on Thanksgiving weekend.
It is going to get ugly here for a minute. The emblems of this 25-year run of American shortcomings are Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. It should not compute, given their legendary careers. But they are two of the worst Ryder Cup players of all time.
Mickelson was unplayable this week. He rightly sat on the bench for the entire day on Saturday, and it seemed he knew that was the best place for him.
‘I was not playing my best,” he said after the loss. “I spent more time hitting balls throughout the week than I have all year trying to find something that would click, and it’s just been a struggle. The last month has been a struggle.”
Phil is now the all-time Ryder Cup leader in losses, getting his doors blown off by Francesco Molinari in Sunday singles. That loss broke a momentary tie with Tiger Woods, who had matched Phil at 21 losses about 30 minutes before Mickelson was conceding the Cup on a tee box to Molinari. You don’t often see a concession on a damn tee box, but that’s what happens when you put one in the water by a good 15 feet and your opponent is the hottest player in the Cup.
Tiger’s 21st loss came to Jon Rahm, who played well enough in Sunday singles after a shaky week. But it’s still someone, given the form we’ve seen from Tiger over the past month, that he should pick off in a match. Instead, it completed an 0-4 week. According to Golf Channel, he’s the fourth player since 1979 to get that many matches and get completely shutout.
Tiger’s game was bad. He looked unhappy. He looked stiff at times. He looked spent. He looked like he didn’t want to be there — the opposite of everything he’s shown as an assistant captain the last two years for these teams. I’m not sure what happened between last weekend in Atlanta and this ugly Ryder Cup, but he was an entirely different golfer and person.
Both Phil and Tiger, who are wild off the tee, were not suited for this course. It seems likely this was the last team both will play on in Europe. Phil will be 50 for the next Ryder Cup in Wisconsin and he said he’s motivated now to make it. I’d imagine Italy at 52 is out of the question. As for Tiger, who knows what his body is capable of next season, let alone two and four years out.
It sucks for American fans, who back both of these players in massive numbers every week on the PGA Tour. Getting behind a fist-pumping Tiger and a swaggering Phil would be Ryder Cup heaven if you’re a USA backer. But it’s never happened and they were a complete drag on the team. Unfortunately, it was a fitting end to their run of failure on American teams going to Europe.
We tend to give the captains too much credit and too much blame. Occasionally, there is a captain so spectacularly bad that he ruins the event for a team and they go down. But the captain’s impact is overstated. Your team either plays well or it doesn’t.
U.S. captain Jim Furyk made some mistakes. His captain’s picks were awful, going an historically bad 2-10-0 (thanks Tiger and Phil). By contrast, Bjorn’s captain’s picks went 9-4-1. It’s an easy jab to say he should have taken different players in hindsight. The four picks he made, while not suited for this course, were the obvious choices. The backlash, had he not taken them, would have been intense. You’re not passing on Tiger and Phil. Should he have just completely broken ranks and done something crazy and taken a few random players he thought were better for this course? It probably would have been better for the USA’s chances, but that’s not a realistic critique. He took Tiger, Phil, Bryson, and Finau and only Finau brought back points.
Once he had his team, however, Furyk probably overcommitted to certain pairings the first two days. We should have seen, as it turns out, more Webb Simpson, whose game was set up well for this course. But he was tethered to Bubba Watson, who was not playing well and not tailored for this course. Furyk was inflexible and didn’t find a way to get Webb out there more often with a non-Bubba partner.
Also, why are we committing to having to play everyone before Sunday? Why is this considered gospel? Because it backfired once, for Europe in 1999? That’s not enough of a sample size for us to definitely say this is a bad strategy. If a player stinks, Furyk should keep him out until he has to play and don’t worry about hurting his feelings.
It also works in the other direction, like with Bryson DeChambeau. Initiating him into the Ryder Cup alongside a struggling Phil in the more difficult alternate-shot Foursomes format was a bad stroke. DeChambeau, who should be on the roster for years, starts his Ryder Cup with an 0-3 record and a horrible experience. Furyks’s lineups could have been better and more adaptable. That’s also just a general change that the USA team needs to make. Stop being so inflexible about who has to play together for the full weekend.
Furyk is going to take criticism. It’s what happens when you lose, and lose big. But I think you could pinpoint Furyk’s impact and assign blame had it been close, not a blowout. The USA was not winning this week. Furyk probably made a few mistakes — that could, theoretically, have been the difference in a close loss. He was not the best captain, and his mistakes maybe contributed to the blowout being as big as it got. But his moves didn’t lose the Cup.
Europe’s best players always deliver. Their Ryder Cup stars, the heroes who may not be in form or at the top of the rankings, always come through. As for the U.S., they players that made them so formidable on paper showed little on the course.
Dustin Johnson, the world No. 1, cannot go 1-4. He was probably the most disappointing player in the Cup. Phil was the worst but we knew he could be spotty. DJ has to put points on the board and, as world No. 1, you’re going to play all five sessions.
Rickie Fowler, a commercial star who is going to continue to be on these teams, went 1-3. Fowler now has four wins in four Ryder Cups. Justin Thomas posted that many in this Cup alone.
Brooks Koepka, the undisputed Player of the Year and No. 3 in the world, went 1-2-1. Koepka didn’t fold as easily as many of his teammates, but you still need such a highly ranked player to at least break even.
Patrick Reed, the self-proclaimed Captain America and Ryder Cup ace, was awful and finished 1-2. He would have shot in the 80s on the scorecard on Saturday morning and could not keep the ball out of the water. Reed’s Ryder Cup crash back to earth was violent and ugly.
So it went beyond just the Tiger and Phil disaster. They get most of the headlines in the autopsies. We thought Bubba and Phil would be unreliable, and they were. We didn’t know what to fully expect from Tiger. But DJ, Brooks, Rickie, and Reed are a major part of the transition into a new era of a roster that was going to end all this. And they were bad. We needed at least one, and probably two, to show up like Thomas did.
The Americans were favored. The roster was loaded and deeper than ever before. The process changed to put more power into the players hands and avoid confusion. The captain was someone who helped overhaul that process and had complete understanding of his role. This was supposed to be the year it ended. But what was made clearer than ever is that none of that matters in these away games. The U.S. should never be favored. They should never feel comfortable. The average world ranking of the roster does not matter.
European players consider the Ryder Cup the highest honor of their careers. They had the course exactly how they wanted it. The USA did what they do and played awful golf, made some tactical mistakes, and didn’t seem to really enjoy it. Europe did the opposite, and that’s what they always do, no matter the world ranking disparities. You should never, ever be optimistic again about the USA’s chances to win a Ryder Cup in Europe.