A Ryder Cup Unlike Any Other
The biennial meeting doesn’t have the same feel, and you can thank LIV Golf for that
By Michael Bamberger
The 44th Ryder Cup is upon us and we’re treating it like it resembles the 43 that have preceded it. It doesn’t.
Henrik Stenson was on board to be the European captain, but he got fired from this nonpaying job for going LIV. Phil Mickelson was surely going to be the U.S. captain, or at least a captain-in-training. That didn’t happen, either. Both had run afoul of the WGE. That is, the World Golf Establishment.
Stenson’s removal seems quaint now, given that the backers of LIV Golf, a wee group of super-rich, golf-mad Saudis, are now (allegedly) on a path to becoming partners with the WGE. I’ll believe a deal is in place when the world golf schedule—the DP World Tour, the PGA Tour, LIV Golf—is announced for 2025.
Even the precise September dates for the 2025 Ryder Cup at Bethpage Black are not yet known. Maybe there will be a new normal by then. Maybe the Saudi billions will pave over all the feelings of betrayal and the greed that cost Stenson and Mickelson their jobs. Maybe the trio of European Ryder Cup stalwarts—Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood—will find their way back into management roles. In the meantime, this 2023 Ryder Cup has been turned upside-down by LIV Golf and the billions behind it.
Rome would have been such a natural fit for Mickelson. His mother grew up in San Diego’s Little Italy, down by the commercial fishing docks, and her mother’s sugo al pomodoro was the real deal.
I asked Paul Azinger for a prediction the other day: Would Phil ever become a Ryder Cup captain?
Azinger won a PGA Championship. He played in four Ryder Cups. He was a winning Ryder Cup captain. He’s an announcer for NBC Sports, proud American presenters of this 44th Ryder Cup. He knows this terrain as well as anybody.
He wasn’t going to consider my question and I don’t blame him. Commenting on anything related to the Ryder Cup and Mickelson is not good for business. “But I appreciate you trying,” he said cheerfully.
From 1979, when the Spanish star Seve Ballesteros played in his first Ryder Cup, to 2021, when the Spanish star Sergio Garcia most likely played in his last, the underlying emotion of the event was tour versus tour. What tour did you grow up on, as a fan or an aspiring player: Europe or the U.S.? That was your team. All the emotion came out of that. That is all threatened by LIV Golf. It is threatened by a true world tour. So maybe the Ryder Cup, as we knew it for 42 years, is over. The Seve era. It was fun while it lasted.
Playing for keeps, playing for the record book and YouTube clips and grillroom debates, is one of the things golf has done well. All the status golf could give a person was much more valued than mere money. But society changed and golf has with it. And we are where we are. That doesn’t mean you have to like it.
Tiger Woods joined the PGA Tour board not to protect his millions but to protect his legacy. He made his name on a golf tour that turned Ben Hogan into Mr. Hogan, Arnie in Arnold and Jackie-boy into Big Jack. That’s the tour Justin Thomas (son of a golf pro) and Patrick Reed grew up on. They aspired to play for the U.S. Ryder Cup team like they aspired to winning the U.S. Open. Thomas got a big prize for not going LIV. He’s on the U.S. team as a captain’s pick. Reed is not. Two strikes against him: He went LIV, and he had only one top-10 finish in the majors this year. He had no chance.
Brooks Koepka did. When I asked Zach Johnson, the U.S. captain, if he had any hesitancy about picking Koepka for the team, because of Koepka’s LIV contract, it was clear there was none. He made the team because of his second-place finish at the Masters, his win at the PGA Championship—and his appearance on Full Swing, the Netflix doc, talking about his internal desperation with the cameras rolling.
So the U.S. team is treating Koepka’s place on the team as a normal thing. It’s not. This is not a normal Ryder Cup.
The Americans who went LIV did short-term damage to the PGA Tour, but all those players have to do, to remain on good terms with the lodge brothers they left behind, is to say these words: “I only left for the money, I only left for the money, I only left for the money.” And with that, Patrick Cantlay, PGA Tour board member, will wave his Tour-issued, trademark-protected magic wand over you and all will be forgiven. Forgiven and forgotten. Candor about craving money is some new kind of god-truth. It sets you free, if you’re Brooks Koepka or Dustin Johnson. But Phil Mickelson or Patrick Reed won’t say out loud what is obvious to the rest of us.
Follow-the-money has never been easier.
Rory McIlroy said Thomas’s place on the U.S. team, as a captain’s pick, was a “no-brainer.” I’m going to guess that for the U.S. braintrust—Zach Johnson and Jim Furyk and buds—it was not a no-brainer. They did not get together on Zoom and say, “Oh, yeah, we’ve got to pick the guy who finished 15th on the points list and was oh-for-the-summer.”
Now that’s part of the fun of sport, of course. The players debate, and we do, too. My six picks would have been Jordan Spieth, Keegan Bradley, Collin Morikawa, Lucas Glover, Rickie Fowler and Steve Stricker. By not taking Koepka, I would have been saying, “This team is about loyalty to the tour you came up on, and to the rulebook.” Yes, I can see a couple of glaring problems here: Nobody cares about my picks (for good reason), and nobody cares about the old-school loyalty tests.
Now Thomas might, with the help of a playing partner, go 2-0 on Friday and Saturday. (Do you see him playing more than one match each of the first two days? I don’t.) You don’t have to do that much when you have a partner. What you have to do is rise to the occasion now and again. So maybe he will. But a no-brainer? No.
Rory is as bright as anyone in the game, but we are all swayed by our attachments, sometimes in ways we cannot see. McIlroy is a founder of the new-for-’24 Monday night, made-for-TV golf exhibition thing called TGL. Thomas is one of the 12 announced players. A star turn by Thomas at this year’s Ryder Cup will be good for TGL business, and therefore good for Rory.
The charm of the Ryder Cup in the Seve era was that it wasn’t about money. The ratings and the excitement and everything else came out of us versus them. It was way overboard at times, but it was real.
Well, it was a good run.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at [email protected]
Michael Bamberger was briefly a caddie on the PGA and European Tours, invented a golf club (the E-Club) that Lee Trevino used in his final British Open, spent 22 years as a writer at Sports Illustrated and joined the Firepit Collective in May 2022.
email: [email protected]