A Ryder Cup Blowout 7 years in the Making
After a painful reinvention, Team USA is poised to dominate for the next decade
By Alan Shipnuck
HAVEN, Wis. — The United States did not win this Ryder Cup on Sunday morning when Bryson DeChambeau drove the 1st green and made an eagle that generated a few extra ripples on Lake Michigan. The Americans didn’t win it when fearless rookie Scottie Scheffler took the first four holes with birdies against the raging bull Jon Rahm in the third singles match, sending a shudder through the European side. They didn’t win it when Patrick Cantlay won four straight holes early in the second match against Shane Lowry, who was straining to be the folk hero who could somehow inspire Europe to a miraculous comeback. Dustin Johnson’s feathery wedges, Collin Morikawa’s laser long irons, Xander Schauffele’s molten putter, Justin Thomas’s flag-waving brio… all of these were decisive factors as U.S. went on to win 19-9, the biggest blowout since Seve Ballesteros and other generational European talents reinvented the Ryder Cup in the 1980s. But for all of the spectacular play by Team USA at Whistling Straits, this Ryder Cup was won seven years ago, in a drafty tent on a dank night in Scotland.
The Americans had just suffered another in a string of dispiriting losses, at Gleneagles, but instead of the usual hollow hand-wringing we were given human sacrifice. Tom Watson, a proud man and a great champion, was led to a dais in front of the press room bards and flayed like a latter-day William Wallace. The pain still lingers. When in the run-up to this Ryder Cup I asked U.S. captain Steve Stricker — a vice captain in 2014 — a question about that night, he winced visibly. “I don’t want to talk about that,” said Stricker, an icon of Wisconsin nice. “It still hurts too much.” Indeed, Watson has been conspicuously absent at every Ryder Cup since even as the U.S. side has gotten its other past captains more involved.
Phil Mickelson, whose gator shoes and goofy perma-grin can’t disguise a Machiavellian streak, went off on Watson in front of the whole world that fateful night at Gleneagles. Some of it was personal; among Watson’s myriad mistakes were bungled pairings that led to the Saturday benching of a previously successful team, Mickelson and Keegan Bradley. But Phil’s very public call for institutional change around Team USA was highly calculated. “The most disappointing part of that whole deal,” says Andy North, another of Watson’s vice captains, “was that Phil could have said those things privately.” That would have helped Watson’s reputation but not created the intense public pressure needed to effect change.
In the aftermath of Gleneagles, a much-mocked task force was created by the PGA of America, the amateurish organization that had haphazardly overseen the U.S. side. Watson, who was totally out of touch with modern PGA Tour players, had been hand-picked by a driving range operator turned PGA president who thought it would be cool to pal around with his boyhood hero. Unlike the European side, which stressed continuity and groomed its captains with apprenticeships in Cup after Cup, the U.S. had to start over every two years when a new PGA president and a new Ryder Cup captain were installed, with minimal communication occurring between administrations. Mickelson and Tiger Woods had the loudest voices on the task force, which, for all the jokes, deeply altered the leadership of Team USA. They pushed hard for Davis Love III, who had been in charge at Medinah in 2012, to return as captain in 2016. It was not a sexy choice, but Love, unlike the imperious Watson (and Hal Sutton and Curtis Strange before him, both Cup-losing captains this century), is a natural consensus-builder. With the players having an unprecedented amount of input, the U.S. rolled to a blowout victory at Hazeltine. “They realized they had to do something different,” Love said Sunday evening at Whistling Straits. “The PGA said, We’ll spend money on stats guys. We’ll spend money on NetJets to fly you guys in if you want to play practice rounds. If we go in there and say this week we saw this and we need this for next time, we’re gonna get it. The Phil thing was the boiling point. It had been simmering for a while. Phil was the only one with enough nerve to say it. Now, we could have said that in the (private) debriefing but it would not have been as impactful.” A new era was almost upon the Ryder Cup.
The lopsided U.S. defeat in Paris in 2018 can now be dismissed as an aberration due to an intensely quirky course; the once-in-a-lifetime alchemy of Moliwood (Francesco Molinari didn’t even make this year’s team, and Tommy Fleetwood, who hasn’t won anywhere in the world over the last two years, looked utterly lost at Whistling Straits in going 0-2-1); and captain Jim Furyk not having the backbone to bench (or leave off the team entirely) two contemporaries who had always lorded over him. The good thing about Woods and Mickelson struggling so mightily between the ropes in Paris is that it proved the U.S. needed to complete its reinvention. Stricker made the tough call not to pick the 51-year-old Mickelson for this team, despite his win at the PGA Championship four months earlier. This cleared the way for even more of the fresh blood (six rookies!) that reinvigorated the U.S. at Whistling Straits.
This powerhouse American side was on average six years younger than the Europeans but boasted twice as many major championship winners (six to three), not to mention an Olympic gold medalist and the reigning FedEx Cup champion. Europe’s only prayer was one last stand by the proud veterans who have anchored its teams over the last decade plus. But Rory McIlroy was overwhelmed by the responsibility, going 1-3, and his tearful interview on Sunday will long linger as he opened a vein at having let down his team. Clearly, the sun has now set on Lee Westwood (age 48), Ian Poulter (45) and Paul Casey (44), who went a combined 2-7. Meanwhile, the squad in red, white and blue is in the conversation for the best-ever U.S. team, although 1981 still gets the nod, with 11 of its 12 players being major champions, led by Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Ray Floyd, Hale Irwin, Johnny Miller, Ben Crenshaw, Larry Nelson and Tom Kite. That collection of jaw-dropping talent tallied 18.5 points.
The scary thing for a demoralized Team Europe is that the U.S. is just going to keep coming. “Since 2014, the process for putting together a team and the leadership of those teams is much more efficient,” says vice captain Zach Johnson, who may be leading the U.S. squad in two years in Italy. “When you add that structure to a lot of talent, good things happen.”
McIlroy knows what he and the other Europeans are up against. “There’s phenomenal talent on that team,” he said Sunday evening. “A lot of young guys, and I think the most important thing for the U.S. team is a lot of young guys that are great players have bought into the Ryder Cup. I think that was probably missing in previous generations. But guys like Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, you know, the sort of heartbeat of that U.S. team, they really bought into the team aspect of Ryder Cups, Presidents Cups. And having guys like that on the team, yeah, they are going to be formidable opposition from now until I’m probably not playing Ryder Cups, whenever that is—hopefully 20 years’ time.”
Behind the 18th green on Sunday, Rahm wrapped Casey in a bear hug and offered the only commiseration Europe could enjoy: “We can still drink together.”
– Alan Shipnuck