Here’s an inescapable and embarrassing fact: The United States has lost six out of the last seven Ryder Cup matches.
Here’s an ‘opinion’ that I consider, essentially, a fact: The U.S. should be winning most – not all, but most – Ryder Cup matches, based on talent alone.
Look at the world rankings this year. Of the top 15 golfers, seven are Americans, three are from outside Europe, and five are Europeans.
That gives the U.S. a definite numerical edge and this is likely the most balanced the situation has been in years. Europe is constantly narrowing the talent gap as golf spreads – as they should, with a population base twice the size of the U.S. – but the American institutional advantage is entrenched, and difficult to overcome.
So why, with a leg up in pure ability, does the U.S. keep humiliating itself every other year? It’s the same reason the South kept the North at bay for three years in the American Civil War.
Despite facing every tactical disadvantage in the books – they fought with more passion, they knew the lay of the land, and their generals were smarter.
That kind of thing counts for a lot and I wrote about it in my 2015 book Slaying the Tiger, in the chapter on the 2014 Gleneagles Ryder Cup.
Here’s the short version: Paul McGinley was a genius and Tom Watson was almost unthinkably stupid. And that’s been the case over and over again for more than 20 years. In fact, the one time the U.S. actually won a decisive victory Ryder Cup, it’s because the Europeans had a captain in Nick Faldo who was too arrogant to follow their successful formula – enigmatically called ‘the template’ and ran into a U.S. captain in Paul Azinger who resembled a European in his meticulous attention to every last detail. They did not make that mistake again.
The question in 2016 is this: Have the Americans learned from their failures? Thus far, I contend that the answer is ‘yes’. The choice of Davis Love III as captain was a wise one – he made very few mistakes in Medinah in 2012, followed a good system almost religiously, and got unlucky when the Europeans staged a Sunday miracle.
That loss wasn’t his fault, and when you consider his stellar reputation with the players, he’ll be a calming influence in a tense atmosphere. Further, even though he’s not quite as obsessive as Azinger, he understands strategy, and will almost certainly copy his platoon system that worked so well over the first two days in 2012.
Second, the structural changes. Love re-instituted the four captain’s picks system (Watson had only asked for three), added a vice captain, and, more importantly, pushed back the dates for qualification and for captain’s picks. An unfortunate part of the 2014 selection process was that by the time Billy Horschel got hot and won the FedExCup playoffs, it was too late to pick him.
Not anymore. Love will make three of his picks after next week’s BMW Championship, but will reserve one for the conclusion of the Tour Championship. Call it the Horschel Provision. Also, qualification lasts until the end of this week’s Barclays, rather than at the end of the PGA Championship, as it did in 2014.
These are all strong changes, giving Love a clearer picture of how everyone is playing much closer to the actual event. Of course, they’re only as good as the choices he ends up making. Will he commit to giving the American team a younger look, and shedding the failure of the past, or will he stay loyal to players closer to his age, like Jim Furyk, who are somewhat tainted by the losses of the past?
Time will tell.
Matthew Fitzpatrick gets to make his rookie appearance in Darren Clarke’s European side next month after booking the ninth and final automatic place last Sunday. In the meantime, the Americans will be fighting to secure one of the eight automatic spots at the Barclays this week in the first event of the FedExCup playoffs.
Here’s three Ryder Cup wannabe’s who aren’t quite there yet so won’t need motivating – and a journeyman who just snuck into The Barclays.
Patrick Reed: 33/1
Reed did what he had to do at the Wyndham this past weekend, finishing 22nd and moving into the eighth and final place in the American Ryder Cup standings. He has to survive one more event, and he’ll have every incentive to hang on.
While he’s not the world’s most popular player, and despite his success at Gleneagles (in a sea of American failure), there is no guarantee that Love will want him in the team locker room if he can’t earn his spot this week.
Except Reed to come out guns blazing to leave that decision out of his captain’s hands.
Jim Furyk: 35/1
For American fans of a certain age, like me, Furyk has come to personify the failure of the U.S. at the Ryder Cup. His lifetime record of 10-20-4 is abysmal, and we’d like nothing more than to see him off the team.
What a cruel irony for us, then, that he’s red-hot coming into this year’s event, and making it very, very difficult for Love not to pick him. If Furyk has yet another strong finish at the Barclays, he’s almost certainly getting picked.
Bubba Watson: 40/1
It’s almost unthinkable to see Bubba Watson outside the Ryder Cup automatic qualification spots, but there he sits at number 10.
It’s been an odd year for Bubba – he hasn’t missed a single cut, and he won the Northern Trust Open back in February at a course he loves, but since then he’s been almost pedestrian, never finishing higher than 14th and spending most of his time around the 30s and 40s.
More critically, he just hasn’t done the job in the Majors. His style of game is a nice weapon in the Ryder Cup, particularly in the first two days, but he’s also not the most popular golfer, and he’s going to need to show Love something special this weekend to earn a pick. It’ll be fascinating to see if he comes out with new focus and motivation, or if he’s the same mercurial Bubba we’ve always known.
Shawn Stefani: 300/1
This is a potential blockbuster of a pick. Stefani was on the edge of not making the FedExCup three weeks ago, but three straight solid finishes has put him in the field. In the final round of the Wyndham, Stefani said he was playing under the biggest pressure of his career, and put up an excellent 66 to reach the playoffs. That’s solid psychological and physical momentum, and could be worth a play with Paddy paying the 7 places.