You may have encountered this fact a few times already, and if you haven’t, get ready to hear it repeated ad nauseam in the lead-up to Paris:
The United States has not won a Ryder Cup on European soil since 1993.
It’s an astounding bit of trivia, especially because in that 25-year drought, Europe has won three of six competitions on American soil. Or consider this: Before 1983, the American record playing overseas—mostly in England and Scotland—was 9-3.
The battle lines changed in 1979 when Team Great Britain became Team Europe, of course, and it partly explains why the historically dominant Americans have been overtaken and subdued by their opponents. Still, for the yanks to have lost five straight Ryder Cups on enemy turf, while barely eking out a .500 record at home, represents a dramatic reversal of fortunes for the side that went 50 years before their first loss in America.
Which raises two relevant questions:
- What happened?
- Is there any reason to expect that 2018 will be different?
The two questions, as it happens, are not unrelated.
The “what happened” isn’t as complicated as it seems. The 1977 expansion brought in new talent, and Europe as a whole developed a “template” designed to foster camaraderie and continuity across the years.
While the Americans treated the event like an isolated exhibition, each instance unrelated to the one that came before and the one that would come after. Whereas Europe developed a dynasty, with captains and players passing knowledge and strategy on to their successors.
Against this system, it didn’t matter if the Americans had the superior players, as they often did; five fingers, no matter how strong, can never beat a fist.
When a European captain happened to deviate from the system, as Nick Faldo did in 2008, the team got waxed by superior talent. And when the captain followed the charted course, they won.
They won in myriad ways – close matches, as we saw at Valderrama and Celtic Manor; humiliating thrashings, as we sat at the K-Club and Gleneagles.
The apotheosis of the European template, the absolute climax of a brilliant system, came in 2014 with Paul McGinley’s (above) triumph at Gleneagles. But that victory contained a unique irony.
McGinley was so good, and Tom Watson was so infuriatingly, emblematically bad for the Americans, that it seemed like Europe would never lose again. In fact, the opposite was true; it took three decades, but the Americans finally woke up.
They hatched a “task force,” which, despite the goofy name, was just a way of implementing a system of their own. In other words, they copied Europe.
At the same time, Europe became complacent, and in 2016 they happened to have a captain in the Faldo mould, rather than the McGinley mould.
Darren Clarke relied on instinct and relationships (the Westwood pick could not have been worse) and reaction rather than a concrete plan. Davis Love, meanwhile, followed a well-plotted script, and the Americans won a resounding victory in Hazeltine.
As it happened, the victory coincided with the arrival of a kind of golden generation of young Americans, who have already shown more mettle and skill at match play golf – by far – than the generation that preceded them.
Of course, 2018 represents a greater challenge by far for the simple fact that the match is happening on that cursed foreign soil. But, the Americans are still favored and they should be. Here’s why:
Jim Furyk is a captain after Davis Love’s heart. (Love, in fact, is one of Furyk’s vice captains.) His captain’s picks were no-nonsense affairs, and he made all the right moves.
Yes, he had an easy job, but a lesser captain might have overthought things and tried to put his individual mark on the proceedings. By keeping matters simple, Furyk identified himself as a “system” captain. He’s a product of the task force, of the new American template, and that’s no surprise – Furyk’s personality is tailor made for the job.
He’s a no-frills, open-minded, player-friendly type of man, highly respected but in no sense a loose cannon.
Thomas Bjorn, on the other hand, has already flubbed his captain’s picks by relying on dubious “experience” and personal relationships rather than form and actual experience. Rafa Cabrera-Bello and Thomas Pieters finished the season with a bang, and were two of just three European golfers in Hazeltine to emerge with a winning record (Rory was the other).
They distinguished themselves in the fire – were, in fact, spectacular – rounded into terrific form in 2018, and still got the shaft. Instead, Bjorn picked Sergio Garcia and Paul Casey, the former of whom couldn’t even make the top 125 on the PGA Tour, and the latter of whom hasn’t played in a Ryder Cup since 2008 and may be hurt.
It seems like Bjorn felt Casey was owed a pick, and that both picks were due in part to the fact that Casey and Garcia are near-contemporaries of the captain. These are not just bad picks for the present – they are going to bankrupt Europe in the future as well.
In short, Bjorn appears to be an individual style of captain, and individuals always fail against a strong system. He has already telegraphed that his line-up choices will be biased, reactive, and panic-driven.
Team USA is loaded. As mentioned, this is a golden generation of Ryder Cup golfers, from Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed to Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka.
The newcomers are untested, but if recent form means anything, the U.S. will also roll into Paris with two of the hottest golfers in the world in Bryson DeChambeau and Tony Finau. With others like Tiger, Rickie Fowler, and Justin Thomas all finishing the year with scorching form, the talent gap with Europe will be immense. If this match were happening America, Europe would have absolutely no shot.
Team USA is motivated. Armed with a system and talent, they know the task coming up before them, and with a captain like Furyk there is no question of anyone feeling overconfident or arrogant. They know they’ll face hostile fans, they know Europe will hole spectacular putts at inopportune moments, and they know they’re up against some very negative history. It’s already evident that they relish the challenge.
Europe is old. There’s a lot of talk about the five rookies on the team, but the truth is that the nucleus of the team consists of Poulter, Stenson, Rose, Garcia, Casey, and McIlroy. Of those, only Rory is younger than 38, and Bjorn’s picks (of the four he selected, Sergio is the youngest at 38) make it evident that he’ll be using them as a crutch for the entire event. But that’s a recipe for diminishing returns, and indeed we saw Europe’s golden generation falter at Gleneagles. When choosing between two talent nuclei, always choose the one that’s younger and, frankly, better.
Any dramatic prediction always carries the risk of backlash when it turns out to be wrong, but it’s my belief that the United States will win in Paris, and do so comfortably. The challenge is known, the pieces are in place, and the early signs all look positive. For the long-suffering Americans, a drought is about to end.