Team Europe has two big advantages at the Paris Ryder Cup:
1. They are Europe, and Europe is 11-8 against the U.S. since the format changed in 1977.
2. They are playing in Europe, where Europe is 5-0 since 1997, and 7-2 since the format changed.
Those are not negligible advantages, but it’s significant that both factors have everything to do with history and nothing to do with the players and captains who will actually decide the outcome in Paris. On that front, America holds most of the trump cards, and should be viewed as slight favorites heading into Friday’s opening matches.
Let’s talk about form. American form starts right now with Tiger Woods, who edged closer and closer to victory all season before finally pulling it out Sunday at the PGA Tour Championship as Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy shrunk in his presence. He’s arguably the world’s hottest player, and if it’s not him, that title likely belongs to either Bryson DeChambeau, Tony Finau, or Rose. Unlike Finau or DeChambeau, Tiger is guaranteed to be a major figure in Paris, and as the most famous player in the world, it’s relevant that he’ll be leading the U.S. into battle with a razor-sharp game.
That form extends almost all the way down the U.S. roster. The big hitters, Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson, have the kind of tools that make form less of a concern, but they’re both coming off a string of solid-to-great results. Ditto for Bridgestone winner Justin Thomas, DeChambeau, and Top-Ten Tony. Together, they give the U.S. six red-hot stars heading into Paris. Below them, just slightly, are Rickie Fowler and Webb Simpson, who have been steady and occasionally excellent in the lead-up.
However, that doesn’t mean every American has been superb. Let’s talk weaknesses…
By his high standards, Jordan Spieth has struggled all season, and couldn’t even rally to make the Tour Championship. Bubba Watson has found his way into the winner’s circle three times this year, but also missed the cut at the year’s final three majors and finished with a whimper at the Tour Championship. Phil Mickelson, the spiritual leader of Team USA, has been dismal at season’s end, particularly in the last two weeks. And of gravest concern to captain Jim Furyk, Euro-killer Patrick Reed finds himself mired in a relative slump.
It’s easy enough to maneuver around Bubba’s struggles – Furyk can play him once with Webb Simpson on Friday in fourballs, and then sit him until Sunday singles if he struggles. But how do you sideline Spieth, Reed, and Phil Mickelson? With Spieth and Reed, the answer is “you don’t”. They’ve been so successful as a team for the last two Ryder Cups that they will inevitably team up again on Friday morning, likely in the first match out of the gates.
And don’t get me wrong – they could very well re-discover that Ryder Cup magic and lead Team USA to an inspiring start. At the very least, they’ve earned the chance. But if they struggle, and their iffy form persists, that’s an enormous concern for the Americans.
It may even lead to breaking up the band – I could easily see Spieth and Dustin Johnson playing together on Saturday.
As for Phil, that presents a really tricky problem for Furyk. He’s probably the worst golfer on either team at this exact moment, and ideally Furyk would ease him into the elder statesman role – play him with someone like DeChambeau or Finau in order to “blood” them, the way McGinley did so brilliantly with McDowell/Dubuisson and Westwood/Donaldson in 2014.
The problem is, he still has to play well. If he’s ice cold, you risk undermining somebody else’s good form – call it the bad version of killing two birds with one stone.
You could say the same for the Bubba-Webb pairing, and that’s when you start to wonder if Furyk would be better off benching Phil and Bubba until he absolutely needs them. Then again, personalities come into play. Bubba is a more marginalised figure, so you can afford to sideline him, but Phil is a team leader who has shown a willingness to speak out against his captain (see: Tom Watson). Do you want to invoke that kind of wrath and risk spoiling the team camaraderie?
Those are the weaknesses Furyk is going to have to manage, but I think he’s up for the task. As I wrote recently, he’s already shown that he’s the better captain, and every problem I’ve elaborated on for the Americans will plague Thomas Bjorn as well. In fact, Bjorn has it a bit worse – fewer hot players, more concerns with form and inexperience, and a core that is frankly too old. Worse, he’s telegraphed with his captain’s picks that he’s going to lean on that core to a destructive degree.
In the end, Furyk’s problems amount to management, rather than talent. Pound for pound, the Americans have a better team, and after years of incompetence, they have a system that will give them a chance to win on foreign soil. Team Europe has plenty of weapons and are far from helpless in this fight, but the edge goes to the Americans. This is the team that should win.