There is a time for any organization when continuity is paramount. There is a time when hiring a “manager” type as your head honcho — somebody who is not necessarily inspirational but can keep the ship of state sailing smoothly — is clearly the best choice. There is a time when success and abundance prevail, when maintaining a functional system is the highest form of wisdom, and when taking a leadership gamble can only lead to negative risk.
For the U.S. Ryder Cup team, this is absolutely, positively, 100 percent not that time. Which is why yesterday’s announcement from the PGA of America was so disappointing — Steve Stricker, the epitome of aw-shucks Midwestern inoffensiveness, will be the next American captain. On one hand, this was completely expected, and any another choice would have been shocking. On the other, it reflects a critical lack of imagination on the part of the American powers.
You see, the Ryder Cup ship of state is emphatically not on calm waters — the Americans haven’t won on European soil since 1993, a drought that will be almost 30 years by the time they get another chance, and it’s all Team USA can do these days to hold serve at home. If there was ever a time to rock the boat, the time is now, but Steve Stricker is anodyne to the core. It’s an inoffensive, safe choice, and it telegraphs a dismaying message: “We think everything is just fine.”
What do we know about Stricker? Well, he wasn’t a good Ryder Cup player, going 3-7-1 in three chances, including a dismal 0-4-0 at Medinah when even one win would have made the difference. Nor has he been witness to much success as a vice captain, with a 1-2 record under Tom Watson, Davis Love III, and Jim Furyk.
He’s the quintessential nice guy, which casts doubt on his ability to make the tough choices and leaves him vulnerable to a thorough railroading in the personality department by the likes of Phil Mickelson, Tiger, and even Patrick Reed, and he represents the latest step in a chain of succession that has yielded very little Ryder Cup success. He’s Furyk, basically, but with even less edge.
If you’re looking for positives, Stricker will be well-liked by the players, and “respected” to a degree. His team might be good enough that on home soil, the captain won’t really matter. He won’t take absurd risks or operate from the gut like Tom Watson, thank God. Despite all the complaints above, he could definitely win.
That said, the 2020 Ryder Cup isn’t just about the 2020 Ryder Cup. It’s about the future—about finally trying to win in Europe, about shaking up the system, about finding a formula that puts America on the offensive after decades on the back foot. It was incumbent on the PGA of America to translate fear into power, and with the choice of Stricker, they failed.
The sad truth about the 2020 Cup is that winning won’t mean much for the U.S. It will be an enormous relief, but nothing more—with the disaster in Paris, Europe has seized the initiative yet again, and until America can strike a blow on foreign soil, the home wins ring just a little hollow.
It may be impossible for anyone to wrangle the huge American personalities in a way that transforms them into the dangerous, unified front we see from Europe every two years—rather than a collection of mercenaries who inevitably disintegrate after crossing an ocean—but it’s a dead-solid guarantee that Steve Stricker is not the man for the job. He might win at Whistling Straits, in front of his home fans, but the fact that he’s captain at all is a huge loss for the U.S.
Since we’re talking about uninspired choices, it came out Thursday morning that Rory McIlroy will skip the Irish Open in 2019 in order to “prepare” for the Open Championship. Can we say that this is snubbing his national tournament? Those are political waters best not waded into by an American like me, but although the technical answer is “no” (and let it be noted that Rory also showed great hesitation to play for Ireland at the Olympics before finding a convenient excuse), it still feels like a betrayal to many Irish fans who see Rory as one of their own.
A betrayal is also how Paul McGinley, tournament host, must interpret the rebuff, and the survival of their friendship is now in doubt. Still, it’s very much in keeping with Rory’s new 2019 ethos, which is self-oriented, American-centric, and dedicated to regaining his championship form at all costs. It is, of course, his absolute right to make the choice that suits him best, but it’s hard not to feel like missing the Irish Open —which is two weeks before the Open, for the record — is a step too far.
Irish writers like Roy Curtis are already citing his “moral obligation” and calling his choice “an insult to the national intelligence,” and I don’t think that’s unfair. His excuse rings hollow for a few reasons, and reads as much more than a selfish way to abandon his duty—it reads as an insulting sign that he always resented that duty in the first place.
Rory’s career has taken a steep fall in recent years, and the most disconcerting part of that tumble has been watching him reliably fail under pressure. His on the course reputation has taken a deserved hit, and with this baffling choice, he seems hellbent on forfeiting the goodwill of his countrymen. That makes him a de facto, default American, and I believe it’s a choice he’ll come to regret. Take it from me, a native son: This is not a warm place, and there will come a time when he longs for the embrace of the Irish people rather than the cold touch of a closed wrought iron gate in some charmless Florida suburb.