Can This Year’s Ryder Cup Rise Above?
Above What, You Ask? A Nation At Its Own Throat, For One
The one and only time I attended the Ryder Cup in person, the United States got its ass kicked.
The final tally at beastly Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, on the evening of Sunday, September 19, 2004? Europe 18 1/2, U.S. 9 1/2.
That’s a shellacking, akin to what the Alabama Crimson Tide does to, say, Appalachian State on a regular basis. It’s still tied for the most lopsided loss for the Americans since 1979, when all of Europe was invited to the party, rather than just Great Britain and Ireland.
But this one stung worse, because the U.S. could have used a boost at that point in its history.
We were three years removed from the worst terrorist attack on our soil – which, incidentally, led to pushing the 2001 Ryder Cup to 2002, at the Belfry in England, which Europe also won. We were mired in not one but two new wars, and (understandably) preoccupied with protecting the nation from further destruction at the hands of “the other” – a collective frame of mind and spirit that opened the door to a complete reshuffling of the federal government to create the largest American bureaucracy ever, the Department of Homeland Security. The unity we’d had in the aftermath of 9/11 faded, and faded quickly. By the summer of 2004 we were wallowing in a mix of fear and shallow machismo. We had allowed authentic national pride devolve into what I felt was faux patriotism, with an election looming just a couple months away.
Within that fractured frame, the Ryder Cup – for golf fans, anyway – offered a chance to change the channel to something deeper than blind nationalism or militaristic muscle-flexing: Just plain, powerful teamwork.
On paper, the American side looked strong, though by no means was it a juggernaut. Still, we had Tiger Woods at the top of his powers, five years into a stretch of sporting domination that may never be matched (though his Ryder Cup record at the time was a curious 5-8-2). Phil Mickelson’s record was 8-5-3, and he had just notched his first, long-awaited major at the 2004 Masters. We had veteran stalwarts Jim Furyk, David Toms, Davis Love, Jay Haas and Stewart Cink, and a solid crop of rookies in Kenny Perry (an “oldster” at 44), Fred Funk (even more experienced, at 48), Chris DiMarco, Chad Campbell and Chris Riley. Captain Hal Sutton, the supremely confident Louisianan, did everything but puff out his chest when he introduced his pairings the night before the matches began. “This team,” he said, “is as strong as new rope.”
We media types laughed at that one, then did a double-take when Sutton announced the first pairing for Friday morning foursomes: Woods and Mickelson.
Oil and water. Grinder and gadfly. No-nonsense Alpha male and “no problem” gambling genius.
They would take on Irishman Padraig Harrington, who was 3-3-1 in two Ryder Cup appearances, and Scotsman Colin Montgomery, who had eight Ryder Cups and a 16-7-5 record under his belt. He was the reigning king of the European effort, a guy who always came alive for this event.
Was this a good idea? The sport’s American golf cognoscenti, of which I was a faceless and barely tangential member, did its best to buy into Sutton’s big-ticket gambit, his shot across European captain Bernhard Langer’s bow. But we had our doubts. Either this was pure brilliance or bound to crash it a heap of bad chemistry and warring egos.
My longtime Fairways + Greens photographer Bob Solorio and I arrived in time to catch a practice round on Thursday and had our doubts not only about the Tiger-Phil deal, but the entire American enterprise, after catching a glimpse of how each team comported itself on the field of battle. We saw a Euro team truly enjoying itself – yukking it up between shots, cracking jokes and strolling up fairways with a loose gait, led by the likes of iconoclast Spaniard Miguél Angél Jimenez, who puffed away on fat cigars and tossed practice balls into the rough with characteristic, carefree aplomb. These guys were relaxed and clearly comfortable with themselves and one another. The American side, meanwhile, gave off a whiff of tight, we-gotta-get-this-done semi-desperation. There were few smiles and little evidence of easy camaraderie; guys seemed stuck on their own lonely islands of misplaced, overwrought focus. Mickelson did himself or the U.S. side no favors by dispatching himself to Oakland Hills’ North Course for one practice round, ostensibly to get around from the crowds and media hulabaloo – perhaps the most selfish thing he’s ever done as a pro. It’s still hard for me to believe that Sutton signed off on it, which tells me he never had much respect among his players to begin with.
The tension was palpable, even among the American team’s wives, who didn’t display much mutual affection of their own. Perhaps it was all too much. After all, the Europeans had won six of the previous nine matches; the U.S. had run the show before that, taking 21 of the first 25. It was on this bunch to stanch the recent bleeding, and they knew it.
Turns out the Tiger-Phil team almost pulled out their match against Padraig and Monty, though they were playing catch-up from the very first hole. They took it all the way to the 17th, going down 2 and 1. Then Sutton doubled down in the afternoon four-ball matches, teaming them up again against Northern Irishman Darren Clarke and Englishman Lee Westwood. This time they went to the 18th, where Mickelson hit one of his patented slices way left and nearly off the property; the look Tiger shot him when spying his lie – in deep rough, with just enough clearance to put a full swing on the ball – said it all: “You screwed us, dude.” He was right. The Euro boys closed them out again, and the stage was set for a Friday blowout, 6 1/2-1 1/2.
It was pretty much a blur of European highlights from then on. Their brightest lights were Spain’s Sergio Garcia, who like Monty took to the Ryder Cup format with gusto, coming in with a 6-3-1 record after two previous appearances, and Westwood, who had gone 7-8-0 in three Cups, but came to Michigan in top form. Both ran the table at Oakland Hills, going 8-0-2 between them; the high point of their shared dominance was Sergio’s 40-foot bomb on the 18th hole on Saturday afternoon to carry him and Luke Donald to a 1-up foursomes win over Furyk and Funk.
By then, it was pretty much all academic. Down 11-5 going into the Sunday’s 12 singles matches, the Americans would have had to run the table to take back the Ryder Cup. Instead they managed only four wins and a halve.
Once again the Europeans schooled the Americans on what teamwork really means over the matches’ first two days, then kept their mojo going through singles – and over five of the seven matches contested in the 17 years since then.
Which brings us to this week’s showdown at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, a stunning Pete Dye concoction on the shore of Lake Michigan – perhaps the most dramatic and beautiful Ryder Cup setting to date. As with the 2001/2002 matches, this edition was delayed by tragedy, the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. And as with the debacle of 2004, the U.S. team comes in representing a nation that, if anything, seems even more broken and battered than it was then, mostly by its own politically polarized hand.
So the question is, can they rise above all that and come together as the Euros always seem to do, as a team playing as one unit for the sheer joy and honor of it? Can they give us longtime fans – whose TV-watching numbers will no doubt be dwarfed by the legions tuning into college football and the NFL – something to cheer about, not in jingoistic, boo-rah way, but in the simple spirit of friendly but intense competition that seed salesman Samuel Ryder espoused a century ago?
We shall see. I hope they do, even though I agree with this appraisal by Morning Read/SI writer Gary Van Sickle: The Americans are the underdogs.
Again, on paper, the U.S. squad is damned good. Even without Woods, who’s still recovering from his February 2021 car accident, and Mickelson, who’s one of Captain Steve Stricker’s non-playing lieutenants, they are better than the 2004 crew. They will field 10 of the top 12 players in the world ranking (the Euros have the current No. 1, Spaniard Jon Rahm). They have all the big hitters that Whistling Straits demands and the best all-around iron player in Ryder Cup rookie Collin Morikawa, while fellow first-timer Patrick Cantlay is perhaps the best putter in the world at the moment. They have guys who have proved their mettle on this stage, led by Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, whom Stricker will no doubt send out together more than once. The only captain’s pick I take issue with is Scottie Scheffler; I’d have gone with PGA Tour vet Kevin Na, who has been red hot of late. But all in all it’s a strong bunch.
Then again, European captain Padraig Harrington – remember him? – has a great side of his own. He has Rahm and Rory McIlroy. He has grizzled, proven Ryder Cup studs Garcia, Westwood, Paul Casey and Ian Poulter. He has talented rookies like Viktor Hovland. These guys can whip anybody, especially when they carry the “all for one, one for all” mantle that has worked so well for the Euros over the past two-plus decades.
The Americans can’t claim that level of cohesiveness, at least going in. As with the nation they represent, there are tears in the team fabric, chiefly the ongoing (and probably overblown) rift between Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka. Stricker has asked them to set aside their beefs and get in the team spirit; we’ll see if he can work the magic that, say, Paul Azinger found in 2008, when he split his team into four-man “pods.” Mickelson is a fan of that approach, so I’d expect him to have bent Stricker’s ear on it over the past few weeks. Maybe he leans on this bunch’s more “agreeable” personalities, like Tony Finau or Harris English, to work some magic of their own on teammates. Whatever works.
What I know won’t work is the stubborn individualism that has marred many a recent American Ryder Cup effort, soured any chance at true team chemistry and given the European boys a leg-up before the first tee shot is struck. It doesn’t work in business, it doesn’t work in politics, and it doesn’t work in sports – even in a usually solo pursuit like golf, and especially in this particular event. Through its history and more acutely in its modern iteration, the Ryder Cup demands that its participants – millionaires many times over these days – set aside the self-centered and self-reliant mindset that they believe serves them well on the regular field of play, relax and enjoy the ride, together.
I’ll hold out hope as an American that recent Ryder Cup history is upended, but for the moment … Europe 15, U.S. 13. Prove me wrong, boys.