Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 2, 2016

Big Win Is A Start For Team USA

When Team USA lost the Ryder Cup for the third time in a row in 2014, the PGA of America responded to criticism from many players, most notably Phil Mickelson, by setting up a task force to examine how the U.S. could become more competitive at the biennial golf exhibition between this country and Team Europe. Had the U.S. lost the matches for a fourth straight time this weekend, one can only speculate on what the next steps might have been. Congressional hearings, perhaps? The detention of team captain Davis Love III and his five vice-captains at an undisclosed location for some enhanced interrogation?

Happily for Love and his associates, not to mention the twelve members of Team USA, the recent European winning streak ended Sunday at Hazeltine National Golf Club in the suburbs of Minneapolis. Officially the winning moment came when captain’s pick Ryan Moore cozied a birdie putt up near the hole on the 18th green in the seventh singles match of the day. Lee Westwood immediately conceded Moore’s par, giving the American a 1-up victory in the match and Team USA the points it needed to reclaim the Cup for the next two years.

Yet in large measure these matches turned in favor of the home team Friday morning, when the United States bolted out of the gate and swept all four of the first session’s foursomes. The Americans engineered that sweep by mixing fast starts and strong finishes. Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed were 3-up after seven holes against Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose in the opening match, and Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar were even stronger in the final Friday morning match, going 5-up over Westwood and Thomas Pieters after eight holes. Between those pairings Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler rallied to take three of the final four holes for a 1-up win over Rory McIlroy and Andy Sullivan; while Jimmie Walker and Zach Johnson went from 1-down to a 4&2 victory by blitzing Sergio Garcia and Martin Kaymer, winning five straight holes starting on the 12th.

By lunchtime on the first day of the three-day event the Europeans found themselves in a deep hole. While the visitors fought gamely, three times moving to within a point of Team USA during Saturday’s play, by the time the first two days of action had concluded the United States held a three-point lead at 9 ½ to 6 ½. European captain Darren Clarke frontloaded his lineup for Sunday’s singles, and once again his squad managed to close to within a point in the early going, but in the end Team USA won 7 ½ of the 12 points at stake, pulling away to a final score of 17 to 11. From the first point won Friday morning until Germany’s Kaymer closed out Matt Kuchar on the 18th in the last match on the course, Team USA never trailed in winning the 41st edition of the Ryder Cup.

In the immediate aftermath the work of the task force is being praised for contributing to the victory. Still it’s worth remembering that when the 11-member task force was announced veteran writer Dan Jenkins suggested the answer was to “make more putts and shoot lower scores.” For while there is surely no harm in having greater input from the players about pairings and more team events before the matches, the two main recommendations of the task force were hardly revolutionary.

The group picked this year’s team captain; and Love is unquestionably a popular figure who got to make up for his misfortune of four years ago, when he led the squad that collapsed on Sunday, surrendering a four point overnight lead in the singles at Medinah. But as a player in his early fifties, and a former captain at that, his selection was not exactly bold thinking.

The task force also altered the selection process by giving the captain four picks instead of three, and having the last of those chosen only after the Tour Championship, just days before the matches were scheduled to begin. This became known as the Billy Horschel Rule, after he was passed over as a captain’s pick in 2014, and then proceeded to win both the BMW Championship and Tour Championship in successive weeks, after the deadline for picks had gone by. That change allowed Love to pick Moore after the latter finished runner-up to McIlroy at last week’s Tour Championship. But while he happened to score the decisive point on Sunday, for the matches Moore finished with a record of 2-1-0. In what amounted to an American rout only Walker and J.B. Holmes contributed fewer than two points to Team USA’s cause.

While the task force members engage in self-congratulation, the American victory likely had more to do with Jenkins’s focus on putts and scores than on decisions taken in a meeting room. Simply put, the Americans played better for a change. That should come as no surprise, given the makeup of the two teams. NBC analyst Johnny Miller always speaks his mind, often to his detriment. As all golf fans know, he has never seen a twisting downhill ten foot putt that the pro facing it shouldn’t make “nine times out of ten.” But Miller was on track last week when he opined “I do believe the Euros have got, at least on paper, the worst team they’ve had in many years.”

With three captain’s picks to Love’s four, and a focus in the automatic selection process on European Tour results, Team Europe’s Clarke was left with five rookies among the nine players on the team based on points. With his three picks he added a sixth first-timer, along with the veterans Kaymer and Westwood. He notably passed over Scotland’s Russell Knox, who won twice on the PGA Tour this season. But because Knox plays full-time in the United States, he barely knows Clarke or any of the European vice-captains.

Thomas Pieters, picked by Clarke after he played with the Belgian at a European Tour event in August, was the surprise of the Ryder Cup. The 24-year old played all five sessions and won four points. He teamed with McIlroy for three wins in foursomes and fourballs, and then dispatched J.B. Holmes in the singles. But the only other European rookie to play even passingly well was Rafael Cabrera-Bello. The other four went a combined 1-8-0. Add to that a dismal weekend of play by England’s Westwood, and with nearly half the European team contributing next to nothing the American victory was all but certain.

Now the spectacle of the Ryder Cup is done for another two years, until the two sides reconvene at Le Golf National, outside of Paris. The heckling and openly rooting for a player to do badly, so antithetical to the nature of the game, will hopefully go into storage at least until then as well. When next we turn our attention to these matches, Team USA will be looking to win back-to-back and win as visitors, two feats it hasn’t accomplished in more than twenty years. If the Americans can do that, then perhaps we can say that in the Ryder Cup, still won by Team Europe in eight of the last eleven matches, balance is finally being restored.

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Responses

  1. Excellent report but I don’t know that you should have telegraphed to the European Team how to win next time!


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