Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 30, 2018

Time To Stop Calling Team Europe The Underdogs

This was the year the result was going to be different. Bill Clinton was in the first year of his presidency when Team USA last won the Ryder Cup on foreign soil. The European team had triumphed in Spain, England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland since that 1993 American victory, not to mention adding three wins in the six matches held in the United States over that quarter century.

But the most recent home win by Team Europe, a 16½-11½ thrashing delivered at Gleneagles in 2014 led to a major rethinking of Team USA’s approach to these biennial matches. An additional captain’s pick was added and the date for making those picks was moved, to give greater flexibility to the formation of the US roster. Equally important, the process for picking the team captain was changed to ensure that instead of the job being an honorific for an old warhorse – then-65-year-old Tom Watson was the 2014 captain – the role would go to a younger golfer more familiar and in touch with the playing members of the team.

The changes paid off in 2016, when the American squad captained by Davis Love III won an impressive 17-11 victory at Hazeltine National, in the Minneapolis suburbs. So this year, twenty-five years and three presidential administrations since the last US overseas victory, the result was going to be different. The concept had plenty of support on paper. Tiger Woods, originally in line to serve as an assistant captain, was back in form and back on the team, fresh off his first win in more than five years at last week’s Tour Championship. Dustin Johnson, the number one player in the Official World Golf Rankings, led a squad that boasted an average world ranking of 11.17, the best ever for any Ryder Cup team. Two of the three American rookies, Justin Thomas and Bryson DeChambeau, were proven PGA Tour winners, with Thomas having won a major, and Tony Finau, the third first-time participant, had finished the season as one of the hottest players on Tour.

At twenty-fifth in the World Rankings, captain’s pick Phil Mickelson was the only American ranked lower than seventeenth, the position held by Finau. In contrast seven members of Team Europe, a majority of the squad, fell below Finau’s ranking, including all four captain’s picks chosen by Thomas Bjorn. The European squad was also loaded down with five rookies, with Spain’s Jon Rahm the only one among them to have PGA Tour wins on his resume. As the two teams went through their practice sessions on the Albatros Course at Le Golf National outside Paris, the smart money was solidly betting on the US side.

Through Friday morning’s fourball session the statistics and the collective wisdom of the pundits held sway. Johnson and Rickie Fowler took the first point of the matches with a 4&2 win over Rory McIlroy and Ryder Cup rookie Thorbjorn Oleson of Denmark. Then Rahm and Justin Rose squandered a 2-up lead with just six holes to play, losing 1-up to Finau and Brooks Koepka. Good friends Thomas and Jordan Spieth then added a third US point before the pairing of Open champion Francisco Molinari and rookie Tommy Fleetwood finally got Europe on the board by defeating Woods and Patrick Reed 3&1.

But Ryder Cup matches are neither played nor won on paper, and over the years most of the golfing media has made a habit of underestimating the chances of Team Europe. The win by Molinari and Fleetwood, a pairing that would prove so successful it soon had its own nickname – Moliwood – made the score 3-1 in favor of the visitors. By the time the US won another match, the final one in the next morning’s fourballs, Team Europe had reeled off seven additional victories, shutting out the Americans in Friday afternoon’s foursomes and winning the first three matches Saturday morning. When Saturday afternoon’s session was split with two wins apiece, the home team went into the twelve Sunday singles leading 10-6.

There was a time when an advantage of four points after two days was considered insurmountable. But that was before the US stormed back from such a deficit at The Country Club in 1999, and before Team Europe duplicated the feat with the “Miracle at Medinah” in 2012. When the Americans took 3½ points from the first four matches to be decided on Sunday, it looked like another epic comeback was in the making. But the Sunday singles replicated in an afternoon the pattern of the first two days. After the initial spurt of American success, Europe roared back. By the time Reed notched the next American victory in the penultimate match on the course, the home squad had won six straight matches, ripping the Cup out of American hands in the process. Oleson thrashed Spieth. Rahm edged Woods. Ian Poulter, the Englishman who has built a career around crushing American hopes at these matches, rallied to overtake and defeat Johnson on the 18th green, to the appreciative roars of the massive gallery.

Then, before Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia added their own victories, the decisive moment came on the par-3 16th hole. Molinari was 3-up over Mickelson as he stood on the tee, and his iron landed safely in the middle of the green, setting up a two-putt par. But he was able to put his putter back in the bag when Mickelson’s tee shot sailed right, splashing down in the pond beside the green. The 4&2 win gave Team Europe the 14½ points it needed, and the rest of the day was window dressing.

That window wound up looking pretty good for the victorious Europeans. After Stenson and Garcia added their points, and Reed registered the final American score, the last match, between Sweden’s Alex Norén and DeChambeau came to the 18th hole. The American was 1-down, but he struck a perfect iron from the middle of the fairway that landed a foot from the hole and stopped dead for a conceded birdie. It looked like DeChambeau had wrested a half-point away from Europe, as Norén’s ball was across the width of the green, fifty feet from the hole. But on a day when the home team refused to yield, naturally his cross-country putt found the bottom of the cup to preserve his 1-up victory and make the final score a lopsided 17½-10½.

For the Europeans it was a complete team victory. The Moliwood pairing was a perfect 4-0, and Molinari became the first European player to go 5-0 in any Ryder Cup. Garcia’s win in the singles gave him 25½ career points, the most by any player for either side in the competition’s long history. But more impressive than any individual record was the fact that every player on Team Europe, obviously including all five rookies, scored at least one point. The counterpoint to that was that three Americans, DeChambeau and shockingly, both Woods and Mickelson, left Paris having been shut out. It was also a huge victory for Bjorn over American captain Jim Furyk. The four European captain’s picks – Poulter, Stenson, Garcia and Paul Casey – combined to go 9-4-1. Furyk’s picks – DeChambeau, Woods, Mickelson and Finau – managed a record of just 2-10.

As is always the case, the Ryder Cup was won not by the team that was best on paper but by the one that played the best out on the course. The Europeans always seem more emotionally invested in this event; as a team they invariably appear joined at the hip for three days every two years. Time and again, that shared sense of common purpose raises the collective game of Team Europe, now winners of nine of the last twelve Ryder Cup matches. The smart money would have wound up looking a lot less dumb had it taken that into account.

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