Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 26, 2021

(Not) The End Of The World As We Know It

If it’s Ryder Cup week, can an existential crisis be far behind?  The answer is of course not, for the two go hand in hand; or so fans would conclude based on predictably overwrought reporting by some members of the media.  Those excitable scribes can be counted on to see the outcome of the biennial golf match between teams from the U.S. and Europe causing all those on the losing side to question the meaning and purpose of life itself.  The only difference this year is that for the first time since 2016, it is the European side that must now stare into the utter blackness of an abyss more inescapable than Hell bunker at St. Andrew’s.

The 2021 matches, delayed for a year by the pandemic, played out in historically lopsided fashion on the Pete and Alice Dye designed Straits Course, overlooking Lake Michigan at the Whistling Straits Resort, midway between Milwaukee and Green Bay.  The American hosts wasted no time seizing control, winning three of a possible four points in Friday’s opening foursomes session.  The U.S. team, captained this year by Steve Stricker, liked that 3-1 session score so much it duplicated the number both Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, building a massive 9-3 lead through the first three rounds of team play.  For a time on Saturday afternoon the visiting squad appeared capable of mounting a comeback, but in the end the fourball session was tied 2-2, giving the U.S., at 11-5, the biggest lead after the first two days since 1975.   

The largest deficit ever overcome during the singles matches is four points.  Both the U.S. in 1999 at The Country Club and Europe in 2012 at Medinah trailed 10-6 going into Sunday.  Those final day comebacks have their own chapters in Ryder Cup lore.  Which is to say that while twelve singles matches still had to be played, this year’s outcome was all but certain.  Knowing that, and perhaps hoping to claim some journalistic prize as the first pundit to use the famous phrase, Irish golf writer Eamon Lynch deployed the term Saturday evening, declaring in a Golfweek article that an “existential crisis is now firmly Europe’s to ponder.”

Despite Lynch’s grim warning, no member of the European team threw himself into Lake Michigan, unable to face life without possession of the seventeen-inch, four-pound trophy that is the ultimate team prize in what remains an individual sport, even after the U.S. continued its weekend dominance, taking eight points on Sunday to complete the 19-9 blowout.  Instead, most of them will regroup and make travel plans for an upcoming PGA Tour event.  Of the twelve European team players, only Bernd Wiesberger plays almost exclusively on the European Tour.  Almost all the rest are PGA Tour members who spend most of their time in the U.S. 

Which is not to say that Rory McIlroy, Ian Poulter, Jon Rahm, and the rest of Team Europe don’t care about the outcome.  In fact, Europe is competitive because of their commitment. Poulter’s passion for the event is famous, and McIlroy fought back tears in his post-match interview.  But what the overly dramatic language from media figures like Lynch tends to obscure is how remarkable it is that a result like this weekend’s isn’t commonplace.

Since the Americans’ opponent for these matches was expanded from Great Britain and Ireland to include continental Europe in 1979, the U.S. has lost twelve of the twenty-one meetings.  While that may be a bit more competition than American fans might like, increasing the competitiveness of the matches was precisely why the change was made.  Prior to that, the U.S. had lost only three times since Samuel Ryder spent $400 on the trophy for the event’s inaugural staging in 1927.  The matches had become a sleepy and predictable exhibition, attracting little interest.  Now the Ryder Cup is one of the biggest events on golf’s calendar, benefitting the PGA of America, the U.S. organizer, and the consortium led by the European Tour that fills that role on the other side of the Atlantic.  Both would suffer if the matches again became one-sided and predictable.

Yet that they don’t is surprising.  To be sure, there is a decided home course advantage.  This weekend’s victory gives the U.S. a 7-4 record on home soil against Europe.  That side is even better at home, sporting a record of 8-2.  The edge is in part because of the vocal support of raucous crowds, as the event has morphed into as much a spectator spectacle as a golf tournament.  That advantage was arguably even greater than usual at Whistling Straits, with pandemic travel restrictions sharply limiting the number of European fans. 

But the more significant advantage to hosting is the ability to set up the course, tailoring the layout to the strengths of one’s team or mitigating the opponent’s advantage.  For example, in 2018 at La Golf National near Paris, the Europeans tightened the fairways and let the rough grow, knowing that the U.S. team included many players capable of bombing drives, long but not always straight, well past the tee balls of their European counterparts.  The setup contributed to a 17 ½ – 10 ½ rout by the hosts.  In contrast, the Straits course accommodated the American big hitters, and through the first two days the U.S. had won the hole on a par-5 a whopping 21 times against a mere 6 for Europe. 

Yet course setup can only do so much.  In any given year, Team USA arrives at the Ryder Cup with a roster that is far deeper than Europe’s.  This year Poulter, at age 45 almost certainly making his final Cup appearance as a player, was the lowest golfer on either squad in the world rankings, at number 50.  This week’s rankings include twenty-seven Americans in the top 50, meaning the U.S. could have filled two Ryder Cup rosters without turning to a player like Poulter.  Yet based on the rankings the only player Team Europe captain Padraig Harrington passed over to pick Poulter was Justin Rose, who sits just six spots higher.  By any metric, the results are the same.  Major championships?  Team USA had thirteen, the Europeans seven, more than half from McIlroy.

Despite all that, Europe has somehow matched the U.S. at home, and has the most stunning away upset since the competition expanded, 2012’s Miracle at Medinah.  That record against the odds has a lot to do with Poulter’s passion, and McIlroy’s tears, emotions shared by their compatriots.  Their ability to translate that into results on the course is why the Ryder Cup has long been a textbook example of this site’s fundamental axiom – there is always a reason why they play the games.  Sometimes underdogs have their day.

But there is also no denying that in all our games the result is often exactly what’s expected, which is what happened, with a record-breaking margin for emphasis, at Whistling Straits.  Was it the beginning of a new era of American dominance, or a predictable home win, albeit by an impressively huge margin?  We can’t begin to know until Rome in 2023.  In the meantime though, despite the advice of some scribes, there is no reason why golf fans on either side of the Atlantic should spend their days staring hopelessly into a black abyss.

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