It was supposed to be different this time. Again. Nearly a decade after the disaster in Scotland that begat the USA Ryder Cup “task force,” the team showed up in Italy with different processes and a new generation of talent and … lost by the exact same margin as that mess in Scotland. So what went wrong?
Europe played better. The USA did not lose only through their own failures or dysfunction. The Europeans made more shots and avoided giving away free points. There was some report of internal fracture – Patrick Cantlay tends to rock boats and voice strong opinions. One of them could be on the subject of player compensation in the Ryder Cup.
But Brooks Koepka, not one to hide beefs or differences of opinion, laid it out simply. “I said it before the event, I thought this was the closest team that I think I’ve been on,” he said. “We’ve got a great group of guys. This week, they just holed a lot more putts, a few more chip-ins…wouldn’t want to do it with another group of guys.” Max Homa tweeted this as well. Justin Thomas said similar things, elaborating that, “Everybody just is happy to be around each other, there’s usually a couple misfits or people that just aren’t a part of the team, but we all were one.”
Tea may be spilled in the coming weeks about some internal issues. But for now, it’s a united messaging telling of a week without dysfunction. In the past two losses in Europe, it only took a few hours after losing the cup for those stories to come out.
Rust v. rest
The PGA Tour season ended some five weeks ago. Most of the USA roster had not played a real competitive round since East Lake. One European commentator and former Ryder Cup player called this approach “disgraceful.” Other Euros considered it offensive. That seems extreme, but it was a contributor given that the Ryder Cup is the most pressurized event in all of golf, beyond even a major. The competitors tell us this. So it seems that such a lengthy gap between competitive reps is inadvisable. The USA started slow with a shaky day of play on Friday, and they never caught up. “If you asked us when we would like to play the Ryder Cup relative to our schedule, I think we would probably say, give us a week after the Tour Championship or two weeks after and then go, instead of five,” Jordan Spieth said afterwards of his own preferences. If the USA is going to prioritize winning the cup overseas, and the players are truly bought in, then setting up a better competitive schedule should be paramount.
ZJ was not 2014 Tom Watson-level bad, but on the scale of bad captains he’s certainly on that side of the line. The captains do not hit the shots, but when a side loses, they take much of the blame. ZJ deserves some of it for justifiable reasons, like, for example…
Much was made of the “buddy system” influencing captain’s picks that rounded out the roster. The USA picks went 4-12-4 this weekend vs. an 8-9-3 record for the “thinner” end of Europe’s roster picks. Given some of the quotes from assistant captains and players themselves, it’s hard to argue that friendships with certain roster stalwarts do not play a part in making the team. Whether you want to call that the buddy system or not is a different subject.
Also problematic: the insistence on putting friends together for the various two-man games. Sam Burns was picked and paired with his close friend Scottie Scheffler, and was instantly a drag on the No. 1 player in the world in the first match of the Cup. Sending him out first in an alt-shot format and with arguably your best player went disastrously. Justin Thomas was chosen as the “heart and soul” of the team, but perhaps he’s just the heart and soul of Jordan Spieth, because apparently the two are incapable of playing apart? Spieth was searching for much of the weekend. JT was not much better. They were two of the three worst USA players by strokes-gained numbers. But if they’re playing together in part because they’re so tight, and JT is there because he’s the heart and soul…why bench them for the opening session when you’re looking for some fire in a foursomes format where comfort might help? Instead, ZJ sat them for the opening foursomes and then blasted them out there every session thereafter, even when it was apparent they were struggling. The Spieth-Thomas duo killed them. JT may have been better used elsewhere, and some of the pairings that might be considered more “random” by relationship ended up doing quite well for the USA.
ZJ was confusing and uninspiring at the mic for much of the week. More critical, however, is that he seemed to often push the wrong buttons early, and that was it. This entire Ryder Cup was a comprehensive indictment of the USA’s proclivity for buddy ball, which might have cost them a few critical points. Justin Rose delivered a cutting critique of this USA practice, saying “A good pairing on the European team doesn’t mean playing with your best mate.” Tough to dismiss that message when it’s delivered by a guy sipping celebratory champagne.
The task force wrought a player empowerment era, where the stars had more input into the process and teammates and partners. But there must be a balance here, and the captain has to step in to break up friendships if the data or form calls for something better. The Euros create the pairings that fit best for that given week, and it’s not purely based on comfort or preexisting friendship. Jon Rahm told Golf Channel that he learned a lot about “Tyrrell and Nicolai in the two weeks leading up” to the Ryder Cup. The Euros study pairings that might work well on the course, or within the roster (e.g. rookie-sitting) and then make them comfortable for the Cup. The USA goes the other direction: grabbing duos who are already comfortable and then forcing them into sessions. The overemphasis on Buddy Ball needs a full reexamination before Bethpage, and certainly before another foursomes session on European soil.
It was not all bad for the USA. Let’s look at a few more individual bright spots.
On Cantlay, the juice is worth the squeeze. Yes, it sounds like he can be a contrarian pain in the ass, and seems prickly on a range of subjects. But he continues to ball out in multiple formats, displaying the precise combination of makeup and talent that’s well-suited for contentious match play environments, both home and away. He also seems to piss off the opponent with his demands to run up the score and other take no prisoners tendencies. Unlike a rock-the-boat Patrick of a prior era (and all the familial burner accounts), this one continues to perform and work within the larger guardrails of a team.
Patrick Cantlay pretending to tip his hat to the crowd is an instant classic. pic.twitter.com/GuNd9m01vC
— Alex Myers (@AlexMyers3) September 30, 2023
As JT has demonstrated, form can fluctuate wildly from one Cup selection process to the next, but Max Homa proved himself as another potential spoke in the wheel for the longer term. He was the MVP of the USA side, playing all five matches and closing his week out with a macho up-and-down off an unplayable drop to block Matt Fitzpatrick’s attempt to clinch the final half-point. It was brilliant. He missed a similar putt on 18 on Friday, and on Sunday, after making what Paul Azinger called the “one of the best pressure putts I’ve seen in my life,” Homa said he’d been jonesing for “that chance again” on 18. It’s a simple statement, but he’s also put action behind it now for two straight years. He seems malleable and easy-going enough to get along with most everyone, and he’s now shown an ability to succeed in the cauldron of these team events.
I’m also not ready to pile on Scottie Scheffler yet. As Europe demonstrated this week, and as the USA demonstrated for decades with Tiger and Phil, your top-ranked players must deliver points. He’s had an underwhelming two years of team events, points-wise. But timing and form and partners and draws have not matched up well for him. His singles battle against Rahm was inspiring, as was his emotional reaction to losing on Saturday morning. I’m coming away with a largely positive impression of Scottie after this week. A superstar stud who cares is exactly what you want.
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