Why the US fails miserably every time it comes to Europe
PARIS — We’re much better these days at using analytics to understand sports. It’s easier to look at data and explain why something keeps happening. It has also been a welcome antidote to a lot of very dumb takes.
Some stuff, however, remains a mystery.
Some things are hard, if not impossible, to quantify.
For example: Why does the United States stink every time the Ryder Cup goes to Europe?
Twenty-five years is not a run of bad luck, it’s a trend that spans a generation. The last time the United States won this event in Europe, Raymond Floyd was the Americans’ best player, with three points. He’s currently 76 years old. Why have 2½ decades gone by with the same frustrating results?
Let’s take a crack at it, shall we?
1. For whatever reason, this event makes Tiger Woods mortal.
In addition, it generally makes his partners look tentative. There is no data that can explain it. It’s like a riddle that might not have an answer.
Why can’t someone figure this out? Is it because his dad, Earl, never emphasized team golf when he was raising a prodigy to dominate? Is it because American golfers of every generation are too scared to be themselves around the game’s biggest Alpha Wolf?
Don’t tell me it’s just a run of bad luck, or just the way the ball bounces sometimes in match play. This event is Tiger’s kryptonite. The only thing that changes is the venue. It was this way at the beginning of his career, at the height of his career and now in the twilight of his career.
Europe entered Day 2 with a two-point lead. It stretched the margin to four points, leaving the Americans in a deep, deep hole heading into Sunday’s singles.
The U.S. spent a lot of time coming up with a formula that worked so well two years ago at Hazeltine. So why scrap it this time around in France?
The U.S. is down four points. Only once before has it come back from that far behind. Here’s a look at the singles matches that will decide it.
The United States has spent a long, long, long time trying to figure out the right partner for Tiger, but at some point, you have to step back and look at the big picture. It has gone poorly with friends, foes, steady stars and journeymen. It has gone poorly with long hitters, consistent fairway-finders, excellent putters, the old and the young. Sometimes it’s on them, other times it’s been on him. Usually, it’s a mixture of both.
Here is a hard, uncomfortable truth: He is the one common thread in all of it.
Sure, it’s not Woods’ fault Patrick Reed has been all kinds of awful this week. Reed, for all his past bluster, has been the Americans’ worst player in France. On Saturday morning, Reed found nearly as many water hazards off the tee as he did fairways. But when Woods was finally freed from Reed in the Saturday afternoon foursomes, the result was no different. He and Bryson DeChambeau looked just as listless and noncompetitive.
Woods has now lost seven consecutive team matches in the Ryder Cup, bringing his career record in the event to 9-17-1 with a partner. He has been such an important figure in the growth of golf in America that we can’t resist making excuses for him. (It just wasn’t his day! Or … decade!) But be honest about it: It makes no sense that the Michael Jordan of American golf can’t seem to find his Scottie Pippen, or even a Steve Kerr or John Paxson to pick him up in important moments.
But that’s where we are. It seems too late to change now. Woods once said no one remembered what Jack Nicklaus’ Ryder Cup record was, and he’s right. It won’t be his legacy. But it will be a footnote in his legacy, and that’s a bummer.
2. Americans on the PGA Tour play too much bomb-and-gouge golf, and when you take that away from them, they struggle to collectively adjust.
I know what you’re thinking: Wait, don’t most of the guys on the European team play bomb-and-gouge, too? Some of them do (such as Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm), but none of their best Ryder Cup players are cut from that cloth.
Look at Tommy Fleetwood and Francesco Molinari, who are 4-0 this week and have absolutely tormented the Americans with precision ball-striking. Look at Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter and Henrik Stenson. None of them had a good PGA Tour season, but put them on a course on which accuracy is more important than length, and suddenly they look like the best versions of their youth.
Sometimes you have to remember that the PGA Tour, where almost every young American golfer comes of age, is in the entertainment business. The Tour has decided (perhaps justifiably) that fans want to see golfers smash the ball long and far off the tee and not be severely penalized for it when it goes astray. This is what the players like, as well, because they want to make birdies, not pars. But this week is a welcome reminder that the way modern courses ought to combat outrageous distance gains isn’t by making courses longer, it’s by pinching the fairways, having strategic water hazards and growing the rough out until it’s so thick you cannot hit the green if you miss the fairway.
The PGA Tour, without apology, coddles its players. It’s not like other sports. They are the product, not the labor. If players don’t like a course setup, they’re going to complain about it until it gets changed. If it doesn’t, they’ll skip that event.
This plays right into Europe’s hands every four years when the Ryder Cup comes here. That’s a lifetime in professional golf. There is no incentive for Americans to change. Their team qualifies for the Ryder Cup by playing (mostly) American courses, and American courses reward the kind of golf that doesn’t play well in Europe.
There will always be exceptions (Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth are so talented, they can adjust), but that’s not enough. The way Americans play their way onto the team plays right into Europe’s hands. There will always be horses for courses in golf. Maybe the PGA of America ought to have six captain picks for every Ryder Cup the U.S. plays in Europe and declare a year ahead of time the captain has full discretion to pick players down in the rankings who play European-style golf.
3. Americans get too hung up on needing a specific partner, or a specific ball, to feel comfortable.
Ask yourself this: Have you ever, in 25 years, heard European players talk about how they’d like to be paired together with someone because they both play the same golf ball?
Justin Rose and Stenson don’t play the same ball. Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia don’t play the same ball. Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke didn’t play the same ball. Those are some of the most successful Ryder Cup pairings in recent history, but they weren’t married to one another, either. European captains have always been able to swap them out based on how they’re playing or how tired they are. It gives them tremendous flexibility knowing there won’t ever be a mutiny.
It might seem like a small thing, but it’s another example of how American players have convinced themselves that everything needs to be as close to normal as possible to perform well in this event. You don’t need to play with your friends to play good golf. Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth weren’t exactly good buds when they played great together at Gleneagles. They hardly knew each other. But it feels like Jim Furyk split up that pairing because Spieth and Thomas really wanted to play together. That has been a good move for Spieth and Thomas, but it has left Reed looking lost all week.
4. American golf can’t shake this idea that everyone on the team needs to play before Sunday.
Imagine if you suggested in the NBA that you were going to sit Kevin Durant or LeBron James for an entire half of an NBA Finals game because you felt you owed the 12th man on the bench an opportunity to contribute? People would look at you like you were insane. But that’s exactly what happens in the Ryder Cup.
It’s OK if you don’t play someone until Sunday singles if they aren’t a good fit for the course. Or the format. If Bubba Watson ever qualifies for a Ryder Cup team again, particularly if it’s in Europe, he should sit until Sunday. Tell him to treat Sunday like it’s the first round of the Masters and all he needs to do is go out and shoot a great score. Don’t worry about the team events, because he’s just not a great fit for them. Nothing personal, but this is what’s best for the team — riding Spieth and Thomas and Koepka.
Captains seem like they’re afraid to do this because Europe captain Mark James did it in 1999, sitting Jean van de Velde, Jarmo Sandelin and Andrew Coltart until singles, and they all lost in a miracle comeback win by the United States. You know what no one talks about? That same strategy helped Europe jump out to a 10-6 lead. James rode his best players and nearly led them to a huge upset.
American captains don’t do this for a couple of reasons: They don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, and it would be easy to rip the captain if it went bad. (James was heavily criticized when the move backfired at Brookline.) But guess what: They’re going to get ripped anyway after a loss. If the United States doesn’t pull off another miracle, Furyk will be second-guessed for moves that didn’t work out, even if they made sense at the time.
If Tiger Woods makes the team in 2022, either as a captain’s pick or an automatic qualifier, maybe the best way to use him would be as an assistant captain for two days, stalking between groups with an earpiece, plotting strategy. Then let him out there as a singles player on Sunday.
It’s at least worth considering, right? Nothing else seems to be working.