Whistling Straits, WI
The latest edition of the Ryder Cup begins this Friday on U.S. soil. The European team is defending the Cup and that means they can retain it with 14 points while the US team will require an extra half-point to secure the win. In consideration of which team is the favorite, here are the primary categories:
Home course advantage: U.S.A.
This goes to the U.S. side. Whistling straits is a links-style course but doesn’t play like a traditional links setup. It’s long and has deep rough but most approaches are forced carries. Captain Steve Stricker will, of course, have a say in the final course setup to ensure it favors the US team with its “bomber” characteristics. The fans can be a factor particularly in U.S. settings (alcohol, Trumpism, and U.S.A. chants), but the Euros seem to be good at letting it roll off their backs.
Player Experience: Europe
To borrow a European expression, the U.S. team has a total of12 Caps (the combined number of Ryder Cups their team has played). The Euros have a total of 38 Caps. This is largely due to the European side fielding only three rookies compared to the six U.S. players who will have their first Ryder Cup exposure. Europe has four players (Westwood, Garcia, Poulter, and McIlroy) who make up the majority of those Caps.
Player Quality/Form: U.S.A.
The sum of the WGR (World Golf Rankings) of the 12 member U.S team is 108 or an average of nine. The U.S. squad has eight of the top 10 players in the world at present. This compares to a European team with a WGR total of 362 for an average of 30.
Ryder Cup Performance: Europe
Of the nine European players with Ryder Cup experience, the win/loss record is 6/3. Of the six U.S. players who have played for the Cup, the record is similar at 4/2, however, the European side has players (Garcia, Poulter, Westwood, McIlroy, Casey) who have established their strong winning records over many years. Jon Rahm has a losing record from his one Ryder Cup, but you would have to expect him (as the number one player in the world) to exert the traditional, passionate, Spanish winning heritage in the Seve, Jose Maria, Sergio style. The U.S. will have to rely on the guts of Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, hope DJ is engaged, Morikawa regains form, DeChambeau intimidates and Brooks Koepka considers the Ryder Cup worthy of his interest.
Captains and Co-Captains: Europe
Team management has often played a significant role in the Ryder Cup outcome. Sometimes it involves playing partner composition (Hal Sutton) or sitting out the rookies until singles (Darren Clarke) or just being disliked by the team (Nick Faldo). Usually, the quality of the team or simply who is putting better that week are the overriding factors. The U.S. team is led by Steve Stricker who (no one seems to have mentioned this) is the first captain in U.S. Ryder Cup history to have never won a major championship. He also has a losing Ryder Cup record. His major qualification seems to be that he is generally a “nice guy” who is still playing the odd regular tour event. His co-captains (except for Zach Johnson) also have losing Ryder Cup records. I have to think that it is harder for this group’s pep talks to be as motivating given their long-term failures at this event.
The European leadership is slightly better. Padraig Harrington is an affable sort, a multi-major winner but also has a losing record in the Ryder Cup. At least three of his five co-captains (Donald, McDowell, Stenson) have winning records and might be able to excite their charges with tales of their success.
The U.S. team includes many of the best players in the world. Even the six rookies on their squad are some of the most proven winners on Tour. They are playing on a course that should provide a huge advantage over the aging European side. But they also have the most pressure. This always seems to be the case for a U.S. team that has a record of the most individual success. They also care much more about winning the Ryder Cup. This is not to suggest that the Europeans care a lot less – but they sure seem to. Although the Euros have won seven of the last 10 Cups, they are almost always cast as the underdogs. This is something they embrace.
There’s a reason major sports teams that are out of playoff contention, often play better late in the season. Very simply, they are playing looser. They feel less pressure than teams that need to win. This is why the U.S. Ryder Cup teams keep losing to inferior Euro squads. My advice to the U.S. team is this – care less, stop the task forces, put away the bibles for the week and replace the motivational speakers in the team room with cases of everyone’s favorite beer.
The PGA and the Ryder Cup leadership needs to re-cast the Ryder Cup as a series of friendly matches among colleagues and not a test of which part of the world is the dominant force in the game. Until then, the Euros will continue to have the upper hand in this bi-annual affair.