The Ryder Cup Defeat That Changed Everything for the USA
JIM FURYK’S American team will arrive at Le Golf National as deserved favourites to successfully defend the Ryder Cup and win on European soil for the first time since 1993. In recent years the contest was in danger of becoming one-sided in favour of Europe. All logic dictated that America should dominate the event. Nobody could deny that they had the better players - their records in majors proved it.
But something happened in the team room. Europe came together. The players bonded. They raised their game. And they did it time after time. Look at the records of the likes of Colin Montgomerie, who was never beaten in singles, and Ian Poulter, who took his team by the scruff of the neck and inspired the Miracle at Medinah. Listen to Rory McIlroy talk about the Ryder Cup. He once described it as an exhibition event. But then he played in it. There are some golfers who are able to raise their game almost at will when it comes to contesting that little gold trophy. Seve Ballesteros was another - he could arrive for the week playing like a drain, but the prospect of making the Americans eat dirt inspired him like no other tournament.
As for the Americans, most of the players didn’t mix from week to week on the PGA Tour, so it was hardly a huge surprise that when they got together for one week every two years that they struggled to bond. Who will ever forget Hal Sutton’s masterplan in pairing Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson together at a time when they could barely stand to exchange a word to one another? Sutton was convinced that if he paired them together in four matches over the first two days it would guarantee his team four points. It turned out to be a disaster.
And so it was that every couple of years Europe would field 12 players who would either win the Ryder Cup or give the Americans a hell of a fright. Unsurprisingly, interest on the other side of the Atlantic began to increase in direct proportion to America’s inability to get the job done. American sportsmen hate to lose. They take victory for granted - take sailing’s America’s Cup, which they regarded as their own property for more than 100 years. There was no interest in it - until they lost it.
The turning point for the Ryder Cup came four years ago at Gleneagles when Europe inflicted yet another defeat on the visitors. But this one got under the skin of everybody involved in and around Team USA. Paul McGinley, the European captain, was an inspirational leader, a man who left no stone unturned when it came to working out his pairings. In the opposite corner stood Tom Watson, one of the greatest golfers ever to draw breath. But he was a regular on the Champions Tour and had little or nothing in common with his team. He was from a different generation. That being the case, all logic dictated that he should appoint as his vice-captains men who were still playing on the PGA Tour and who knew the players. Instead, he opted for Raymond Floyd, Andy North and Steve Stricker. Of those, Stricker was the only one still playing actively with the team.
McGinley chose Sam Torrance, a former captain, and Des Smyth as his vice-captains, and then added Miguel Angel Jimenez, Padraig Harrington and Jose Maria Olazabal, who captained the team at Medinah.
It should have surprised nobody that, for three days, Europe were on top in every facet. They played better, they communicated better and they had fun. After day one, Europe led 5-3 following an utterly dominant performance in the afternoon foursomes. America reduced the deficit to one point in the Saturday four balls but Europe stretched their lead to 10-6 with more terrific golf in the foursomes. They went into the final day needing just four points to retain the Ryder Cup. Instead they achieved 6½ and won the contest 16½-11½. It was a rout.
As if the margin of defeat were not bad enough, in an extraordinary press conference at the end of the event Phil Mickelson launched a stinging attack on Watson, his captain. He seriously misjudged the moment, seeming to forget that Watson is one of the most-loved characters in the game. But he made a number of valid points. Watson was the wrong man for the job, his pairings were poor and he surrounded himself with the wrong people.
It turned out to be a defining moment in the history of the Ryder Cup. The Americans decided that it was time to take a long hard look at themselves. Why was it that a team containing players who were inferior on paper could so consistently come out on top? How come they were able to bond when the Americans found it so difficult to do so. It marked a sea change.
The Americans set up a task force that consisted of three PGA officials and eight players with Ryder Cup experience. There were three previous Ryder Cup captains, Floyd, Tom Lehman and Davis Love III, together with Stricker, Woods, Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Jim Furyk. They decided that enough was enough, that the time had come to change things. And so they looked at the European model - most of the players were friends, guys who were happy in each other’s company, who liked mixing socially.
In the months that followed the humiliation at Gleneagles, things began to change. There were bonding sessions, regular get-togethers involving the American players who were most likely to feature in the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine. And guess what? It worked.
Davis Love III was captain of the US team and, like McGinley two years earlier, he knew his players inside out. His vice-captains were Lehman, Furyk, Stricker, Woods and Bubba Watson, who missed out on selection but was desperate to be a part of the match. This was a different American team, filled with young players who were not tainted by a long history of defeat - Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed, Brooks Kopeka, Rickie Fowler.
From the moment that the USA took the Friday foursomes 4-0, the result was never in doubt. They ended day one leading 5-3 and were three points clear heading into the final-day singles. There was to be no recovery for Europe this time. America won 17-11. Pride had been restored.
Furyk brings a formidable young team to Paris. It is packed with major champions. American teams have always been packed with major champions but the key difference now is that this looks like a team as opposed to 12 individuals. Thomas Bjorn’s side have a mountain to climb.
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