HUGGAN’S ALLEY: JOHH HUGGAN
BONJOUR from the Ryder Cup. The action has just ended and the European team has won by 17 1/2 points to 10 1/2. “Quelle surprise” as they say in these parts. That makes nine victories out of the last 12 for the Old World over those pesky and increasingly bemused colonials. What’s next for Uncle Sam’s beleaguered nephews? A Task Force to look into the Task Force? Stay tuned.
In the meantime, let’s take a wee look at some of what went on at Le Golf National for a week or so. First, there was the grandstand behind the 1st tee. Massive thing. Held nearly 7,000 people. And yes, they created some noise. And yes, Rory McIlroy’s beautifully timed rendition of the Icelandic Thunderclap was good fun. But still, the whole exercise seemed a bit contrived, a bit less than what was promised. Kinda like being told a movie is the best thing since pain tranche (that’s “sliced bread” in French for those struggling with my bilingual dexterity) then finding it is pretty good but not exactly wonderful. Someone somewhere – namely the European Tour and the PGA of America – made a lot of money though. The corporate presence continues to grow biennially, as do the invariably laugh-out-loud prices in the merchandise arena.
Then there was the golf course. It was a bit like stepping back in time really. To a US Open maybe 20 years ago. Narrow fairways. Thick rough. The only things missing were concretelike greens and really stupid pin positions. Instead, the putting surfaces were running maybe a yard-or-two slower than is typical on the PGA Tour. Clearly, European skipper Thomas Bjorn came with a plan to both play to the strengths of his own players and expose the perceived weaknesses on the American side.
The most glaring fragility, by the way, was not exactly difficult to figure out.
A quick peek at the “driving accuracy” statistics on the PGA Tour reveals some startling incompetency. When it comes to hitting fairways, the most proficient member of the US squad is Rickie Fowler, who arrived dans Francais ranked 52nd on the list. Next was Bryson DeChambeau at 93rd, closely followed by Webb Simpson (94th) and Jordan Spieth (98th). Tiger Woods is ranked 129th, Dustin Johnson 138th, Justin Thomas and Bubba Watson 141st, Brooks Koepka 158th, Tony Finau 180th, Patrick Reed 182nd and Phil Mickelson 190th. Mickelson’s position, by the way, can also be described as “fourth-last.” Only Andrew Yun, Ollie Scheniderjans and Ricky Barnes hit fewer fairways than golf’s greatest-ever left-hander. In other words, all three are really, really, really bad with a driver in their hands.
My mind goes back to the 12th tee on the second afternoon. Standing close by, I watched as Woods pulled his tee-shot miles left into the “munchies.” His comment as he “placed” his driver back in the bag said it all really: “What a f**king golf shot. Jesus f**king Christ. You motherf**ker.”
Anyway, moving right along, Bjorn deserves much credit for setting-up the course in a way that was always going to advantage his men. But, in turn, American captain Jim Furyk is deserving of criticism on two fronts.
First, he should have figured out what Bjorn was likely to do set-up-wise. And second, once that first hurdle had been cleared, he should not have been picking the likes of Finau and Mickelson. In fact, he might have been better off selecting the 10th most accurate driver on the PGA Tour – himself – or two of his vice-captains, Matt Kuchar and Zach Johnson. Within the team, only Fowler hits more fairways than those guys.
All of which is not to say that Bjorn’s legitimate and highly effective tactics made for exciting golf. They did not. Which is a pity in a match play event that is inherently entertaining. Too often, holes were decided not by great putts or dramatic approach shots – although they both made appearances – but by poor tee-shots. Too often, as soon as one player hit a fairway and the opponent did not, that was that. The hole was all but over. All because the risky recovery shot was almost completely eliminated. Instead, players were reduced to hacking-out or, at best, attempting an uncontrollable “heave’-ho” from rough that was much too long and much too thick.
In conclusion, what this witness will take away from the 42nd Ryder Cup matches is confirmation that the game’s biggest and most powerful circuit is on the wrong track. The leading American players are highly proficient when it comes to the narrow form of golf too often found on the PGA Tour. But take them out of that comfort zone and they are likely to struggle.