| The Dis-United States in Capitulation
Does the typical PGA TOUR professional understand team golf in general?
Having taken back control of the Ryder Cup with a commanding 17-11 victory over Europe at Hazeltine in 2016, it had looked as if the good ship USA had been steadied and was preparing to sail into French waters to record back-to-back wins for the first time since the 1990s.
Just a week after Tiger Woods had regained that winning feeling with a stunning individual victory at the PGA TOUR Championship, he and the rest of his high-flying team raising the fundamental question whether the typical PGA TOUR professional understands team golf in general and the Ryder Cup in particular.
The Stars & Stripes had won only 8 out of 21. But Hazeltine in 2016 under the shrewd captaincy of Davis Love III appeared, on the surface at least, to have reignited the USA’s passion for the Ryder Cup and its team members’ love of golf’s equivalent of handto-hand combat.
It was the 42nd Ryder Cup, the first ever to be staged in France, that Team USA had entered the fray as red-hot favourites for the first time in a generation. The American wiped-out 0–4 on the Friday foursomes. They failed to measure up in the crucial Sunday Singles, losing 7.5 to 4.5 pts. Woods – hero one week, zero the next - failing to register a single point for Team USA in four matches. Phil Mickelson stood down for two vital Saturday foursomes and fourballs similarly drawing a blank, no points from two matches.
And it was widely felt that Team USA, as favourites and holders – meaning they only needed a 14–14 pts tie to retain the small gold cup – had too much firepower for an inexperienced European team under a captain few had faith in.
However, Europe’s go-to men, Ian Pouter, Henrik Stenson and Sergio García, those battlehardened Ryder Cup warriors all contributed heavily to the winning 17.5 points in total. So as did Italian Francesco Molinari, who became the first European to play five - win five - in what was a crucial contribution from the best player in world golf right now, bar none.
Defeated captain Jim Furyk was magnanimous in defeat, saying at the official post-match press conferences, “Hats off to what they accomplished this week, Thomas (Bjørn) did a great job as captain, players on their team, class acts, and gritty,” adding, “When we put some heat on them early this afternoon, they responded. They played some great golf this week, and I take my cap off, their team out-played us, and there's nothing else more you can say, they deserved to win, they played well.”
Masters champion Patrick Reed, reported to be less-than-popular in the PGA TOUR locker-room was first to break USA ranks to tell the media, "I was looking at (Jordan) like I was about to light the room up like Phil in ’14,” adding, “Every day, I saw ‘Leave your egos at the door’, but they (the Europeans) do that better than us.”
Reed was also unhappy that Furyk sat him out for two sessions. "For somebody as successful in the Ryder Cup as I am, I don’t think it’s smart to sit me twice,” the reigning Masters champion said.
Team USA had already been under a cloud since an opening-day incident in which an Egyptian spectator had reportedly lost the sight of an eye after being struck by a loose tee-shot from Brooks Koepka. A seemingly Dis-United States team looked increasingly unmanageable, while the multinational European team seems to bind and blend with remarkable ease.
Succession planning is said to be already underway, and one might suspect there could be a few more applications on European bosses’ desks than solicitations for what some contemporary PGA TOUR stars are beginning to see as something of a poisoned chalice.
Indeed, rumour already has it with Lee Westwood reportedly standing aside until Italy 2022 that Pádraig Harrington will be the 26th captain for the re-match as Whistling Straits in 2020.
Furyk then jumped into the Spieth/Reed debate, saying "Jordan and Patrick have been great in the past. Whether that’s a point of contention or not I felt we had two great pairings out of it.
“So, it was totally my decision and my call,” continued Furyk, few believing him,
insisting, “'It just didn't work out for them this way, but I would like to put it down to our 12 players just playing really, really well.”
Leadership, it is said, falls somewhere between an art and a science. Arguably, in sport, especially team sport and in golf with its many external factors beyond a captain’s control, more of a forward planning, hard work and hope-for-the-best approach. But it does appear for the time being at least, Europe has the Indian sign over Captain America and its charges.
It has been suggested that the 2018 Ryder Cup was won before it had even begun. European captain Bjørn and his many assistants, also known as ‘the next cabs off the rank,’ were putting the finishing touches to their strategy, issuing each player with a specially-commissioned DVD including touchstone moments and quintessential quotes from former captains Brian Huggett, Sam Torrance and José Maria Olazábál.
For this correspondent at least, the term ‘success’ can be brought by - and measured against - a fusion of factors over which captains and players have limited control and influence.
These include individual, national and international pride, a sense of individual and collective purpose, mental and physical strength, mutual respect, personal and cumulative desire and, principally, in the case of Team USA, financial remuneration.
Lacking the former, the colleagues they require to bond with are, week-in, week-out, arch rivals on the PGA TOUR (intercollegiate affiliations can often outweigh the bond of the Stars and Stripes). Jim Furyk’s team, like many before them (and one suspects after), were/will be deprived of their primary (some might say sole) driving force - hard cash.
Team USA is individually and corporately bewildered, collectively confused by the notion that there is no multi-million-dollar prize fund on the line on Sunday afternoon. Just a small, somewhat anonymous gold trophy, communal pride and a sense of countrywide achievement, which, the next week, the following big-money tournament can, and will blank out, sending the memory of a dispiriting defeat into the far distance.
Tiger Woods had regained the winning feeling with a stunning individual victory at the PGATOUR Championship just one week before the Ryder Cup
European Team celebrates winning the 2018 Ryder Cup
Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth watch Jon Rahm play a tee shot during the Saturday morning fourballs