The ups and downs of the 2018 Ryder Cup
by M. James Ward
Ryder wreck... USA’s road woes continue
PARIS. How humiliating for Phil Mickelson when he dunked his approach shot into the water at the par-3 16th against European stalwart Francesco Molinari thereby bringing to an end the 2018 version of golf's most stellar team event. Team Europe extended its home field superiority since 1993 with a 17½ to 10½ victory, which was never in any real jeopardy save for the opening fourballs on Friday morning when the USA opened a 3-1 lead. Having Mickelson deliver the ending blow was the ultimate ignominy for Lefty who has not demonstrated the skills that have earned him five major championships and 43 PGA Tour wins. The loss may also have meant the final memory of Mickelson's Ryder Cup days. No doubt it was a bitter pill for Lefty to swallow, although he vowed to be a member of the next American team at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin in 2020. Sometimes retirement comes hard for those deep in denial.
Topping Mickelson for the least contribution award goes to a golfer who is both the greatest player the game has ever seen – arguably save for Jack Nicklaus – and the one with an incongruous Ryder Cup record given his 14 majors and 80 PGA Tour wins. If one had ventured to a Las Vegas sports book prior to the event and wagered Tiger Woods would not win so much as a half a point, the odds would have been hefty indeed. You'd also be collecting a substantial sum now. For those keeping overall score the Woods Ryder Cup record stands now at 37 matches played with a 13-21-3 tally. For Lefty his overall futility is seen with 47 matches played and a 18-22-7 total. In fact, Mickelson surpassed Captain Jim Furyk for the most losses by a player ever in the matches. Woods is now second on that sorry list. Interestingly, Mickelson started his Ryder Cup participation in 1995 and won all three matches played. How long ago must that seem to Phil?
Tiger's body language at the post event press conference showed an exasperated golfer simply unable to show anything close to the winning form he gamely provided at The Tour Championship at East Lake. Woods had an outside shot in possibly overcoming Jon Rahm during their singles match. The Spaniard showed his nerves three-putting the par-3 16th and reducing his lead to 1-up. At the demanding long par-4 17th, it was essential Tiger find the fairway, thereby placing even more pressure on a shaking Rahm. Woods attempted to play a fade and the ball never came near the fairway ending up in a horrific lie in the left rough. Knowing full well Woods was now in trouble, Rahm went full bore ahead with a tremendous drive landing in the fairway and leaving him no more than gap wedge which he stiffed and ultimately birdied to closeout the match. Had Woods hit the fairway one can only speculate on what might have happened. For Woods, who became just the 4th player to go winless in the event, the thought that his presence provided zero to the American effort will burn in his saddle for a very long time and can only be redeemed should he make the 2020 event at Whistling Straits. It's utterly incomprehensible a golfer of his standing continues with so much failure at the Ryder Cup.
When the American team lost badly in Scotland at Gleneagles in 2014 a whole new approach was taken to assure better communications and with that better results. Clearly, the approach worked at Hazeltine in 2016 but the debacle at Le Golf National will need to focus squarely on what kind of results are ever going to come with Woods and Mickelson on board for future events. Younger players, who in previous situations would have been pushed aside, will need to be more rigorously examined as possible replacements. For the American side to realize consistent victories the wherewithal to see beyond any one player or players will be imperative. No one should be owed a spot.
One also needs to point out that the pre-Ryder speculation that the Captain's picks made by American squad leader Furyk would be a major contributor was a major dud with the exception of rookie Tony Finau. Woods, Mickelson, Finau and Bryson DeChambeau (the other rookie chosen by Furyk) played a total of ten matches with only Finau winning twice – the worst collective total for any Captain's picks in the history of the event.
At the post event news conference featuring the American squad the anguish on the face of Woods was obvious. Equally obvious was his desire to get out of France as soon as possible. Since The Open Championship Woods has played eight events, with only limited time off allotted through the schedule. His form has clearly exceeded expectations but the downer quite obviously was believing Woods would actually be a force this time around at Le Golf National. What's interesting is that Tiger has been on only one American team that emerged victorious during his career – that happening in 1999 during the sensational comeback on the final day at The Country Club.
To be fair, the onus did not fall only on the shoulders of Woods and Mickelson. Going into the matches the overall American team looked – at least on paper – formidable. Eleven of the twelve were ranked in the world top 20 – the strongest line-up since the world rankings were created in 1986. But, it became clear with the playing of the foursomes matches on Friday – which Europe swept – that nearly all the American players needed a compass to find the tight fairways at the L'Albatros layout and the deep dense rough that awaited such hapless play. Patrick Reed, dubbed Captain America for his inspired play at Hazeltine in 2016 when the USA won, was clearly off form, losing twice in fourballs with Woods as his team-mate to the solid effort brought forward by Tommy Fleetwood and Francesco Molinari. How good was Molinari during the three-day competition? Try undefeated at 5-0 – matching that feat has only been achieved by three others in the history of the event. The Italian, who won The Open this past July at Carnoustie was in total control of all of his play. Keep in mind that this is the same golfer who had never won a match in previous Ryder Cup performances.
Much was made of what the combo of world number one Dustin Johnson and three-time major winner Brooks Koepka would do during the week. Johnson finished with a 1-4 record and at times looked listless. Koepka fared a bit better but his 1-2-1 effort was far from what many believed would happen given how Brooks won the US Open and PGA Championship earlier this year.
Even when trailing 10-6 going into the final 12 singles matches the American squad had its early moments when a huge turn around looked possible. Justin Thomas beat Rory McIlroy in the opening match and his overall record of 4-1 topped the USA effort. Thomas was paired with Jordan Spieth and only tasted defeat when beaten soundly by the Fleetwood / Molinari duo during the foursomes on Friday afternoon. Thomas consistently displayed a "fire in the belly" during his matches and one can only wonder how much of a benefit Thomas had in playing earlier this year at Le Golf National in the French Open Championship.
As the day wore on it became clear that whatever early momentum was present for Team USA the middle portion of the line-up simply failed to keep things going in a positive manner. The cumulative impact of missed fairways and crucial putts at key moments became the anchor that pulled the Americans to a defeat that will sting long after the grandstands at Le Golf National are dismantled.
What will Team USA do leading up to Whistling Straits in two years? It’s hard to say with certainty. Likely Steve Stricker, the Wisconsin native, will be selected Captain. Stricker has experience in the role serving as Captain during Team USA's win in the 2017 President's Cup Matches at Liberty National in New Jersey. But the inevitable pressures will certainly intensify as those matches draw near and make no mistake about it, the President's Cup is the minor league show. The Ryder Cup is the Oscars. The European Team once again marshaled its uncanny will to win and the total unified effort was again on display. Hats off certainly to Captain Thomas Bjørn who was critically assailed for his Captain picks but, in the end, each of them showed more grit and results than their counterparts. Even if the Americans can win in Wisconsin the wherewithal to achieve some sort of edge can only be obtained when finally winning on foreign soil in Italy in 2022.
Until that happens, the Americans will be paper tigers – no pun intended.
Eur-eka the Bjørn identity captures the Ryder Cup
European Captain Thomas Bjørn faced a most difficult dilemma. Naming his four Captain's picks was fraught with a range of difficult decisions and no doubt whoever he ultimately decided upon there would be second guessers. The 47-year-old Dane is not a man who is indecisive and his naming of Ian Poulter, Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia and Paul Casey drew plenty of responses with a good number of them scratching their heads and wondering what was he thinking when other younger players were available.
Fast forward to the recently concluded Ryder Cup matches at Le Golf National and with Europe's resounding victory over a highly rated American squad, the brilliance of Bjørn has certainly been validated. Unlike American Captain Jim Furyk's four picks which posted an appalling 2-10 result, the Euro picks by Thomas put forward a superlative effort – accounting for a 9-4-1 record – over half of the total 17½ points scored by the European side.
Bjørn 's fallback on having experienced players was led by 42-year-old Henrik Stenson. It was the Swede's partnership with long time companion Justin Rose that signaled Team Europe's resolve after trailing the morning session of fourballs by a 3-1 margin. The American momentum was certainly there and having Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler primed for victory would prove no easy task. Rose and Stenson dispatched them 3&2 and sent a loud signal that Europe was not going to go quietly – and ultimately at all. Stenson would end his week in grand fashion swatting away Bubba Watson by a 5&4 margin. What many might not realize is that Stenson and Rose earned a critical point during the Saturday foursome against Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepkla. Called upon to make a hole saving putt from 7 feet on the 16th hole Stenson did not waver dropping the putt to maintain a 1-up lead. On the long and demanding par-4 17th it was Stenson again coming to the forefront – sinking a 12-foot par putt and with Koepka missing from 7 feet for par the match was over. How important was that match? If Stenson and Rose had lost, the overall score going into Sunday's singles would have been Euro 9-7. Gaining the victory effectively made the mountain for the USA to overcome even higher to negotiate.
But the clear hero for Team Europe came from the brilliant golf displayed by Francesco Molinari. Remarkably, the 35-year-old Italian accomplished a phenomenal 5-0 record – something only done three other times and most recently by American Larry Nelson in 1979. This is the same Molinari who until this year had never won a full Ryder Cup point. Molinari and his partner Tommy Fleetwood had to tackle the likes of Tiger Woods and Patrick "Captain America" Reed. The USA squad believed this pairing would produce real success. Someone must have forgotten to explain that to Molinari and Fleetwood who thoroughly vanquished the previous week's winner at East Lake and the Hazeltine hero in quick fashion holing key putts time after time and never letting up on the pedal. The margins were respectively 3&1 Friday and 4&3 Saturday.
Going into the matches Woods was looking to continue on the path he had demonstrated since The Open Championship – a clear return to the top floor of professional golf. Reed was responsible in guiding the American squad with his dazzling play and in his epic takedown of Rory McIlroy in the lead off singles match in 2016. Gutting the American duo, and doing so convincingly, was a clear and powerful statement that the American team would need to look elsewhere for leadership and success. That effort did come from Justin Thomas who finished the matches with a sterling 4-1 record but other such as Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka were clearly not on form and produced only two victories in eight matches.
An underlying aspect of the matches on the L'Albatros course was the set-up of the layout by the host side. Knowing full well how the Americans had altered Hazeltine National in 2016 with wider fairways, softer pin locations and far less rough, the thought process was to provide a venue in complete opposite terms. The length and density of the rough was especially penal. Failure to hit fairways likely meant difficult scrambles for par and more often bogies or worse. Given the fact that Team Europe was very familiar with the site – having Tommy Fleetwood and Alex Noren as past winners of the French Open contested at Le Golf National – the belief was that home course familiarity would be a pivotal factor. In the end, that assessment proved spot on as only one American team member, Justin Thomas, had played the course in competition when playing in this year's French Open. Given the record Thomas amassed during the event one can only wonder if other Americans had done likewise in playing the course prior to the start of the matches.
Coming into this year's event in France there was belief that the American squad, with its overall depth and individual playing records, would finally be able to snap the European home advantage and win for the first time outside of America since 1993. That didn't happen at Le Golf National. The earliest it can happen is in four years when the event is played for the first time in Italy at Marco Simone in 2022.
Team Europe will have some tough decisions to make before the next get together in Wisconsin. Chiefly, who will be the next Captain? Likely the name will come from the several assistants that were present to assist Bjørn. But the soul of the European team is how singularly important the matches are. The focus is on the overall team and until demonstrated consistently by the Americans an ironclad belief that no matter what Team Europe will emerge victorious.
Thomas Bjørn cradled the Ryder Cup upon its formal presentation. The hard work, the preparation, and the wherewithal to lead no matter what others said about his leadership. The Bjorn identity was forged by 12 men determined to return what they truly believe is their right to possess. America may have its "individual" golf stars but Europe has shown that no matter the respective country its members hail from, for three days every two years this line-up has an identity and a singularly minded purpose. Eur-eka indeed!