The Ryder Cup only comes around once every two years, and that feels just about right. It’s golf’s rarest event (with the exception, now, of the Olympics), and it also the only one that stirs up this unique blend of emotions, from both players and fans. There’s no money on the line, but patriotism, international pride, professional ego, and the hyper-focused desire to do your teammates proud combine to incite white-hot reactions like this and this and this.
Depending on who you talk to, this biannual event is also one of the most important in world golf. Justin Thomas famously said he’d rather play on a winning Ryder Cup team than win a major. And although the competition only includes the United States and Europe, it certainly feels like the golf world stops for one weekend every two years and focuses on a team of 12 individuals trying to accomplish something historic.
So it’s rare, and it’s important. And as such, the Ryder Cup receives an incredible amount of media coverage. By the time the sun rises on the galleries packed into the first tee grandstands on Friday morning of Ryder Cup week, anyone who’s ever discussed golf in any capacity will have given their opinion on the event. The previews are endless and exhaustive, breaking down the course, the weather, the strengths and weaknesses of each team, and the most likely outcomes.
And even after all that prognostication, there are still surprises.
That’s why the recap business is so much fun. Hindsight is 20/20, and as golf writers don’t have much to discuss that will capture national attention until April, it’s usually closer to 20/10. With that said, let’s look back at some players that defied prediction, and gave us some of the unexpected and underrated performances of the 2016 Ryder Cup.
You had to know I was going here. Soly already covered Brooks on assignment for SB Nation, and he only had Koepka’s Friday performance to go on. Of course, that effort was rather emphatic, as the uber-long Koepka teamed with sweet-putting Brandt Snedeker for a 5&4 demolition of the overmatched European team of Martin Kaymer and Danny Willett.
Brooks went on to cement himself as one of the best American Ryder Cup rookies in history. He teamed with Sneds again in foursomes on Saturday morning and easily dispatched Matthew Fitzpatrick and potential cyborg Henrik Stenson, winning 3&2 after birdieing three of the last four holes. Then Captain Davis Love III listened to his inner 12-year-old, the same voice that still wants to watch the MLB home run derby, and teamed Brooks Koepka with fellow nuclear weapon Dustin Johnson. Because the golf gods are kind, they drew the biggest guns that Europe had to offer, and were subsequently vanquished 3&1 by Rory McIlroy and Thomas Pieters.
But, he did do stuff like this.
— PGA.COM (@PGAcom) October 1, 2016
Then Koepka came out on Sunday and cemented a place in Danny Willett’s nightmares, beating the Englishman so comprehensively (5&4 on -6 through 14 holes) that NBC didn’t feel it necessary to show any of his shots besides the closing putt. In his first Ryder Cup, Brooks Koepka played four matches, won three, and never saw the 18th hole in competition – a welcome respite from the heart-stopping heroics that Reed, McIlroy, and others were providing.
He’s exactly what an American sports fan expects a great American athlete to look like – tall, strong, handsome, and, for lack of a better word, quarterbacky. Like Dustin Johnson, Koepka seems like he could slot into a high-level game of basketball, baseball, or football and dominate with ease. Here’s hoping he continues his Ryder Cup dominance in the future.
Brandt “Bobby” Snedeker
Brandt is one of the worst names I’ve ever seen, and a friend of mine suggested we call him Bobby, as it makes him more palatable to discuss. Fine with me. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t like Bobby Sneds before this Ryder Cup. His twitchy golfing style and pinched face remind me of some large member of the rodent family, and his toe-down, percussive putting stroke look like something you’d see at a local mini golf course.
Well, I’m a changed man. Bobby Sneds can play for my team any day. The man did not miss a putt in Minnesota, and his accurate iron play and deadly flatstick combined with Brooks’s length to make Cap’n DL3 look like a genius. He was the only player on the United States team with a perfect record, going 3-0-0 after finishing off the fiery Andy Sullivan 3&1 on Sunday. Also, his convulsive post-putt celebrations reminded me of the Bishop from Caddyshack.
— Ryder Cup USA (@RyderCupUSA) October 2, 2016
Lost amid the hysteria of Rory/Reed, Sergio/Phil, and America’s biggest victory since 1981 was the play of Ryder Cup rookie Ryan Moore. As everyone knows, Moore was the final player chosen for the Ryder Cup, riding the momentum of a bare-knuckle playoff brawl against Rory McIlroy in the Tour Championship into one of the most pressure-packed arenas in golf. He was the first recipient of the late captain’s pick created by the so-called “Horschel Rule,” and was saddled with the “hottest player in the world” tag before teeing it up in Hazeltine. Not an easy expectation to carry around, particularly with less than five days to mentally prepare for the fact that he would be playing in his first Ryder Cup.
Despite all this, Moore acquitted himself admirably. He took a 3&2 loss to the Spanish Armada during Friday afternoon fourballs while paired with doppelganger J.B. Holmes, but scratched out a 1-up win over the English duo of Lee Westwood and Danny Willett on Saturday afternoon with the same partner. But it was singles where he really made his mark.
By happenstance, Moore was paired with Westwood again on Sunday. Neither player would have been happy with their performances up to that point, as Westwood had missed a few near-gimmes and Moore had only carded one birdie in the Saturday afternoon match. Moore’s singles match started in disaster, as he thumped his way around to a double-bogey 6 on the easy par-4 first. Remarkably, this Cup rookie kept his composure and quickly won two of the next four holes to get back in the driver’s seat. After losing the 9th, 14th, and 15th however, Moore seemed destined to fall to Westwood and give up a precious point.
Then came the heroics. Needing to win all three of the final holes to claw back and gain a point, on the par-5 16th, Moore fired a fairway wood eight feet right of the flag and canned the eagle putt.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) October 2, 2016
One down with two to play. On the par-3 17th, with a massive water hazard yawning to the right, Moore dialed in a short iron, calmed his nerves and drained another clutch putt. As Westwood’s birdie try slid past, the Horschel Rule pick was looking better and better. The 18th hole was over as soon as Westy’s greenside bunker blast ran out past the hole. Moore was looking at 10 feet uphill for birdie, and the way the other matches had fallen out, this full point would clinch the Cup for the Americans. He lagged it up to within a foot, and turned to see the Englishman striding toward him, the white cap in hand as sure a signal of surrender as any white flag ever flown from an outgunned fort. Ryan Moore went from off the team to clinching the American Ryder Cup victory in less than a week, and his steel nerves and late-round birdie barrage proved his worth beyond a shadow of a doubt.
ZJ is quietly turning into a Ryder Cup stalwart. After teaming with President James Walker to take down Sergio and Kaymer 4&2 in Friday foursomes, he fell on the last hole to Chris Wood and Justin Rose in the Saturday session. Then, placed in the anchor position at the end of Sunday’s singles lineup, Johnson comprehensively defeated Matthew Fitzpatrick 4&3 in the “I Could Be Your Dad” match of the day.
Though some people suggested he only made the team on the strength of a 2015 British Open win, he turned out to be an important piece of the U.S. triumph. Johnson’s two wins improved his overall Ryder Cup record to 8-7-2, including 2-1-1 in singles. Optimists would say he’s only missed one Ryder Cup since 2006. Pessimists would point out that the one that he missed was the lone U.S. win before last week, in 2008. Deeper thinkers would note that he hasn’t lost a singles match since his inaugural Cup, and that this was the second Ryder Cup in a row that he held down the anchor position in Sunday singles (after taking a half point off Victor Dubuisson in 2014). Johnson’s experience and unflappable demeanor make him the perfect last man out in singles, and a game based on accuracy, penetrating ball flight, and minimizing mistakes means that he’ll play well just about anywhere.
Rafael Cabrera Bello
This was a tough Ryder Cup for Europe. There’s no way around that. Several players on the European side didn’t come away with a point, and only six team members earned more than a single point for their side. As such, it’s hard to find an underrated performance among the squad – Rory and Thomas Pieters seem to be sharing the column inches equally, and with good reason – but I’ll go with Rafa Cabrera Bello.
The Spaniard won the third most points (2.5) for the Europeans, and was the only Euro without a loss. He teamed with his countryman Sergio Garcia for a Friday afternoon 3&2 victory over the beard brothers (Holmes and Moore), then fought Batman and Robin (Reed and Spieth) to a draw on Saturday morning. On Sunday, Europe front-loaded their singles matches, knowing they’d need to put a healthy splash of blue up on the board if they were to have any chance of retaining the trophy. RCB went off fifth, behind veterans McIlroy, Stenson, and Rose (along with Pieters), and did his part by eliminating President Walker 3&2.
In a European Ryder Cup team half-full of rookies, Cabrera Bello acquitted himself like an accomplished veteran. He was one of the few European players who can feel good about his play at Hazeltine.
The last half-decade of Tiger Woods’s career has been decidedly unpredictable. At times he’s looked like the Tiger of old, and at other times he’s just looked old. So it was refreshing, and refreshingly under-hyped, to see Tiger acting as a vice captain.
First of all, his mirrored shades and secret-agent earpiece made him a flashing red target for #Killhouse jokes:
Cat out here lookin like a Secret Service agent givin out code names
*Reed sprints off the tee*
(*into walkie*): "Renegade is on the move" pic.twitter.com/jU2hc1q8PG
— No Laying Up (@NoLayingUp) September 27, 2016
When you’re supposed to be the strategist but you want to use your earpiece and mic to find ladies in the gallery. pic.twitter.com/r51oim359h
— Kyle Porter (@KylePorterCBS) October 1, 2016
“Davis, move in for the kill. Now. NOW!” pic.twitter.com/lqDzEqKlkS
— Kyle Porter (@KylePorterCBS) September 30, 2016
But more importantly, Tiger brought two things to the proceedings: strategy, and intimidation. In the run-up to the tournament, players and captains alike were praising Cat’s attention to detail and commitment to creating a winning strategy. Though I wasn’t really following golf closely when Tiger was at his peak (as I was still in elementary/middle/high school), it seems like the mental side of his game isn’t discussed enough. Outrageous stats like his 89 consecutive rounds beating the field, or really anything on this list, had just as much to do with the way he strategized and dissected a course as with how he could overpower and out-putt the field. In his role as vice-captain, Tiger was essentially playing golf chess – moving 12 players with different skill sets into the best possible position to win.
And also, it’s Tiger. He scares people. Even his presence as an inside-the-ropes viewer affects the players on the course. When the Cup was clinched, Reed and the Cat shared a hug, and Patty told him that as soon as El Tigre left the McIlroy/Reed match, Reed started making bogeys. If the uber-self-centered Reed knows where Big Cat is, you can bet that everyone on the European team does too.
I’m only slightly joking when I say that a huge, (probably) inebriated North Dakotan strolling onto one of Hazeltine’s greens and jarring a tricky putt in front of three European Ryder Cup stalwarts (and Andy Sullivan) may have struck a bit of fear into the hearts of the Euros.
He also got featured on Colbert.
This was my first Ryder Cup being fully engaged with Twitter, as I was in attendance at the last one in 2014 (not to brag). I don’t know what I was doing in 2012, I’m pretty sure I hadn’t found a job after graduating college so I really didn’t have much excuse for missing it. But still, I think Golf Twitter has really come into its own over the past few years. I don’t really need to justify that, as half the media above was posted on the Twitts, but the level of access it grants to regular golf fans is fairly unbelievable. A sampling of the offerings that made me feel like I was right there in Minnesota:
I'm sitting on the bench near 9 tee. Rory smokes one, comes and sits next to me. Points at DJ/BK, who he's 3-up on.
"You got your wish."
— No Laying Up (@NoLayingUp) October 1, 2016
Fans serenade Rory with the chorus from "Sweet Caroline."
He yells back: "GOOD TIMES NEVER SEEMED SO GOOD!"
— Ryan Lavner (@RyanLavnerGC) October 1, 2016
Going to tweet storm a few things from the Ryder Cup week that I saw and didn't make it into stories for whatever reason.
— Kevin Van Valkenburg (@KVanValkenburg) October 3, 2016
— Tweeter Alliss (@TweeterAlliss) October 2, 2016
— Golf Channel (@GolfChannel) October 1, 2016
Badass New Gods
Patrick Reed took on every deliriously written piece of fan fiction about his Ryder Cup play over the past two years, and beat them 5&4.
Played Rose/Stenson 3x, Serg/RCB, then Rory! Demanded to go all 5, and showed out. Led the team in points 2 straight cups. I'm still in awe. https://t.co/okJ9l6XTt0
— No Laying Up (@NoLayingUp) October 4, 2016