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Things will be different this time for the United States Ryder Cup team when they tee it up in Europe this week.
Don’t misunderstand me, or send a note to Jon Rahm or Rory McIlroy that they can use as bulletin board material. I do not mean to say that the result is going to necessarily be different. That’s something that I go back and forth on daily. I’ll probably flip another 50 times before the first shots are hit on Friday.
What will be different, without any shadow of a doubt, is the makeup of the team the United States is bringing to Italy, and their process for trying to win the Ryder Cup. This American squad has learned from past mistakes and has a plan that wasn’t sketched on the back of a napkin the week of the event. It doesn’t mean the United States is going to win, but for the first time in forever, it feels like the two teams will be on equal footing in terms of strategy.
That, in and of itself, gives me hope America can end its Ryder Cup road drought.
• • •
Let’s begin with a number.
Raymond Floyd is 81 years old.
He was a captain’s pick on the last U.S. Ryder Cup team to win on European soil. Floyd went 3-1 en route to a 15-13 victory at The Belfry.
An entire generation of American players has come and gone since then, with none of them able to do what that 1993 team was able to do: bring the cup back to America.
The turmoil began in 1997, as the team welcomed 21-year-old Ryder Cup rookie Tiger Woods to the team. Jim Furyk was also a first-timer. 27-year-old Phil Mickelson, who had played on the 1995 team at Oak Hill, was playing in his first European Ryder Cup. Together, those three men seemed poised to buoy American golf for a generation.
Despite being heavily favored, the U.S. team lost a nail-biter in Spain, 14.5-13.5.
Five years later, they would lose again at the Belfry.
They would then go on to lose the next European Ryder Cup at the K Club.
And the next one at Celtic Manor.
And the next one at Gleneagles.
And the next one at Le Golf National.
No matter how hot the individual players were, no matter how many times they were favored, and no matter how many times they convinced us that this time it would be different, it just never was. When it was over, the Europeans were dousing themselves in champagne and the Americans were left pointing fingers.
So what happened?
Each Ryder Cup seems to have its own set of blunders. Including, but not limited to: leaky rainsuits, pairings drawn out of a hat (not literally), whining about said pairings, teammates brawling, chunked chips, all brown outfits, and Brett Wetterich. (If interested, KVV and I dove into these mistakes in detail over the course of this three hour podcast.) It’s difficult to paint them all with the same brush, but if I had to nail it down, I would say:
- The U.S. had a talented group of players that failed repeatedly in this format
- The U.S. did not have a cohesive process of forming a team and making decisions.
On the first point, while there’s plenty of blame to be shared, I’m going to pick on the three names above: Woods, Mickelson, and Furyk.
Specifically, I’m going to pick on their playing records.
Tiger played on five of these six teams (missing 2014 due to injury), Phil played on all six, and Furyk played on the first five and captained the sixth. They’ve been the biggest constants on the U.S. Ryder Cup over the last two decades, and as you might guess, they were anchors.
Tiger and Phil, the two best players of their generation, combined to go 15-25-6 in European Ryder Cups. Add in Furyk and the record goes to 20-37-9.
For all of their accomplishments in individual stroke play events, they just could not figure this format out. Once that narrative began, the pressure mounted. Things seemingly got worse as their careers went along.
For Furyk, it ended in 2014 after going 1-3 en route to a 16.5-11.5 defeat at Gleneagles.
For Tiger and Phil, it ended with them going a combined 0-6 as the US was embarrassed 17.5-10.5 at Le Golf National in France in 2018.
I refuse to believe the narrative that these guys didn’t care. If anything, I’d venture to say that some of them cared too much. Jim Furyk intimated such on our podcast six years ago:
“My biggest regret, really in my whole career, is… the Ryder Cup is my favorite event,” Furyk said. “It’s the greatest sporting event in golf, in my opinion. And so for me to go into nine of those as a player and have those teams come out 2-7. Losing seven times is my biggest regret.”
For years, I wrestled with trying to understand why the Ryder Cup tormented those three. At first, it seemed like a sample size. A run of bad luck. They just needed more chances. At times, I blamed their partners. I questioned their decision-making, but never their talent. And while I do still believe that the lack of a U.S. process contributed in some way to their failures, in the end, one conclusion seemed inevitable.
Some people were made for this event, and some simply aren’t.
• • •
The first rehaul
The first attempt at a process overhaul — in 2014 — went as poorly as it possibly could have.
Ted Bishop, the PGA of America President, went with his gut and picked Tom Watson as captain, despite the fact that Watson had almost no connection with the current generation of players. Watson, who was the captain of the last Ryder Cup team to win in Europe in 1993, had no serious plan for the event other than to also go with his gut. Bishop, one of Watson’s good friends, wanted someone who wouldn’t coddle the players. And who better to lead the team than the greatest American links player of all time?
What ensued wasn’t really Watson’s fault. He was brought in to be Tom Watson. The problem was with the U.S.’s process, or lack thereof. It was a gamble, and the man in charge admitted it himself. It was apparent very early on just how reckless that gamble was.
Watson’s follies include but are not limited to:
- Sitting a scorching Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth (after initially trying not to pair them together)
- Not remembering who he subbed in for Spieth and Reed (after telling them their play would dictate their afternoon standing)
- Running a 44-year-old Phil Mickelson back out for a second 18 on Friday
- Sitting the Mickelson/Keegan Bradley team the entire following day
- Pairing Jim Furyk and Hunter Mahan together in foursomes at the last second, sending them to the range to figure out what golf ball they were going to play
- Verbally harassing the U.S. players for their poor play
- Mocking the European team
- Harassing his own team more
- Mocking a gift the U.S. team got for him
A lack of communication led to confusion among the players. A lack of scenario planning led to panicked decision-making.
The U.S. side was throwing darts at the board with a blindfold on, hoping for a miracle. The players were fed up, and Phil took the mic and changed everything:
“We had a great formula in ’08. I don’t know why we strayed,” Mickelson said. “I don’t know why we don’t go back. What Zinger did was great. There were two things that allow us to play our best I think that Paul Azinger did, and one was he got everybody invested in the process. He got everybody invested in who they were going to play with, who the picks were going to be, who was going to be in their (practice session) pod, when they would play, and they had a great leader for each pod.
“In my case, we had Ray Floyd, and we hung out together and we were all invested in each other’s play. We were invested in picking Hunter Mahan that week; Anthony Kim and myself and Justin Leonard were in a pod, and we were involved in having Hunter be our guy to fill our pod. So we were invested in the process.
“The other thing that Paul did really well was he had a great game plan for us, you know, how we were going to go about doing this. How we were going to go about playing together; golf ball, format, what we were going to do, if so-and-so is playing well, if so-and-so is not playing well, we had a real game plan. Those two things helped us bring out our best golf.
“We all do the best that we can and we’re all trying our hardest and I’m just looking back at what gave us the most success. Because we use that same process in the Presidents Cup and we do really well. Unfortunately, we have strayed from a winning formula in 2008 for the last three Ryder Cups, and we need to consider maybe getting back to that formula that helped us play our best.”
Phil’s infamous rant at the press conference on Sunday night was polarizing, and he was heavily criticized to the point where, years later, he was still apologizing for how he went about it. You can debate whether it needed to be done publicly, but it is one of the few occasions in the last decade where we can definitively say:
“Phil was right.”
• • •
In the wake of that humiliation, the United States overhauled its process yet again.
Or, depending on how you look at it, implemented it for the first time.
American golfers of all ages gathered in Florida like heads of state to brainstorm ideas. For the first time, they would not be taking orders from above, they would be formulating a plan. A strategy.
It is not something they needed to form from scratch. Their European counterparts had already created the blueprint. They just needed to cop-... uh, imitate it.
“When we all got together in West Palm, it was called the Task Force, which is not the best name,” said Furyk in 2017. “But it helped us get together as players, as past captains, the PGA of America as a whole, to band our thoughts together and try to create a plan for the future. And a long term plan for the future of what can we do, in any way, to help this team improve and to get better, and give them the best opportunity.”
Step 1: Form some continuity among the captains.
Jay Haas had already been named the 2015 Presidents Cup captain before the “task force” was formed. But the names assembled as his assistants have permeated through U.S. teams in the 8 years that have followed: Fred Couples, Jim Furyk, Davis Love III, and Steve Stricker.
Fred Couples was an assistant captain on the 2015, 2017 and 2019 Presidents Cup teams, as well as the 2021 Ryder Cup team.
Jim Furyk was selected as the captain for the 2018 Ryder Cup in France, as well as an assistant at the 2016 & 2021 Ryder Cup, an assistant on the 2017 Presidents Cup team, and the captain of the 2024 Presidents Cup team.
Steve Stricker as selected as the captain for the 2021 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits after being an assistant on the 2015 Presidents Cup team, the 2016 Ryder Cup, head captain of the 2017 Presidents Cup team, assistant captain on the 2018 Ryder Cup team, the 2019 Presidents Cup team, the 2022 Presidents Cup team, and will also be an assistant captain this go around in Italy.
Davis Love was an assistant on the 2015 Presidents Cup team, the captain of the 2016 Ryder Cup team, assistant on the 2017 Presidents Cup team, assistant on the 2018 Ryder Cup team, assistant on the 2021 Ryder Cup team, and the captain of the 2022 Presidents Cup team.
Tiger Woods was heavily involved as well (before his car accident), representing the U.S. as an assistant captain at the 2016 Ryder Cup, the 2017 Presidents Cup, a player on the 2018 Ryder Cup team, and the captain of the 2019 Presidents Cup team.
And the most recent name to graduate to the captain’s room at the 2019 Presidents Cup was Zach Johnson, who was also an assistant at the 2021 Ryder Cup before being selected as captain for the 2023 tilt in Italy.
Finally, the United States has taken some clues from their European counterparts. Four of Europe’s assistant captains at the 2010 Ryder Cup would serve as the next four captains: Jose Maria Olazabal, Paul McGinley, Darren Clarke, and Thomas Bjorn.
But what makes this group — which couldn’t beat Europe in their playing days — the right group to lead the next generation of American talent?
• • •
At the fateful 2014 Ryder Cup, Tom Watson was asked why he paired certain players together in foursomes, traditionally the most difficult format. His answer was short on insight but brimming with defiance.
“These are the best pairings for foursomes,” Watson said.
The problem was, he had absolutely nothing to back that up except his gut.
Paul McGinley ran circles around Watson and drove the nail in the U.S. coffin on Sunday by successfully predicting that the U.S. would run out an exhausted player in the first spot. He groomed Graeme McDowell for the opening role months in advance and watched as Spieth jumped out to an early lead, fatigued, and ultimately gave way to a well-rested McDowell, who had sacrificed his ego to only play two foursomes matches with outcast Victor Dubuisson.
(Below, you can listen to McGinley break down his meticulously planned strategy for his overall captaincy and McDowell at the 01:06:30 mark.)
Captains making decisions entirely on intuition, the Task Force understood, was one of the first things that had to change.
“The Ryder Cup committee has worked hard to give the team and the captain an opportunity to succeed,” said Furyk. “Our job as captains and part of the Ryder Cup committee is just to be able to set an atmosphere and give the guys on the golf course every opportunity to be able to compete and play well.”
For as much as the public and the media has made Europe’s success about their team chemistry, they’ve also been running circles around the US team on the analytical front.
Enter Scouts Consulting.
Before we go any further, I want to point you to a great Shane Ryan profile on Jason Aquino and his team that I highly recommend.
In that piece, he lays out how, at the behest of Mickelson, the PGA of America officials went looking for their own analysts, and landed on Scouts Consulting. (Again, Phil was right!)
This was a big step for the American side, but they were not quick to hand over the keys to the kingdom to the new guys. It took years to establish a trust.
“In 2016, at Hazeltine National, they were placed in what Jee remembers as a catering office with American Gladiators posters on the walls, and communicated mostly by texts and emails. In Paris, they were closer to captain Jim Furyk, and at Whistling Straits and Quail Hollow, they were in the thick of the action in Team USA headquarters. As they've gained the trust of the American captains and players, their own analysis also has become more sophisticated… They will continue to work with the Americans over the next year as they face their greatest challenge yet: actually winning a Ryder Cup on European soil.”
Harris English had high praise for Scouts Consulting. "Whatever they did, they did a hell of a job, and they need to keep those stats guys on board," he said on the Fore the People podcast.
I’m a big believer in stats and analytics, but stats guys are not a cheat code, a secret weapon guaranteed to flip the fate of the US Ryder Cup team. You can base decisions off of 10,000 simulations for 28 matches, but it’s far from a guarantee that you will be able to secure a win for your side. In reality, it’s closer to implementing a solid strategy when sitting down at a blackjack table. For many years, the US was hitting on a 15 regardless of what the dealer was showing. Now, the decision-makers will at least have an understanding of a number of factors going into their decisions thanks to Aquino and the team he has assembled. In particular, a much more granular approach on the statistical front than what the U.S. team had previously implemented.
“On alternate shot, we would just think about who hit on odd and even holes, or who drives on par 5s," Davis Love III told Shane Ryan. "But they were breaking it all the way down to whether the hole was dogleg left or right, who hits the best wedges from certain distances. It’s Moneyball. They’re helping us with situations that we would never even dream.”
It would be easy to reduce the work of the advisors down to statistical analysis, but their contribution to the team extends well beyond that. They’re involved in the captain’s picks, the pairings, the downstream effect of certain pairings, course setup for home competitions, and even predictions on course setup for away competitions. Their final product is not just a computer-generated printout. Whatever holes you’re ready to start poking in their process, I’d venture to guess that they’ve thought of it.
A player might be picked for the team because he’s a great iron player from a specific distance, and good at putting from a specific range on green speeds similar to what they’ll face in the event. A pairing might come together because one player’s driving distance complements another player’s wedge game. But what does that pairing mean for the rest of the pairings? It’s all a part of the detailed scenario planning that is now a part of the US process.
“The biggest thing that I saw was that the captains were prepared with information,” Harris English told me. “You just keep working the odds. The stats are there to back up a potential pairing, but the eye test is still there.”
This instance that Shane Ryan noted stands out:
“Steve Stricker, for instance, told me that the pairing of Collin Morikawa and Dustin Johnson that went 4-0 at the last Ryder Cup was actually not a favorite of the Scouts model. In these moments, Aquino credits the captains with a ‘coup d'oeil’—the ability, in a sense, to see with a glance something that mountains of research might miss.”
Based on this answer from the Fore the People podcast, it’s clear that at least part of the reason why Harris English was chosen for the 2021 Ryder Cup team was his versatility:
“It kind of worked out that Tony and I were gonna play best ball together. I played alternate shot with Boog (Berger) one round. I switched pods one day and played best ball with Dustin Johnson one day. They just wanted us to have options, ‘hey if this guy’s not playing well, and if this guy’s tired, this guy wants to sit out a match.’ I had a pretty good idea that Tony was gonna be my guy, and if they needed me to play alternate shot, it was gonna be with Berger.”
Scouts also helps break down what they expect Europe to do with their pairings and their lineup order. They struck gold in 2021 by, just as McGinley had done with the opening split in 2014, successfully predicting where a fatigued Jon Rahm would be slotted, and pitted a well-rested Scottie Scheffler up against him. Scheffler beat him 4&3 as the US won the session 8-4.
In a Vegas casino, you can play your blackjack hand exactly as the book would advise you, and it does not mean you’re going to win. The same goes for Ryder Cup matches. Or for pinch-hit situations in baseball, late game substitutions with your best free throw shooters in basketball, and gaining the ten extra yards needed in a football game to improve your odds at the game-winning field goal. High-level competition is often decided by small odds shifts that are indiscernible to most of the viewing public.
But for decades, the United States Ryder Cup teams have punted that advantage back to the Europeans. And the Europeans ran with it. But in 2021, European captain Padraig Harrington took notice of how things were different at Whistling Straits.
“Everything Europe has done over the last 20 years to innovate, to get an edge, they have just copied us,” said Harrington. “They are doing the exact same thing as us. It’s just hard to find that edge.”
A fairly large portion of the American golf fans on Twitter (and a concerning amount of golf media) have reduced a highly-complex process down into a “boys club.” Sam Burns was picked because he’s friends with Scottie Scheffler, Rickie Fowler was picked because he’s in the Spring Break crew, Keegan Bradley wasn’t picked because he’s not close to his contemporaries (something Bradley himself hinted at) and Justin Thomas is the architect of the entire thing. This year’s selection process has been as contentious as any of my lifetime.
I get it. I really do. Thirty straight years of losing in Europe (what a ridiculous sentence) has exhausted all trust from American golf fans. But the reality is, the U.S. process for filling out their team is a lot more complex than just choosing guys that are on group texts together.
It’s also hard to argue with the Task Force results so far:
- Won the 2015 Presidents Cup
- Won the 2016 Ryder Cup
- Won the 2017 Presidents Cup
- Lost the 2018 Ryder Cup
- Won the 2019 Presidents Cup
- Won the 2021 Ryder Cup
- Won the 2022 Presidents Cup
Yes, the outlier there is the one place the United States simply cannot seem to win. Despite all of this success, if they don’t win this Ryder Cup, the pitchforks will be out for pretty much everyone involved in the process. Deservedly, or not.
But for the first time, I feel confident they’re headed to Europe with the right plan and the right people.
Woods and Furyk are still involved, of course, but they’re not the ones hitting the shots. Mickelson has been exiled from American team golf, perhaps permanently. But he helped drag the United States out of the Stone Age and into the light. If America finally wins, he played a significant role in setting it in motion.
It’s still fair to call Europe the favorites this week, even if the betting odds don’t reflect it. It’s hard to bet against McIlroy, Rahm and Viktor Hovland playing in front of a partisan crowd when they also boast a home course advantage.
Justin Thomas was on the team that lost in Paris, but he went 4-1, including a singles win over Rory. Jordan Spieth was also on the team, going 3-2. While Fowler and Brooks Koepka went 1-3 and 1-2-1, consider this: Combined as a group, the United States Ryder Cup team is headed to Europe with a team that has a winning record in Ryder Cup matches for the first time since…. 1993.
Crossing the pond for their first foreign Ryder Cup are names like Scottie Scheffler, Patrick Cantlay, Collin Morikawa, and Xander Schauffele, who went a combined 11-1-3 at Whistling Straits. What Ryder Cup rookies Max Homa, Wyndham Clark, Brian Harman, and Sam Burns lack in experience in this event could potentially be countered by a lack of scar tissue from past defeats on European soil.
It’s easy to get hyped about this opportunity coming off a 19-9 romp at Whistling Straits, but who can forget the 2018 embarrassment on the heels of the 2016 triumph at Hazeltine?
As satisfying as the win in Wisconsin was for the United States, Spieth was quick to point out (well before the champagne was dry) that it was just the first phase of the plan.
“I think that this is unfinished business,” Spieth said. “I think this was one of those first wins -- we needed to win this one and I think it was a massive stepping stone for this team and the group that we have here that have really known each other since almost back to grade school to continue to try to work hard to be on these teams to go over there.
“It's one thing to win it over here and it is a lot easier to do so and it is harder to win over there. If we play like we did this week, the score will look the same over there in a couple years, and that's what we're here for."
A win in Italy would represent an official shift in the balance of power of the Ryder Cup. It would be 3 out of 4 for the US, while heading home to Bethpage for 2025, where they can expect a significant home field advantage.
A loss, and we might be locked into a stalemate where the road team just can’t win. Other than the miraculous comeback at Medinah, no road team has won since 2004 at Oakland Hills. And prior to that, it was 1995 at Oak Hill.
Part of what makes the Ryder Cup my favorite event in sports is how difficult it is to predict how it’s going to unfold. Every two years, I talk myself into a dozen different potential outcomes. You can do everything right, and a player like Nicolas Colsaerts blacks out and makes eight birdies and an eagle in a match against Tiger Woods to secure a crucial point for Europe.
Paul McGinley hung a poster in the team room in 2014 that read: “We will be the rock when the storm arrives.” Continuing the theme of how the U.S. side has mimicked Europe, this same poster was hung in the U.S. team room at the 2023 Walker Cup.
If the U.S. Ryder Cup team is really copying off the homework of their European counterparts, at least this time there will be a plan when that storm inevitably arrives.