Sitting on the interview dais with a Peroni and reflecting on what could very well be his final Ryder Cup, Justin Rose helped it click for me.
When asked what unites the European Ryder Cup team, Rose thought for a moment and gave an answer about “team culture” worthy of the Harvard Business School.
The whole moment is worth watching, but the upshot (with insightful additions from Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm) was this: To a European player, the Ryder Cup is about history. More specifically, it’s about your chance to add to that history. It’s about playing a small role in a collective story that has been going on for decades. The entire privilege of the week is having the chance to help write the next chapter.
During the ranging answer, Rose, Rahm and McIlroy rattled off the names of the players responsible for making them love the Ryder Cup. Seve Ballesteros, of course. Jose Maria Olazabal and others.
“We're caretakers of this European jersey right now,” McIlroy said. “And we're hopefully going to pass it on in the future in a better spot than where we found it.”
Jon Rahm summed it up in a sentence.
“It's the ability to walk through those gates and those doors and forget about who you are outside of this week. What you have done or what you may do afterwards, really truly doesn't matter.”
There’s a trope that gets thrown around far too often about the Ryder Cup: The Europeans win the biennial event because they have more fun in the team room. They sing songs and give each other shit and they just look like they’re closer than the Americans. It’s an absurdly oversimplified way to look at things and it discounts both the immense talent on the European side and the two previous home blowouts in the United States.
But let’s be clear: The Europeans have now won eight of the last 11. They’ve won three in the United States since the last time the U.S. won on the road.
The team room stuff is not totally untrue; in my opinion, it’s just a bit incomplete. Listen to the players and they’ll tell you that the Europeans win more Ryder Cups partially because of the culture, but mostly because it’s been there for more than 40 years.
They meticulously plan everything, not with the expectation of winning every single one, but to make sure that the close ones break their way. They have continually made their players comfortable and confident to show up and play their best. Every one of those winning teams ends up feeling like it’s so much more than the sum of its parts.
Mine is armchair analysis, of course, but so often the Americans, by comparison, end up looking desperate to Not Lose. Soly said it well on our Sunday podcast: “All the things Europe does culture-wise look like they lead to confidence… Everything the U.S. does on their side looks like it leads to pressure.”
Listening to Rose, Rahm and McIlroy rattle off the hallowed names that built the European Ryder Cup culture, my American heart sank at the idea of the U.S. team trying to do the same. And it makes sense why. Even as a U.S. fan, the American moments that instinctively come to mind first for me are… Not Good.
Hunter Mahan, rain suits, Tom Watson, Hal Sutton. Tiger. Phil. Paris.
Even the good stuff involves a bunch of characters that the PGA Tour is currently trying to expunge from golf history. How can any of that become a rallying cry?
Which is why now has to be the time to restart the mindset. To get beaten down in Italy with that U.S. team is such a clear signal that something non-golf is going on here. And fixing it has to start now, while that feeling of getting beaten in Europe for the first time is still fresh in the minds of Scottie Scheffler, Max Homa, Xander Schauffle, Patrick Cantlay, Collin Morikawa and others.
McIlroy said in the press conference Sunday night that, because of all the home team advantages, winning a Ryder Cup on the road has become one of the most impressive feats in all of sports. If the American team wants to do it, it needs to start building an actual culture. The kind that takes more than a three-day scouting trip or a dinner party at Jack Nicklaus’ house to create.
When American fans talk about the camaraderie of the European team, the implication is very clear. If the U.S. team had a few chants and songs of their own, this 30-year European drought would have ended by now. But spend any time with the American team and you’ll learn quickly how different they are from their Euro counterparts. The worst idea, in my opinion, is to try to create some Kirkland Signature knock-off version of the European team culture.
It has to look and feel entirely different. And the few leaders the U.S. team possesses are the ones that are going to have to lead the charge.
• • •
Be honest about what happened this week.
Usually with European Ryder Cup losses there are plenty of outside forces to blame – a tricked up course set up or a captain that glitched out. That wasn’t the case in Italy.
You can squabble over a few of the pairings or invoke Lucas Glover or Keegan Bradley. Maybe they would have made a difference, but surely not enough to change the result.
What was far more interesting to me was the invasion of the body snatchers that happened across the first three sessions. From a golf perspective, that wasn’t actually Scottie Scheffler out there. Or Xander. Or Brooks Koepka. Or Sam Burns. Or Jordan Spieth. Or Rickie Fowler. Whoever those guys were, they were bad. The U.S. team can have all the data in the world, but it is entirely useless if different human beings show up to the first tee.
So what happened? Was it as simple as the moment, the situation and the opposing crowds being too big? Was it competitive rust from a long layoff? Was it illness? Was it jet lag? Overconfidence? Did you care too much? Did you care too little?
There may be a few outlier excuses from this week, but none of them would explain the last 30 years of Ryder Cups. They don’t explain why the same thing that happened at this event to Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk and others is now happening to an entirely different crop of U.S. players.
It hasn’t been three decades of lucky bounces and unlikely holed putts for the Europeans. So what is it? Take some notes, get in a room and share your thoughts. Show some humility and honesty and fix it instead of showing up in 4 years assuming THIS NEXT group is different.
Things are not as far off as people think. Once they got comfortable, the U.S. split the final 20 points of this Ryder Cup on the road. If they could have gotten off to even a mediocre start, who knows how the final day shakes out? Instead, the thing was essentially over before it began.
The other thing they need to be honest about is whatever the hell is going on behind the scenes. The anonymous sources in the Cantlay reporting are easy to swat away. It’s a little different when Stefan Schauffle, Xander's dad and de facto agent, goes on the record with similar takes about paying players and not knowing if Xander was going to be on the team just weeks beforehand.
On our podcast this week, Max Homa continually refuted reports that there was any division in the team and I take him at his word that these distractions didn’t make their way into the team room. But the amount of smoke that’s building around those two makes it clear that these guys are making somebody’s life more difficult behind the scenes. If those headaches make their way to the tournament organizers, the captain, or countless other people, it’s hard to think they don’t become an overall negative timesuck on the organization as a whole.
I’m not going to pretend like the Ryder Cup is some scrappy upstart non-profit. I totally get the cynicism of any player who wants to get paid for helping to build this marketing behemoth (even if this conversation is one you will never, ever, ever, ever win in the court of public opinion). The Europeans see a home Ryder Cup as a way to fund and sustain the DP World Tour, the tour they came up playing in their home countries. What connection does Xander Schuaffle or Patrick Cantlay feel to the PGA of America and its coffers?
While personally I think this whole conversation is a massive distraction emblematic of the exact thing that has made large portions of the U.S. team so unlikable, it’s probably not something that’s going away soon considering the rest of the pro golf landscape. It needs to be figured out as quickly as possible by either: a) Re-allocating the 20 percent of revenues that gets paid to the PGA Tour as a licensing fee for using “its” players or b) Helping players see the light on all of the things the PGA of America does in order to make the game of golf better.
The longer that conversation is a thing, even among a few key players, the more obvious it is that winning is not the priority.
• • •
Figure out an identity.
The Europeans’ identity is based on being a part of history. As discussed, the U.S. Ryder Cup history isn’t a great headspace in which to hang out. It feels like they need to focus on a very different rallying cry.
Every single American player’s career lives in the shadow of one player. He’s the guy that sucks up all the oxygen, the guy they all watched on TV. He’s the guy that inspired them to learn how to play, how to dress and how to club twirl. He’s the guy that got to 15 majors, an utterly psychedelic number that’s impossible to comprehend in modern golf.
But at Adare Manor in four years, the American players have a chance to work together to do something Tiger Woods wasn’t ever able to accomplish. Let that opportunity sink in and figure out how to use it.
Nobody on the American team is going to win 15 majors in their career. But together they do have this chance to be a part of what would become one of the biggest moments in American golf history.
With Tiger and Phil officially moved on, it feels like this group is the one to start fresh and begin their own story on the U.S. side. The Europeans are the team that plays to honor their childhood heroes? Then start over and focus on becoming the guys that Team USA is talking about 30 years from now.
• • •
Sell Tiger Woods on the next two captaincies.
Speaking of which…
It feels like there are two ways to go from here with the U.S. captaincy.
The first way is to continue the trajectory that the U.S. team is on: Using the role as some sort of weird lifetime achievement award for inoffensive forty-somethings.
Continuing down that road brings up a list of really nice guys that I frankly struggle to picture having any kind of motivational relevance within the American team. Stewart Cink. Matt Kuchar. Brandt Snedeker. Things of that nature.
Most of the other assistant captains that were put up this year have already been a captain (Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk, Davis Love III). Despite three successful Presidents Cups, Fred Couples has never led a Ryder Cup team. But I can’t imagine there’s some secret knowledge or system he’s yet to impart on all the teams with which he’s been an assistant.
The second option is The Cat.
Between the PGA Tour negotiations, launching TGL and becoming somewhat of a mentor for younger players, it’s clear that Tiger Woods’ injuries have helped him embrace more of a behind-the-scenes role. We know he’s going to be a captain eventually, as he was for the Presidents Cup in 2019, which he seemed to absolutely adore. Why not pitch him the captaincy in this way—as a four-year term singularly focused on first keeping the Europeans from breaking the stalemate at Bethpage and then figuring out how to crack the code for the U.S. at Adare Manor.
We all like to laugh at the Navy SEAL stuff. But Tiger is clearly interested in that sense of team structure. Imagine what it would look like if he turned his energy and his one-track mind toward the goal of building a culture from the ground up, learning how to be an effective leader and starting a new chapter of American golf. If he agreed, I think he would get started before the phone call ended.
Read Rahm’s quote again about forgetting what you’ve done before you walk in the team room. Tiger is the only guy with a presence and an aura big enough to drown out the U.S. team’s sense of individuality. But at this stage in his career, he seems sincerely more interested in passing his insights onto the next generation, rather than walling himself off to chase stroke play trophies.
What better way to scratch his competitive itch and keep himself inside the game than to tackle a problem like this with the best young players America has?
And if he’s not into it, please think outside the box. Find someone young enough to relate to the players who will treat the job of captaincy the same way Paul McGinley and Luke Donald did: As a job.
• • •
Continue The Process and build for the future.
By all accounts, the U.S. has made a big jump towards evening the playing field with the Europeans on the analytics side of things, which needs to continue. But it still seems like there is more to be done.
One of the best things I saw in Rome was the fact that Rasmus Højgaard, who spent two years trying to make the team and saw his brother Nicolai picked instead, was out at Marco Simone, driving golf carts for Team Europe. He was in uniform, he was grabbing waters and he was part of the team room. He was there to be a part of the week and help in any way he could.
If Keegan Bradley is as obsessed with the Ryder Cup as he says, why not invite him to do the same? Or better yet, Cameron Young, who will surely be on future teams? Or Will Zalatoris? Or Sahith Theegala? Eight of the American players on this team had never played a Ryder Cup in Europe before this week and many of them ended up looking absolutely shell-shocked and totally unprepared in the first few sessions. Getting more players exposed to that feeling before they actually step out of the tunnel and onto the first tee feels like such a no brainer if you’re serious about long term success.
I actually have incredible respect for Bubba Watson being seemingly the only person to say out loud how much he wanted to just be there when he served as a team assistant in 2016. None of these other guys are going to ask to do that. It’s going to be up to the leaders on the U.S. team to have some foresight and make them feel welcome.
And keep pushing it further. For the most part, these guys play the same PGA Tour events all year. If your stats team has highlighted a potential pairing, let them know! Make them play a practice round together. Better yet, make them get dinner together. Make this thing a constant in the back of the minds of your core players; an occasional treat amid the week-to-week grind of PGA Tour golf.
Keep going! Tron mentioned an idea on our Sunday podcast to schedule a scrimmage in the lead up against the U.S. Walker Cup team. Talk about building culture for the future. What a good way to start turning these U.S. players into lions in the minds of the future American stars. Let them see what Justin Thomas, Patrick Cantlay, Brooks Kopeka and Max Homa do up close in competition. Let them ask questions. Start to build a pathway and a system and make the next generation feel invested from the start.
The U.S. Ryder Cup team should be a Boys Club. That’s the whole point. The thing is that you just have to let a hell of a lot more people into the club.
• • •
Let people in.
I know this is blunt, but one of my lasting memories of this Ryder Cup will be how bad Zach Johnson’s press conferences were.
They don’t award points in the media center (if they did, Whistling Straits would have been a lot closer). But it is true that, especially in the 2 years leading up, the captain plays a big role in galvanizing the fan base around their team.
Johnson was clearly so petrified to say anything remotely interesting that the entire procedure felt like a waste of everyone’s time. Anything team related was treated like a matter of national security. Anything funny was coldly and systematically defused. He, along with the PGA of America and the glimpses they allowed into Team USA, seemed to be holding the steering wheel so tightly that it snuffed out any of the organic moments that make these guys seem like… human beings.
The U.S. squad, to their credit, spent the traditionally awkward Phil Mickelson Memorial Losers’ Press Conference (TM) in fairly good spirits. They even landed a few jokes (including a prescient one from Xander Schauffle about how he was not responsible for what his dad said).
Please find some creative people to help us see those guys more so the U.S. fans have a fighting chance of developing some sort of affinity for their own players. Give us something to talk about other than 1993.
• • •
I have no idea if any big changes will happen with the U.S. team. If they do, they’ll be incremental and probably take a decade to implement.
Realistically, there’s a lot going on in pro golf. And there are so many stakeholders pulling things in different directions that creating any kind of singular focus on something like winning an exhibition match feels like a pipe dream (shout out Mark Burk).
We couldn’t even get through this one week without the money conversation coming back to the forefront. Soon enough we and all the of the American players will be back to talking about mergers (or non-mergers?), and the PIF and private equity and NewCo and value propositions and world rankings and TGL(???) and Playing Through and board seats and Bryson and Elevated Designated Signature Events and field sizes and commissioners and 30,000 other things that make the world of pro golf go round.
I’m sure that like many other American golf fans, I’m desperate for the Ryder Cup and the majors to be a break from all that. And I would venture a guess that the players are as well. Which is why I think any kind of changes have to be put in motion now, when the feelings of this loss are still fresh.
If not, things will probably roll on as they are. The streak of home blow outs might continue through Bethpage, Adare Manor and Hazeltine.
But if one team is going to end it, my answer right now is clear. It’s the one that was collectively pounding on the dais, shouting and rattling their beers all over the place when their leader, Rory McIlroy, predicted that’s exactly what they were going to do.