2014 Ryder Cup: How the USA Can Win at Gleneagles

By M. James Ward
M. James Ward
M. James Ward
September 25, 2014 Updated: September 25, 2014

If one believes all the predictions you’d say why play the Ryder Cup matches at all, just have Team Euro keep the Cup and let’s save all the time and energy.

I don’t question the belief Team Euro is stronger—on paper—but that’s what was said of the US squad going back to not long after the matches were expanded to include players from the continent.
On paper, as past American teams have learned, means absolutely zilch. Try this for size: losing seven of the last nine matches going back to 1995.
So what makes me think a USA win can occur in Scotland—golf’s ancestral home—and for only the second time the matches being played there? How sweet the win would be coming in such a glorious setting. It helps considerably to have a Captain who has won five Open Championships—four of which happened in Scotland. There is no person who understands and appreciates what it takes to win when confronted by serious obstacles.

It’s no small coincidence Tom Watson was called upon by the PGA of America to return as Captain. The last time a USA squad won on foreign soil was when he was at the helm in 1993 at The Belfry. The matches will be fiercely fought, no question about that. But, I believe the American squad will return the favor that Team Euro did at Medinah in 2012 for the following reasons.

The Underdog Mentality: Redemption is a Strong Motivation

The way the American squad imploded on the final singles matches two years ago at Medinah left a lasting imprint. Shock. Embarrassment. You name it. Captain Watson will be sure to remind the players who played for that team and are returning to remember those feelings and seek to redeem themselves at Gleneagles.

Redemption can be a powerful tool—it can spur on players or it can force them to try too hard. I believe the former will happen. In years past the American squad played “not to lose.”

Not anymore. All hands will be on deck this go around.

The Euros are Heavy Favorites—Pressure Builds on Home Soil to Deliver

Playing a home match can be rather disconcerting—the crowds are on your side and a certain sense of “inevitability” can easily creep into the mindset of players. Having won so consistently in the past means an expectation it will simply continue. That is the trap the American squad faced after the matches were expanded to include players from the continent. It is something that can easily happen to the Euro team at Gleneagles.  

The Euros are listed as nearly two-to-one favorites and when one doesn’t perform up to the “expectations” of others you can begin to press—feeling the situation spiraling out of your control. All the questions asked start with the phrase “so what’s wrong?” The key for the Euros will be to block out all the outside elements and recapture the easy-going camaraderie that has been the hallmark of earlier winning teams.

When you are told you are the favorites and you don’t live up to the hype, the resulting pressures can be suffocating. How do I know? Just ask the recent past American teams.

No Tiger Distraction—Worked at Valhalla When USA Last Won

The best thing that happened for Team USA is that Tiger Woods, the former world number one player, is not going to be in Scotland for the matches.
Wherever Woods goes the ensuing scrum of media simply pushes all other elements to the side—in sum—Tiger becomes the starting and end point for all discussions.
Want to get any player upset? Easy. Just keep pounding him with questions on the role / impact of another player. With Tiger it’s all about him and the rest are left to bystander status.
When Woods pulled out for Team USA and freed Watson from having to make a decision to keep him or pass him over with a Captain’s choice, the whole focus shifted to where it needed to be—on the entire team and not just about Woods.
The same situation happened the last time the USA squad won at Vahalla in ’08. The players for that team knew the focus was on how each other bonded, with no need to worry about the constant incessant focus on “what’s Tiger doing” and “can Tiger do this or that.” The focus will be rightly on the total team not one person.

Captain Watson and His Leadership Team Will Demand More

One of the flaws in past selection of American Captains has been a desire to select someone relatively near to the age of the participating members. This has meant a Captain in his ’40’s and often times the approach is developing too close a personal connection to the players.

Watson previously served as Captain and his playing record speaks for itself. The players on the American squad know of him and his outstanding success, but he’s more of an outsider than someone playing regular golf on the PGA Tour with them.

Watson has also selected vice-captains with the likes of Ray Floyd, Andy North and Steve Stricker. Floyd specifically will have no hesitation to serve as Watson’s “dean of discipline.” Letting players know what’s needed and getting them to show more of themselves in key moments. Frank conversations will be the norm here—the coddling is over.

This time around the degrees of separation between Captain and his assistant and the players is generational. That amount of separation, I believe, bodes well. Focus on team and of melding the players together will be the emphasis point.

New Faces Mean Less Past Baggage

Three players will be rookies for the American squad—Jimmy Walker, Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed. Each has won on the PGA Tour and each has a blank slate to fill in when the matches commence at Gleneagles. Watson used his Captain choices with past participants with the likes of Hunter Mahan, Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson. Too often “veteran” laden USA squad were slow to perform when needed. Having three rookies brings a new element of participation—a desire to contribute.

No question key possible additions like Billy Horschel and Chris Kirk would have added some real firepower given their play of late but that did not happen and it’s an oversight that needs to be corrected when future American Ryder Cup teams are chosen.

The American squad has some key veterans returning with the likes of Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk. But, the rookies have not been impacted by battle fatigue from earlier encounters. No doubt there’s an unknown factor on how well each of them handles the initiation but each possesses a certain swagger and air of confidence. They will need it for the USA squad to return with the Cup.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.