CHASKA, MN—With the first American win since 2008 now completed, the bi-annual Ryder Cup Matches now go into dormancy until they resume again in 2018 — in France for the first time with Paris serving as the host at Le Golf National. The American victory clearly vindicated the “task force” concept put into motion when Team USA suffered its third consecutive loss in 2014 at Gleneagles in Scotland. Nonetheless, the American squad needs to show it’s victory in Minnesota at Hazeltine National is more than just a fluke. Winning on foreign soil for the first time since 1993 at The Belfry will be a tall order and the next challenge to overcome.
For Europe this year’s Ryder Cup exposed a few elements previously not really examined given its overall dominance in recent years. Both sides will need to inhale deeply what each experienced and apply the lessons so that respectively they will have the best possibility in securing the Ryder Cup in two years time.
Lesson 1: Go with younger guys when dealing with Captain picks.
For a number of years the belief in deciding Captain picks was favor the experienced veteran — someone who had played in past Ryder Cups and could be counted on for leadership with younger players. The reality is a good bit different in today’s golf world. Years ago the “rookie” or inexperienced player would need sufficient time to acclimate themselves to the pressure cooker that is Ryder Cup golf. That’s changed immeasurably as younger players today are coming onto various world tours ready to win.
European Captain Darren Clarke smarty chose Belgium’s Thomas Pieters as one of his three picks. Pieters earned four points during his maiden journey into the Matches and his temperament and skills were clearly ready. On the flip side Clarke also chose long time Ryder Cupper and former teammate Lee Westwood. Although the Englishman has considerable experience from past Matches — it was also clear the one-time reliable player is not the same golfer he once was. A balky putter did Westwood in during the Saturday afternoon four-ball matches and he failed to close out Brandt Snedeker in Sunday Singles after leading by one hole with three to play.
What Clarke did not do was select 31-year-old Russell Knox. The Scotsman had been playing top tier golf and should have been the choice over Westwood.
The same can be said for USA Captain Davis Love III. With four Captain choices Love went with Matt Kuchar, J.B. Holmes, Rickie Fowler and Ryan Moore. Both Kuchar and Holmes have played previously but there play was borderline. Both players had opportunities to win their respective Singles Matches and both came up short. Fowler and Moore, on the other hand, prevailed and Fowler’s victory over Gold Medal Golf champion Justin Rose was particularly meaningful.
Lesson 2: Revamp the rules in selecting Euro Team members.
Right now there’s a requirement for a player to play for Team Europe he needs to be born in one of the member countries and also be a card-carrying member of the European Tour. That second element prevented Englishman Paul Casey from playing. Casey had played extremely well over the last few Fed-Ex Cup events but since he’s not a member of the European Tour — Clarke could not have selected him.
Over his last three events in the Fed-Ex Cup Playoffs Casey registered two second place finishes at The Deutsche Bank and BMW Championship — and concluded his efforts with a 4th place finish at The Tour Championship. That stretch of golf had him ultimately earn a 5th place finish in the overall Fed-Ex Cup Playoffs and 12th in the world rankings.
Clarke was also limited to three (3) Captain picks while his counterpart — Davis Love III had four (4). In addition, Clarke had an arbitrary deadline to make his three picks a few weeks prior to the Matches. Love, on the other hand, made three picks after the BMW event and his final choice came immediately after the final event — The Tour Championship.
Lesson 3: Pair players by personality rather than overall ability alone.
Over the last several Ryder Cups it’s become clear that matching players by personality types works quite well than simply pairing players according to overall ability alone. The Ryder Cup is an emotional boilerplate and having a synergy between players is critical to withstand the constant ups and downs that invariably take place during any match.
The pairing of Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth illustrates that well — two young but often exuberant players. On the flip side — the tandem of Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson has also proved to be a powerful duo. The two Euros are less about self promotion and more steadfast in terms of their overall preparation and lack of excitability.
Paul Azinger, the ’08 Captain, understood this concept extremely well when matching players to 3 pods of 4 players so that the each person could find a more meaningful link with those whose personality was in sync rather than opposite to one another. The American win at Valhalla that year showed getting people to mesh mentally can actually lead to enhanced performance outcomes. Conversely, the flip side can happen when talented individual players cannot go beyond their own personal silos.
Lesson 4: Consensus thinking works — but Captain makes final call and takes ultimate responsibility.
The American side made a clear directional change in assessing what went wrong in ’14 at Gleneagles and what would be applied for this year’s matches in Minnesota. Two years ago American Captain Tom Watson believed a very clear hierarchal approach would work given how it had worked in years when Watson played in the matches. That approach backfired and a rebellion ensued capped with the post-match press conference where Mickelson essentially threw Watson under the bus.
The 11-member task force created by Team USA way have been seen as overkill by some — clearly the Europeans — namely Rory McIlroy — poked fun at its creation and what it sought to do.
However, the new approach favored by the Americans was to get more of a collaborative dialogue developed so that final actions take by the Captain would not seem as being out-of-step.
Love admitted that getting a second opportunity to serve as Team USA Captain helped him given the fumbles made the first time around. The American pairings and placements during the Singles portion showed a real purpose in making sure Team Europe would not get any easy situations presented to them.
The American model — mirrored what Team Europe has been doing for a number of years. Love got solid info from his various Vice Captains and ultimately because of that information was able to make a final decision that proved a clear tipping point to a solid Cup win.
The broader question for Team USA is can that model be replicated in future matches? Winning on the road in 2018 for the first time in 25 years will clearly demonstrate that for sure.
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.