Will ‘Love’ Be in the Air at Hazeltine?
When a sporting event has a recent history of one team winning six of the last seven and eight of the last ten matches, you realize that turning the tide in your favor is no small task. That’s what faces the USA squad as the 41st Ryder Cup Matches will be played at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota, starting on Sept. 30.
The American side faces enormous pressure with the matches being played on home soil. Four years ago—when the matches were last played in the States at Medinah just outside of Chicago—the American side led going into the final day’s play by a 10–6 margin. The resulting collapse during the 12 singles matches was even more startling than what Team USA had done in 1999 in overcoming a similar margin against Team Europe at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Adding to that pressure is the decision by the PGA of America to once again make Davis Love III serve as captain of Team USA. Love made critical lineup errors—most notably on the final day in 2012—and having him return was not universally praised. In getting a second bite at the apple, the issue is whether Davis can avoid swallowing it as he did in his first time at the helm.
Team Europe is playing with house money. Captain Darren Clarke—a very keen Irishman—stated that the American side is the favorite given the number of key players that are highly rated in the world rankings. Clarke is quite aware that should Europe lose, the resulting fanfare will be that the Americans were expected to do so on home turf. On the flip side, Clarke knows the mounting pressures Love and his side will face at Hazeltine. Every decision Love makes or fails to make will resonate even more so for Love rather than Clarke.
As far as Team USA’s roster selection goes, the eight automatic selections have now been decided on the course—Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson, Patrick Reed, Jimmy Walker, Brooks Koepka, Brant Snedeker, and Zach Johnson.
The critical decision will be when three of the four wild-card choices are made by Love—that will happen when the BMW event in Indianapolis concludes on Sept. 11, with the decision made the next day. The final choice will be announced after the Tour Championship concludes at East Lake, with the announcement being made during the halftime of the Sunday NFL game that evening.
The issue for Love is whether he uses his head or heart in deciding the remaining four slots for the American squad. In past situations, other American captains have opted to go with “experience” and only find out that such “experience” failed to execute when called upon. That happened dramatically in the 1995 matches when USA Captain Lanny Wadkins selected fellow Wake Forest alum Curtis Strange as a wild-card selection.
Strange was needed at a critical moment in a singles match against his longtime nemesis Nick Faldo. In the final few holes, Strange simply ran out of physical and mental gas, and Faldo was able to secure a most needed point, which helped Europe win for the second time on USA soil.
Love has similar types of decisions to make. How much “experience” does he need versus going with unknown entities who have never experienced the suffocating cauldron of Ryder Cup pressure?
Take for example the play of “Mr. 58” Jim Furyk. The talented golfer has been a member of nine Ryder Cup teams. Which player has the all-time most defeats with 20? If you said Jim Furyk, you advance to Final Jeopardy. Furyk has been through numerous matches, and even when one admits a turn of the ball here or there might have made a difference—the reality is that when you add up the “experience” factor, it has gained no real point production for Furyk.
Would adding Furyk to the team as a wild-card pick suddenly change what nine previous matches has already shown? To be fair, the likes of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have not fared any better in earning cumulative points during their Ryder Cup participation.
Among those who have played in past Ryder Cups—notably Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler—their recent play in 2016 has been anything but sterling. Watson has enormous physical talent but has shown only glimpses of it and can be easily distracted by the slightest of potholes he encounters. Fowler looked to be a longtime member of Team USA, but his play in ’16 is a major letdown given what he achieved in ’15—winning The Players Championship and later that year the Scottish Open.
Both Watson and Fowler represented Team USA in the Summer Olympics in Rio and neither distinguished himself. Fowler spent ample time with the various athletes from the American side, and there was more fanfare tied to his new haircut than what he did on the golf course. Keep in mind, Rickie has played in eight matches in two Ryder Cup appearances. How many wins thus far? Zero. The word on the street is that Rickie has a very tough time closing out matches, and until he shakes that perception, the monkey is squarely on his back when the Ryder Cup is being contested.
It’s highly unlikely Love would leave off the American squad both Watson and Fowler. But, if Davis is smart, he will be wise enough to know that if either of the two players continues to plod along with poor play, then a clear and decisive decision will be needed. Showing a bit of “tough” Love may be needed to demonstrate that past performance is far less important than those playing well now.
On the flip side is an equally difficult decision. Are there Ryder Cup rookies worth a selection if they show in this year’s FedEx Playoffs that they have something to show? The 23-year-old Daniel Berger was the Rookie-of-the-Year winner in 2015. He has already won this year at the FedEx St. Jude Classic and nearly earned his second win just a few weeks ago at the Travelers Championship in Hartford before shooting a disappointing 74 after shooting 62 in the third round the day prior.
Berger is young, but he’s extremely talented and doesn’t have the baggage accumulated with other American players from a series of European wins. How would he react to Ryder Cup pressure? No one can say for certain. But what one can say for certain is that “experience” has not produced that kind of point production one would have likely believed.
Losing at Medinah was not a “Love-fest” by any means. Now having a second opportunity, Davis will have to make crucial decisions that somehow reverse a course that has been an embarrassment for the American side for quite some time.
Davis accepted the captain’s position knowing full well how much of a risk is involved at Hazeltine. Winning will indeed be sweet and provide Love with appropriate hugs and kisses. However, should the American side endure another painful defeat, then love will be anywhere but in the air for Davis and his underachieving American squad.
The countdown is indeed on.
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.