Two statistics stand out brightest in the aftermath of the 16.5 – 11.5 drubbing that the Europeans hung on the USA at the first Ryder Cup ever held in Italy: USA captain Zach Johnson’s captain’s picks going 4-12-1 over the course of three days, and the USA losing the foursomes matches by a combined score of 7-1.
My heart goes out to Zach Johnson, who true golf fans adore, but whom the casual fans and 24-hour news cycle talking heads will vilify for this lopsided loss. He starts off with a strike against him because Madison Avenue doesn’t like nice guys. He’s also devoutly Christian, a fact that too often gets viewed with a jaundiced eye from the media and big corporations. It just doesn’t sell, dammit.
At the time, Johnson was seen by many as an accidental winner of the 2007 Masters. He laid up on all four par-5s on Championship Sunday, contrary to conventional wisdom, he disappointed a great many fans, sponsors, and media by denying Tiger Woods what would have been a record third consecutive Green Jacket, and he was completely unheralded before that major championship victory vaulted him into the public eye. Still, that same “conventional wisdom” – note the intentionally ironic use of quotation marks there – conventional wisdom was that Zach needed to validate his Masters win.
Well he sure did that in spades, didn’t he? That 2015 Open Championship win at St. Andrews – in a playoff no less – will echo throughout golf history.
Sadly, so too will this drubbing. The Ryder Cup has become so overly competitive that it can actually sully (somewhat) an otherwise immortal career. Tom Watson is a glaring example of that. Phil Mickelson threw Watson under a bus after the USA lost the 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles. That team was supposed to rebound from the 2012 “Massacre at Medinah” where the USA flushed the biggest lead in home team history – 10-6 – falling to Jose Maria Olazabal and the Ian Poulter-led Euros. (The USA reversed a 10-6 deficit in 1999, but that was also on home soil at the Country Club in Brookline.)
Davis Love’s reputation took a serious hit that year, as he’ll forever be known – at least when Ryder Cup time rolls around – as one of its greatest failuyres. But perhaps no captain will exemplify Ryder Cup failure than Mark James, wuthor of the infamous 1999 blinder where he flushed a 10-6 lead by foolishly back-loading the Sunday singles, allowing the home team USA to turn that 10-6 deficit into a 12-10 lead after the first six matches. They eventually won 14.5 – 13.5 on Justin Leonard’s 45-foot bomb across the 17th green.
No European captain will ever make that mistake again, on pain of death.
The second statistic that shines like a proprietary torch over the event is the USA’s futility at fourballs. Americans in general – let alone the pros – play too much medal play. Look at the history of the USA’s ineptitude in this format: this was the first time the Europeans swept an alternate-shot session, and since 2002 the Europeans hold a 10-5-1 advantage in alternate-shot sessions, including another 7-1 spanking in that format in 2014 at Gleneagles, a spread that, once again, exceeds Europe’s margin of victory (16 ½-11 ½);
What’s the cause? A mix of mistakes: bad parings, poor play, and a lack of depth and breadth in the format. Europeans play foursomes far more often – it’s faster to play, and Americans care too much about the instant gratification, the cost of the game, and the desire for their own excellence. We don’t have enough of a team or partner mentality in golf, especially not when it comes to alternate shot. It will take a cultural shift within American golf for that to filter down to the rank and file player, but it’s a goal that will bear fruit at the highest level as well as generally.
Finally, it’s been 30 years and counting since the USA won the Ruder Cup on European soil, and lately it’s been by embarrassing scores: 17.5 – 10.5 in Paris, 18.5 – 9.5 at the K Club in Ireland, the Gleneagles drubbing, and now the Rome affair. There were a pair of 14.5 to 13.5 disappointments as well, but with two captain’s picks or six, we cannot find the alchemy to wrest the Cup in Europe.
And so now it’s on to the ugliness of New York City and Bethpage Black. Get ready for the loudmouth, lunkhead Ryder Cup, where fans are being openly encouraged to be brutal, rude, aggressive, and downright unsportsmanlike to the European side. After the scenes that unfolded in Rome on and off the golf course, I have no doubt that raucousness will devolve into controversy. Sometimes, the Ryder Cup brings out the worst in golf fans: Jack Nicklaus will tell you, it’s never okay to openly root against a golfer, Ryder Cup or no.
Too bad that idea will never fly; there’s too much money involved.