There is one indisputable truth about U.S. National Sports teams: the more underrated and hungry they are, the better they play.
When many an American team goes into an international competition with a “swagger,” or an “attitude,” they frequently fall on their face. That sense of complacency takes root and the weed of overconfidence spreads, and the next thing you know…SPLAT!…Puerto Rico, Lithuania, Ghana, (twice!), Canada (twice), Cuba, South Korea – stop me any time.
But when they go in as unheralded, unselfish underdogs? That’s when the magic happens.
And now with everyone burying the U.S. Ryder Cup team before the players even board the plane to Scotland, our boys have nothing to lose, so they have nothing to fear.
That’s a good thing, because the run-up to this year’s Ryder Cup at the Gleneagles Centenary Course in Scotland has been a tragic-comedy of hype, over-analysis, reactionary mumbo-jumbo and, worst of all, nothing but doom and gloom for the U.S. It’s as thought the sky really was falling, although it’s journos and talking heads that are running around, not Chicken Little, although the resemblance is remarkable.
“The way we select Captain’s Picks is broken,” moaned one writer, (who didn’t get a late-blooming home-state player picked by Tom Watson. I’ll leave you to guess which one), while “We’re going to get demolished,” is the analysis du jour among the lion’s share of American analysts.
Across the pond, however, they’re not so sure.
“It’s going to be much closer than everyone on your side says…and it’s going to come down to who putts better, like it always does,” said pre-eminent U.K. golf writer John Hopkins in a recent radio interview. “And there isn’t a bad putter in this tournament, so it’s even on that score.”
He’s exactly right. It will come down to getting hot with the putter…and that’s how team golf momentum gets generated. You see, the Ryder Cup is also about chemistry and momentum. Remember what coaches at team golf events tell their players on the eve of the competition: You won’t play well for the entire weekend…you just need to play well in the clutch. Well when a bunch of guys all start playing well in the clutch together, that’s when the other bunch of guys do their impression of the Titanic, but only they gown down by the throat, not the head.
“We’re gonna show up and we’re gonna play,” bristled Keegan Bradley. That much we know, because even though he’s a bit quirky a guy, he’ll play to the last drop of his blood. That’s the attitude we need.
“It’s about redemption,” chanted Bubba Watson, as if uttering a wedding vow, and, indeed, that’s the mantra of the entire team after the Mess at Medinah two years ago. They don’t just want to erase that memory, they need to. It’s a blemish on their records for time immemorial unless they write their own bit of golf history this time out. And with the scrappy, proud, talented, and hungry group of players feisty and savvy Tom Watson has around him, they could do just that.
Still people in America are skeptical. No D.J., no Dufner, no Tiger, no chance: no way, no how, right? After all Europe has won back to back Ryder Cups and seven of last nine. They haven’t lost in Europe since 1993 at the Belfry.
I’ll take a breath and then add their histrionics over Tom Watson’s picks. Watson didn’t pick the two guys who won the last two FedEx Cup events, opting instead for Ryder Cup experience. He already has mercurial Ryder Cup rookies in Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth, (Jimmy Walker doesn’t swagger as much as they do), so adding Horschel or Chris Kirk added more inexperience and nerves. Webb Simpson, Keegan Bradley, and Hunter Mahan are battle-tested, with two major championship trophies to show for it. In an event like this, you choose experience over flashes in the pan every time.
And don’t even get me started on Tiger Woods, the so-called greatest player in golf history. His record in the Ryder Cup is a less-than-pedestrian 13-17-3, it’s murder trying to find him a partner that keeps him happy, and he’s not exactly a unifying figure in the locker room. Besides, this is a team event. Even if Woods scored a perfect five points, (which he’s never done, although every journo and b’caster seemed ready to pencil him in for that pre-tournament), the U.S. would need another 9.5 points to win the Cup. One player – even the greatest in the World – can’t win you this event. It takes everybody.
But look who we do have:
—Phil Mickelson, who although his star may be beginning to fade, still has a few more years of sublime, first-rate golf ahead of him and is playing his best golf of the year now;
—Rickie Fowler, a rising star in full ascension, most likely the second best player this year;
—the God Squad: Bubba Watson, who for all his character flaws is still an elite player, and the trio of Zach Johnson, Hunter Mahan, and Webb Simpson, all of whom have had consistently strong years, and all of whom on any day can go ludicrously low; and
—the three highest ranked Ryder Cup rookies in the tournament, Jordan Speith, Patrick Reed, and Jimmy Walker. When you compare them to Europe’s Stephen Gallagher, Victor Dubuisson, and Jamie Donaldson, suddenly things don’t look so grim for the Americans.
“Europe has the stronger top of the order, but the U.S. has the stronger bottom of the order,” explained Hopkins, and he’s got a point. Westwood and Poulter, two of European captain Paul McGinley’s picks along with Stephen Gallagher, aren’t playing well at all. Sure, you had to give Poulter a spot on his reputation of being a Ryder Cup Yankee killer (4-0-0 last time, 4-0-0 in singles in his last four matches and he’s an inspiration in the locker room), but Westwood? He’s been quieter than a church mouse lately. In fact, a statistical breakdown taken at the time the picks were announced indicated that the American players had an average World ranking better than their European counterparts. (16.2 to 18.2). So who are the underdogs again?
Some pundits think that if there is an edge for the Europeans, it’s that they’re playing the event at a banal, dictatorial, penal architecture, center-line Jack Nicklaus slog that looks like a Florida golf course invaded a farm in Indiana. But I’m not so sure. It’s not like that type of golf will be unfamiliar to the U.S. players.
“The PGA Centenary Course is the third best course at the resort,” quipped one irreverent wag on a golf social media site. (There are only three courses at Gleneagles.)
“Scotland? Yes. Scottish golf? Not so much,” joked John Huggan.
It’s such a shame: they used to play this event at places like Lytham, Birkdale, and Wentworth. Now they’ll lob it at any mega-resort that wants to throw gobs of liquid cash at the PGA, irrespective of the fact that if you combine the Centenary Course, the K Club, and Celtic Manor, you won’t find ten interesting golf holes. The movement away from playing it at great seaside links begain in the 80s when GB&I developed a “If we can’t beat ’em, join ’em” attitude and built the Belfry. From that day it’s been about making the cash register sing and the romanticism and purity of the sport be damned.
“The money from the Ryder Cup kept the Irish Open afloat for years, never forget that,” pointed out one pundit, highlighting the practicality of the economics for the European PGA in one crushing rejoinder.
“All the Ryder Cups that the Europeans have won on home soil since Lindrick have been on modern-style courses. That’s what they play every day on the European Tour, with the exception of the Open and the Dutch Open and, depending on venue, the Scottish Open,” added golf expert Bruce Moulton. “The Centenary course has hosted Euro Tour events a number of times in past years, so most of the European team have already played the course under tournament conditions. They’ll have local knowledge. Plus McGinley ordered up rough and soft conditions to combat the American team’s length, so there will be a edge for Europe there, but only a slight one.”
The soft conditions have been further exacerbated by rains and collars of rough around greens and bunkers. This is neutralize the supposed length advantage of the top of the American order. John Huggan called it an “egregious…dampening of adventure.”
Agreeing with Tom Watson in today’s interview session, Huggan noted that, “By its very nature, match play encourages the bold and the brave rather than the merely prosaic. But any incentive to “go for it” over the corner at, say, the par-5 second has been all but eliminated. There, very thick rough has been allowed to grow just over the bunker situated on the left side of the slight right-to-left dogleg. Long hitters with a sense of enterprise are thus rendered all but impotent. Bubba Watson and Jim Furyk will likely play this hole in very similar fashions.”
Francisco Molinari gave you author a similar analysis.
“The course is not overly long but the rough is quite penal, so you need to keep the ball in play. It’s not easy to shoot under par.”
That favors the Webb Simpson, Zach Zohnson, Jim Furyk, and Hunter Mahan. The American “edge” has now shifted to the straight-hitting short game wizards. Such short game geniuses as Phil, Ricky, and Watson will simply have to beat their opponents with their wedges and putter instead of their driver, a proposition that should sound just fine to the Americans.
Moreover, chemistry is everything in doubles, and now it’s the Americans with that edge, where once the Europeans had an overwhelming advantage in the format — winning experience at that. The God Squad is a natural grouping – Mahan, Watson, Simpson, and Zach can all work together as one “pod,” while Phil and friends – not Lesh, Weir, Kreutzmann, and Hart, but Mickelson, Bradley, Fowler, and one of the rookies form another. Phil alone is “instant chemistry as he could play with anything from a Velociraptor on down, (except Woods, who is, metaphorically, a Velociraptor…). Phil and Bradley were a force of nature last time, going 3-0-0 together.
And don’t give me any of that tired “Jim Furyk and Webb Simpson are weak links” talking point either. Furyk may have a dismal 9-17-4, but he has been playing in Ryder Cups for close to two decades and his presence on the locker room brings experience. I have two words for you on that “perennial runner-up” and “choker” label some people put on him: Thomas Bjorn.
As for Webb Simpson, people who don’t like him or think he’s a fish, (a slang term for a lousy golfer), don’t know a thing about the man. Let me tell you why people don’t respect Webb Simpson:
1. He likes God;
2. He dresses like it’s 1959;
3. He likes God;
4. He’s quiet and humble;
5. He likes God;
6. He doesn’t “swagger” and Madison Avenue consistently underestimates Middle America and thinks it can’t sell “humble” to sports fans;
7. He likes God;
8. He hits a ghastly shank once a year; and
9. He likes (GASP!) God!
Screw that, Buddy, I’ll take the kid with the U.S. Open trophy, the phlegmatic demeanor, the Bible meeting group, and the all-for-one mentality.
Meanwhile the European side will have to cobble together pairings as the option of pairing countrymen together is seriously diminished. There’s no other Spaniard to pair with Sergio, there’s no German to pair with Martin Kaymer, there’s no Swede to pair with Henrik Stenson, and there’s no Dane to [air with Thomas Bjorn. But there’s three Englishmen, so who does Justin Rose play with? And despite all the Kumbayas coming out of the McDowell and McIlroy camps that they’ve smoothed things over in the Horizon lawsuit, it still means that Rory and Graeme probably haven’t played together much before this week. Moreover, both McDowell and McGinley confirmed just today that Rory won’t play with Graeme.
So it’s the visiting Americans who are getting along with an “All hands on deck” attitude while the Europeans are somewhat divided – and that’s a gargantuan advantage which creates a comfort zone to ease the crucible of pressure that is the beating heart of the Ryder Cup. It sounds a lot like the 2008 Ryder Cup when anther Tiger Woods-less team crushed a European squad that was supposed to mop the floor with them.
Now it’s about who can keep their cool in the storm-tossed sea of emotions. And who better to lead the American team than Golf’s King of Cool Demeanor, Tom Watson – the man who stared down Jack Nicklaus time and again. Watson knows something about beating the best in he World, and he damn well knows a lot about winning in Scotland. These Americans may be underdogs, but they are suddenly barking, and why not? Why can’t they put the “Eagles” in “Gleneagles?” The have nothing to lose.
And that’s the worst opponent you can face, because they also have nothing to fear.
USA 15 Europe 13
Rory McIlroy Bubba Watson
Henrik Stenson Rickie Fowler
Victor Dubuisson Zach Johnson
Sergio Garcia Jim Furyk
Justin Rose Jimmy Walker
Martin Kaymer Phil Mickelson
Thomas Bjorn Matt Kuchar
J. Donaldson J. Spieth
G. MacDowell P. Reed
*Ian Poulter *Webb Simpson
*Lee Westwood *Hunter Mahan
*Stephen Gallagher *Keegan Bradley
* = Captain’s Pick