9 things I saw, heard and learned from a week at the Ryder Cup

steve stricker brooks koepka

Steve Stricker and Brooks Koepka embrace after the Ryder Cup had been clinched.

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This Ryder Cup was always going to be an important one. For the players, for Team USA the brand, for Steve Stricker, the host course, etc., so it’s unsurprising that we are here discussing it three days later.

As an entity, the Cup exists out on the horizon for many speculative months, and then suddenly the 1st tee is rockin’, and then not long later it’s all over. What we hold on to are a bunch of memories and nonsense scribbled into a notebook. Here are a handful of things I saw, heard and learned last week in Wisconsin. 

1. The place to be was with Team Europe’s caddies 

As the Golf Channel broadcast helped bring to light Sunday, the European caddie room is where the life of the party was all week. They were crushing Spotted Cow beers, the local favorite that simply cannot be purchased outside of the Badger State. Thirsty Illinoisans smuggle it across state lines. 

Moments after Tyrrell Hatton made birdie on the 18th to tie his Friday afternoon four ball match, I was chatting with his caddie Michael Donaghy. He goes by Mick. Henrik Stenson walked by with his wife.

“Henrik, get on gettin’ another bottle,” Donaghy said. 

“The beer or the wine?” Stenson replied. The wine was the correct answer. Mick turned to me and shared a video of the caddies singing and dancing from the night before, some of them standing on chairs, others donning the local cheesehead hats they’d co-opted. 

“We took it deep last night,” he said. “And we’ll do it again tonight.” 

2. Hugs, hugs, hugs galore 

The end of any Ryder Cup brings with it so many hugs. Hugs between wives, players, caddies, rivals, coaches, etc. We see players hug all the time, but not like they do after a Ryder Cup is over. 

Paul Casey’s wife embraced young Viktor Hovland, congratulating him for tying his singles match. Hovland passed the love on to Sergio Garcia, and told him, “You couldn’t have been more class.” Sergio turned around and there’s Bob Koepka (Brooks’ dad) who brought him in close with one of those handshake hugs — right hands linked, left arms around and patting the others’ back. They discussed the energy of the foursomes match Sergio played with Koepka and Berger Saturday morning.

Garcia’s best hug was with Lee Westwood, right? But Westwood’s best hug was with his caddie son, surely.  

There were also the hugs Rory dished out Saturday night after losing a fourball match to Dustin Johnson and Collin Morikawa. He hugged Ian Poulter first. A long one with an obvious exhale. Then his wife, Erica. Then Poulter hugged him again, and eventually Pete Cowen, the swing coach, gave Rory the final hug. From where I stood, it felt like he needed the hugs. And then on Sunday, it all made sense. 

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Pete Cowen (right, in black) with his arm around Rory McIlroy, shortly after Rory’s final fourball match. Sean Zak

3. Wait, Jon Rahm can get better?

Yes, he can. Rahm was stellar last week, just as he’s been stellar all year long. So good it feels unfair at times. But apparently he can get better.

I bumped into his coach Dave Phillips as Rahm and Hatton battled against Scottie Scheffler and Bryson DeChambeau Friday afternoon. It was one of the best matches of the week. Steph Curry was enthralled. Phillips was stoic during the mayhem, as most coaches are. I asked Phillips, who has long worked with Phil Mickelson, how elite players work on sustenance. Rahm’s 2021 was better than anyone else’s, so how does he work on keeping his game at that level? “He can get better,” Phillips said. “And he knows it. And he’s going to work his tail off to do it.”

The potential, Phillips thinks, is with Rahm’s wedges. The strokes-gained data backs him up. But also, there’s potential in developing a reliable draw shot. Rahm goes to the fade a lot. Almost all the time. It’s worked really well for him, but Phillips would like to see him establish a draw that can be used more. 

“When he hits a high draw,” he said, “there’s no one on Tour who makes it look better.” I’ll take his word for it … and meet them on the 2nd tee box at Augusta National in April. 

4. That’s how Whistling Straits is supposed to play

In 2004, Vijay Singh won at Whistling Straits at eight under. In 2010, Martin Kaymer followed that with 11 under. Then in 2015, Jason Day broke a bunch of records en route to 20 under. Whistling Straits was getting easier, thanks to advances in technology. The ball goes and goes, especially when the wind lays down. 

But this week, it wasn’t easy going, because the Straits was whistling. Wind gusts often reached 20+ mph on Friday and Saturday, leading to all kinds of second-guessing, and one incredible tee shot that had jaws on the floor throughout the media center. My favorite wind-aided story of the week came on Wednesday, though. 

The wind that day basically blew straight south along the shoreline. Maybe a touch of help from the Northwest. Into players’ face on 11, 12, and 13, but heavily downwind on 2, 3, and 4, etc. The forecast promised this wind was irrelevant, since players wouldn’t see anything like it during the three days of competition. How irrelevant could it be, though? The Euros were out there, playing 18 holes. 

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Four Team USA caddies study the landing spots on the short par-4 13th. Sean Zak

“It doesn’t do s—t for us,” Xander Schauffele’s caddie Austin Kaiser said. He was out looping, bag-free, with three other American caddies surveying the landing zones. All they carried were notebooks and pencils.  “Putting doesn’t make sense either, because the greens won’t break the same,” Morikawa’s caddie J.J. Jakovac added. For an event with one-too-many practice days, it was nice to see the teams be zapped of a truly meaningful one by Mother Nature herself.

5. Team Europe can’t do this again, and they know it 

I spent most of my time Sunday afternoon around the European team, and there seemed to be a pretty clear thing on all their minds: who among us had played their final Ryder Cup? That discussion spilled over to the press conference for all to see, but before then it was hanging in the air, inside the ropes. We’ve discussed Lee Westwood’s career at length on this site, but what about 41-year-old Sergio Garcia? He thinks he’ll be back in 2023, though you never know. How about 45-year-old Ian Poulter? Shane Lowry came up to Poulter’s son between the 17th and 18 holes late Sunday and made it sound like it might be over.

“Poults. Still undefeated,” Lowry said to Luke Poulter, who is headed to play college golf at the University of Florida. “It’s your f—king record to hold up now.” 

Fair enough! As for Paul Casey, 44, that question remains, too. Players, caddies, coaches, etc., all seemed to agree that Casey will be there. Rahm’s caddie Adam Hayes was the loudest of the bunch: “Two more years, you’ll f—king be there. You’ll f—king be there.”

Time will tell!

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How an emotional European team watched the Ryder Cup slip away, all together
By: Sean Zak

6. Whoop Gang

Did we learn anything truly valuable from the Whoop integration during the Ryder Cup broadcast, when Rory McIlroy, Ian Poulter and Justin Thomas hit tee shots with their heartbeat streaming on the television? I’m not positive we did, but I love the idea of that data becoming more and more available. 

What I did learn was how that data is acquired. Of course, Rory rocks a Whoop band just like you and me, but he keeps it on his upper left arm during play, instead of his wrist. In order to beam that data in real time to the broadcast, he slides a pair of transmitters onto his belt, one on each hip. Before his Saturday afternoon fourball match, McIlroy thought he had a strap that was plenty juiced, but someone came trotting onto the range to switch it out for another one. It felt odd that McIlroy’s warmup session was delayed for a couple minutes just to get this new band on his arm, but the integration feels like one of the cooler additions to a broadcast in recent memory, so we’ll allow it. What I would have loved to see is McIlroy’s heartbeat on that walk to the 1st tee. Or as he walked the hill up to the 11th green. Or during the final moments of that 3 and 2 victory over Schauffele Sunday. More, more, more please! 

7. The ladies are invested! 

Everything is bigger at the Ryder Cup. The stands, the number of fans, the size of the entourage, etc. Wives and girlfriends are ever-present, and play a serious role throughout. It’s become an expectation, really. But I’ve never understood until now just how invested they all were in the results.

For starters, there’s Paulina Gretzky, playing hurt, who sprained her ankle weeks ago and is still limping away in the fairway as DJ goes 5-0. She may have committed to this thing just as much as DJ. You can tell which of the ankles is a bit sore based on priceless photos snapped by Getty.

Walking Whistling Straits is no joke. People were carted off the property by medics each day. I’m not asking for sympathy for glamorous inside-the-ropes lanyard holders, but with that honor comes the requirement of sitting or laying down on the fescue, as Morikawa’s girlfriend often did. And trudging up and down slippery slopes. It was understandable that, after Hatton made the birdie putt to win that Friday afternoon fourball match, there was a huge exhale from two women in particular. Rahm’s wife Kelley whipped around to Hatton’s wife Emily and exclaimed, “Thank goodness for your man.”

8. The loneliest match … was not so lonely in the end

Daniel Berger had a 2 up lead as he made the turn Sunday afternoon in his singles match, but that’s about all he had. He didn’t have a smile. He didn’t have a huge crowd screaming his name. He didn’t have a horde of people following inside the ropes. The only people following him up over the bridge to the 10th tee were his caddie and his opponent, Matthew Fitzpatrick. This was as somber as the Ryder Cup gets.

“It’s almost over, Boog,” one onlooker said. “Yep,” he replied, completely uninterested in extending the conversation. The Ryder Cup would be over long before his match would finish, and he knew it. Fitzpatrick stared at the ground ahead of his feet. His Ryder Cup record had zero points to his name, and this wasn’t a good start.

Thankfully, for their sake, every Ryder Cup match matters. The TV contracts signed between the European Tour, the PGA of America and NBC Sports require that The Show Goes On, which meant this irrelevant match would remain relevant. Inside the ropes, both teams began to assemble, adding some pressure to a pressure-free afternoon. Fitzpatrick had about three feet left for his par on 17 to halve the hole. He would have been asked to putt it on Saturday afternoon, but would he have to putt it on Sunday? Shane Lowry angrily muttered aloud, “Oh, you bedder give him dat,” as Berger stood on the edge of the green, pondering it. If he made Fitz putt it out, with the Cup ultimately decided, the 2021 Ryder Cup would have have maybe turned into a brawl on the 18th tee. Instead, Berger gave him the putt and 20 seconds later there was Fitzpatrick, jogging to the tee and slapping Berger on the butt. Sportsmanship all around!

9. Wisconsin is still in great hands for major golf

Whistling Straits might be a darling host course for the PGA of America, but given the new major championsip order, it won’t be hosting the PGA Championship anymore. At least not until global warming allows for a longer grass growing season in the upper Midwest. The women’s PGA Championship is certainly in play for Whistling, and what a treat that would be. But until then, we’ve got another couple of Wisconsin jewels taking the major championship torch.

The course immediately top of mind is Erin Hills, the 2017 U.S. Open track, which has been tapped to host the 2025 Women’s U.S. Open. That week, we’ll see it like never before, adjusted from some 7,900-yard behemoth to something completely different for the best women in the world. Different tee boxes, landing zones, etc. Obviously it’ll play different. But hopefully the rough won’t be cut down like the USGA did during that week in 2017. Hopefully Erin gets the windy conditions it is used to having — like what I saw last week before the Ryder Cup — which were largely absent during Open week. Anyone watching will have a greater appreciation for one of the premier tracks in the Midwest, as well as what Brooks Koepka did, winning by four.

But before then SentryWorld will host the 2023 U.S. Senior Open up in northern Wisconsin. I also played there before Ryder Cup week, and saw just how difficult a course can be made in the hands of the USGA. The governing body likes SentryWorld, but years ago came in and offered advice on how to make the track a championship test for the best players in the world. Tighter fairways, grown up rough, longer tee boxes, etc. Well, all those adjustments have been made, and I can tell you first-hand that the course is no slouch. It will make life plenty difficult for the best seniors two summers from now, just as it made life hellish for me, despite impeccable conditioning. It was a nice reminder that, despite Wisconsin’s crown jewel hosting golf’s crown jewel event, and not really having any others on the calendar, there’s still a lot of great golf coming to the Badger state.

Sean Zak

Golf.com Editor

Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine, currently working on a book about the summer he spent in St. Andrews. You can read about those travels here and catch his latest thoughts on the Drop Zone Podcast:

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