Anatomy of a Ryder Cup blowout: How the U.S. found its mojo and throttled the Europeans
HAVEN, Wis. — When just the fourth match of the day reached the 16th hole of the Straits course on Sunday afternoon, the U.S. Ryder Cup team was already in coronation mode. Packed in a cluster to the right of the green were a host of players, captains and other golfing dignitaries representing multiple generations. Ryder Cup rookie Scottie Scheffler, fresh off his 4-up thumping of Spanish buzzsaw Jon Rahm, sat on grassy knoll flanked by 51-year-old U.S. vice-captain Phil Mickelson and 69-year-old Ben Crenshaw, who captained another epic U.S. Ryder Cup win, at Brookline, in 1999. As Morikawa made his way to the green, Bryson DeChambeau — visibly giddy from his own Sunday success: a 3-up win over the other Spanish buzzsaw, Sergio Garcia — leaned in and clasped hands with Scheffler, his fourball partner this week.
“You see what I did on 1?” DeChambeau said, beaming. “Drove it to 40 feet and made the putt.”
Scheffler’s eyes widened and he held up his phone.
“I can’t believe I didn’t see that!” he said.
Observers of the game might be asking themselves a similar question in the wake of the U.S.’s record 19-9 drubbing of the Europeans. The U.S. was slightly favored heading into the week but given the American horrors of Ryder Cups past — the U.S, as if we need remind you, had lost nine of the last 12 editions, including a seven-point beatdown in Paris three years ago — few predicted what transpired this week on the lakeside engineering marvel that is Pete Dye’s Straits course.
Over three breezy sun-splashed days, the U.S. suffocated the Europeans, jumping out to a 3-1 lead after the first session, extending that margin to 6-2 after the second session. On Saturday, more of the same: 3-1 in the morning foursomes followed by 2-2 in the afternoon fourballs. On Sunday? Yep. More, more, more. Europe won just three of the 12 singles matches. When the dust settled, the U.S. had more than doubled Europe’s point total. “Blowout” is not a term used often in golf, but it was the only way to describe the result.
So, how we did we arrive here? How did this American team come together and run away from this European side like Secretariat at Belmont? Let us count the ways.
1. The U.S. team has better players
Obvious, yes, but it must be our starting point: the U.S. players are superior. More firepower, better putters and more in form than their European counterparts.
Heading into the week, the Europeans had just one player in the top in the world ranking (Jon Rahm) and their third-highest ranked player, Rory McIlroy (No. 15), had admitted to being run down in recent weeks. Meanwhile, the U.S. team’s average world ranking was a staggering 8.9. “It was really just getting out of their way,” U.S. captain Steve Stricker said Sunday evening. “Let them go. Provide an atmosphere and camaraderie that they enjoyed and wanted to be a part of.”
Simple formula, devastating results.
2. The U.S. rookies played like veterans
Better on paper hasn’t always translated into Ryder Cup wins for the U.S., but this U.S. side was buoyed by the fact that most of the team hadn’t been exposed to the U.S. team’s past baggage. With six fresh-faced but undaunted rookies, this was a markedly different squad from the fractured team that Europe hammered in Paris three years ago. Having experience never hurts in the cauldron of the Ryder Cup but it also has proven not to be a requirement for success. At Valhalla, in 2008, the Paul Azinger-led U.S. team also had six first-timers and cruised to a six-point win.
“We have a team with no scar tissue,” Tony Finau said earlier in the week. “There’s only a handful of us that has even played in a Ryder Cup, and the few of those, we have winning records. So we actually don’t have guys on our team that have lost a lot in Ryder Cups … We’ve got a whole different group of young guys that are hungry. You guys see six rookies. Man, in this team room, I don’t see any rookies. I see 12 guys that are confident and none of us are wide-eyed. We want to win.”
And win they did. The half-dozen rookies combined for a gaudy 14-4-3 record: Collin Morikawa (3-1-0), Xander Schauffele (3-1-0), Patrick Cantlay (3-0-1), and Scheffler (2-0-1), Harris English (1-1-1), Daniel Berger (2-1-0). “The notion that rookies can’t come out here because they don’t have the experience can kind of be thrown out the window,” said Daniel Berger, who won the record-setting 19th on Sunday, dispatching Matt Fitzpatrick on the 18th green, 1 up. “All of these guys are competing at the biggest events, the major championships, and winning big golf tournaments. That’s what it comes down to is being able to perform at the highest level.”
3. The U.S. players seemed to actually bond
Bonding is a popular buzzword at the Ryder Cup. All teams claim to do it, but how much has actually happened on the U.S. side in recent Cups is up for debate. This week, the guys legitimately seemed to warm to one another.
From week to week on the PGA Tour, Cantlay said he’s more or less a closed book with his peers. That’s intentional. “I don’t want you to know what I’m thinking or know my insecurities or whatever,” he said. In Kohler, however, where the U.S. team bunked together in the tranquil confines of The American Club, Cantlay said he let down his guard and saw the same from his teammates, notably DJ and Berger. “I think they can be more of themselves with less protectiveness,” he said.
Cantlay’s closeness with Xander Schauffele, his partner in two winning matches, was also apparent, a kinship that dates to the time they spent together at the 2019 Presidents Cup in Melbourne. (He’s become one of my best friends through that experience,” Schauffele said.) As Schauffele and Cantlay were partying with their teammates by the 18th green on Sunday, they looked like a couple of college bros enjoying a frat party. Schauffele had a crumpled High Noon in his hand; in each of Cantlay’s back pockets was a can of Mich Ultra.
“How many beers have you had?!” Cantlay said.
They both cracked up.
Among the other players that vibed: DJ and Morikawa. “Two weeks ago I had them together,” Striceker said of the Whistling Straits reconnaissance mission he organized for the team. “They just felt good with each other. They complement each other’s game very nicely. Both heck of players, and they just enjoy being with each other.”
Really, this week, the entire team seemed to enjoy one another’s company. Oh, and they also share one essential trait. “We all have one thing in common,” DJ said. “We do not like to lose.”
4. The U.S had more (and better) captain’s picks
If Padraig Harrington made any missteps, it started with his captain’s picks: not so much who he picked but how many selections he allowed himself. Whereas Stricker allotted himself six picks, Harrington took only half as many, using them on Sergio Garcia, Shane Lowry and Ian Poulter. Garcia proved to be a worthy pick, whil Lowry and Poulter each went 1-2, but brave be the captain who would have left one of Europe’s best-ever Ryder Cuppers off the team.
The bigger issue was that only three picks meant nine auto-qualifiers, the last three of those free bids going to Paul Casey, Matt Fitzpatrick and an out-of-form Lee Westwood; that trio combined for a woeful 2-8 record at Whistling Straits. Would the likes of Justin Rose, Victor Perez or Robert MacIntryre have bolstered Team Europe? Maybe, maybe not. But surely Harrington would have benefited from having more flexibility in determining his lineup. Stricker certainly did. His six picks — Xander Schauffele, Jordan Spieth, Daniel Berger, Tony Finau, Harris English and Scottie Scheffler — injected more youth into an already youthful team, and delivered big: the six U.S. wildcard picks combined for a 10-7-3 record.
5. Bryson and Brooks hugged it out
The 2018 U.S. team was largely derailed by the European’s torrid putting at Le Golf National but also by infighting. Patrick Reed publicly bemoaned captain Jim Furyk’s decision to bench Reed for two sessions and break up his partnership with Jordan Spieth. Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka also had a riff, reportedly nearly coming to blows at a team party Sunday night.
This year’s team seemed destined for more disruption. Just a week before the event, Koepka offered a less-than-ringing endorsement for the Ryder Cup when in an interview with Golf Digest he described the week as busy and “odd,” with a scarcity of time to decompress. (Earlier this week, Koepka stressed, “I never said it was negative. I said it was different.”) Koepka’s mood and play can be hard to predict, but he didn’t sound like a guy who was ready to run through a wall to win points.
Then there was Koepka’s longstanding riff with Bryson DeChambeau. Would that toxicity spill into the team room and/or press conferences?
Neither of these concerns materialized. Koepka did troll DeChambeau with a tweet after the opening ceremony and childishly squabbled with a rules official in his Saturday foursomes match, but otherwise showed up to play, winning twice. He and DeChambeau also appeared to find common ground in team dinners and, ultimately, with a hug — albeit a highly manufactured hug — in the U.S. team’s Sunday evening press conference. Is Bryson vs. Brooks history? Don’t bet on it. But for one week at least, they mostly put aside their differences and came together for the good of the team.
6. Patrick Reed stayed home
Of all the calls Stricker made to alert potential captain’s picks that they didn’t make the team, Stricker said his call to Reed — a Ryder Cup dynamo — was the toughest. “Kind of lost sleep over that one,” Stricker said. Left unsaid, however, was that leaving Reed off the squad reduced the chances of any more Team USA weirdness. Reed is as gritty a match-player as any top American and might well have been a force for good in Wisconsin, but that pettiness in Paris won’t soon be forgotten by the deciders of future U.S. teams.
7. Home-crowd advantage
Ryder Cup crowds are always one-sided, but this week in Wisconsin the galleries were especially star-spangled. With the pandemic preventing European fans from traveling en masse across the Atlantic, blue-and-gold loyalists were so outnumbered that it was hard to find them (I know because I tried). Harrington said he was surprised by how few Europeans were on site, while McIlroy added that even in normal years it has become increasingly harder to win on the road.
“It seems the way the Ryder Cup is going, the home team certainly has an advantage every time that we play this thing,” said McIlroy, who went a listless 1-3. “That was apparent in Paris a couple years ago. I think it was pretty apparent this week, as well. You go back to Hazeltine, same sort of thing. This is the pattern that we are on.”
8. Stricker’s “chill confidence”
Stricker said his job this week started two and a half years ago. But really it started way earlier, in his role as assistants for other teams. He first began absorbing captaining do’s and don’ts in 2014, when he was Ryder Cup vice-captain for Tom Watson. Two years, later he performed the same duty for Davis Love III. He also was a vice-captain on Jay Haas’s Presidents Cup team, a role he repeated in 2019 for Tiger Woods.
Stricker also played on three Ryder Cup teams, including at Medinah in 2012, when the Europeans came back from four points down in singles to prevail. “I think we learned a lot of lessons from 2012,” he said. “Probably the thing I can say is that we didn’t do a good job putting our lineup out on Sunday. Not that we took it for granted by any stretch of the imagination, but we just could have done better with it.” This week, Stricker’s lineups were nearly flawless. “Let’s be honest,” DJ said after a few post-victory libations. “Captain Strick did an unbelievable job of putting us all in the best position we could be in to win our matches.”
Stricker’s hands-off style appeared to be an excellent fit for this loaded team: stand back and let the horses run. If his guys wanted to grab a nap or a workout, they were free to do so. (Spieth said the vibe was more Presidents Cup than Ryder Cup.) Sticker didn’t wear out his guys in the team room either. He’s not much of a talker; in fact, on Sunday evening he revealed that he doesn’t like to talk at all. There were no Lombardi-like speeches, no pep talks from presidents, no hype videos. Just a few quiet words of encouragement.
“He’s got this chill confidence to him, and I think when I say that, most of you know what I’m talking about,” Finau said. “He’s doesn’t talk a lot. In our team meetings he hasn’t too much. But you can tell the energy he has for the Ryder Cup, the passion he has for it, just by the way he goes about his business.”
This week’s business: domination.