American sport does not want for hubris. Neither do its sports writers. One such, Alan Shipnuck, a revered golf chronicler across the aqua, went full bicep flex at the back end of last year with the punchy proclamation that the Ryder Cup was dead.
Shipnuck wanted to get in early with the idea of American omnipotence, that Europe would meet the same end in Paris as they did at Haseltine, lying prone with throats exposed to boots covered in stars and stripes.
And not only that. The same outcome is a foregone conclusion over at least the next decade, the necessary result of a generational talent pool Europe cannot match, coupled with the impact of time’s creep on the golden age of European Ryder giants, Ian Poulter, Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy,” screeched Shipnuck in his Golf.com column.
“The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefiting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris. This will be the first American win on European soil in a quarter century and, coming on the heels of an overpowering U.S. win in ’16, will set the stage for a decade-plus of blowouts, sapping the intrigue out of the Ryder Cup.”
ROCK ON TOMMY
Having made his point Shipnuck is not letting go as the event hoves into view. One Twitter dissenter fighting the European cause suggested he is overlooking emerging European beasts like Tommy Fleetwood, and that he would be eating his words in Paris, to which he responded.
“The only thing I’m gonna be eating are a bunch of fluffy crepes. I love everything about Fleetwood and expect him to play well but the US has ten just like him.”
At this point, the mighty Tommy himself stepped in, with a response that tells us how little the European players are concerned with America’s testosterone overload. “None of them have long hair and almost all of them are taller than me. They also have American accents and mine is English, and my wife is 20 years older than me!”
Well said, Tommy. The problem with the American power argument is that for the most part it could have been made for each of the matches played out during Europe’s dominant period from 1985 to 2014, during which Europe won or retained the Ryder Cup 11 times to America’s four. By almost every measure American golf is the global leader.
The Amateur infrastructure built around the collegiate system is an unparallelled finishing school for the professional sport. The PGA Tour is the richest in the world, swamping its European counterpart, attracting the best players to the biggest events.
The American team boasts nine different major winners totalling 31 major victories. Only Rory McIlroy of Europe’s five major champions has plundered in plural, contributing half of the eight wins.
SPIRIT OF SEVE
By displaying its peacock feathers thus, the Shipnuck narrative is unwittingly playing into the hands of Europe, a team suffuse in the spirit of the underdog, whose very being is rooted in a kind of David and Goliath complex, whose founding father Seve Ballesteros was the embodiment of the guerilla golfer taking down the American foe one ambush at a time.
Tony Jacklin, the captain who marshalled the Ballesteros zeitgeist to inflict a first defeat on America in almost 30 years at the Belfry in 1985, the first of three successive victories, made it his business to beef up the European proposition by matching the Americans for ambition and bling. He came up with the first team-room, now a staple for both sides.
He insisted that his team travelled to America in 1987 first class on Concorde, that they had the best kit, equipment, bags, shoes, etc, stayed in top hotels. In short, he wanted Europe to think as big as the Americans, to match them for swagger and attitude.
This Jacklin achieved without corrupting the essential European sense of itself as a unique, team unit, always seeing themselves as up against the big dog despite the upgrade in working conditions.
Forty years down the line America paid Europe the ultimate compliment of a task force launched after the 2014 rout at Gleneagles to interrogate the European team ideal, to determine how they might foster the same degree of togetherness, to harvest more from a talent pool that in theory at least ought to give them an edge. At least some of the success at Haseltine was attributed to this process, which copied the European model of captain identification and continuity.
AMERICAN GRAVY TRAIN
What America can never reproduce, however, is the camaraderie and identity birthed by the European Tour experience, which fosters a sense of inclusiveness and familiarity not possible on the PGA Tour, with all its vastness and exclusivity.
The European Tour is both a contest and a club, a much smaller arena in which the players compete by day and dine together by night, engaging in a bonding process utterly absent on the American gravy train.
Though the European leadership group of Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Stenson and Garcia are all PGA Tour stalwarts now they were each conditioned by the same immersion in their early days, sharing flights, digs, and dining rooms. And when the Ryder Cup rolls around it is the collective memory of this common grounding that binds the group.
This is entirely absent on the PGA Tour, which makes it all the more difficult for the American team to grasp the collective dynamic.
Shipnuck and his ilk merely reduce the Ryder Cup to a numbers game believing the money list and world rankings will ultimately play out. The American team are justifiably favourites on paper, arguably one of the strongest assembled in recent years, with Dustin Johnson top of the world rankings and Brooks Koepka and Justin Thomas close behind at no.3 and no.4.
Indeed, one Las Vegas outlet has them winning every session.
Justin Rose sits at no. 2 and Open champion Francesco Molinari, the only major winner in the European team this year, is bunched in the middle of the top ten with McIlroy and Jon Rahm with three more Americans Bryson DeChambeau, Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth making up the top ten.
The United States fields only two rookies, and one of them, DeChambeau, went back to back to win the first two events in the season-ending Fed-Ex Play-offs. The other, Tony Finau is ranked 17 in the world.
The one weak point in the American team might be the impact of a packed schedule in August and September.
Forty-something talismen Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, two of captain Jim Furyk’s picks, have played a lot of golf. And though Woods’ progress over the past ten months has been astonishing, rising more than 1,150 places in the rankings to 13, and Mickelson has registered a first win in five years, no-one can be certain how either will hold up over three days of intense match-play.
Europe have similar concerns over two of their picks, Stenson, who has struggled with a long-term elbow injury, and Garcia, who has not looked like winning a tournament since his Masters success last year.
Europe’s captain, Thomas Bjorn, is invested in the idea that the Ryder Cup environment will reconnect Garcia with his mojo, as it so often has in the past, and that his presence will offset the inexperience of Europe’s five rookies, Fleetwood, Rahm, Alex Noran, Tyrrell Hatton and Thorbjorn Olesen, who earned their selection on the course.
If he is right, and a Le Golf National course unfamiliar to the all-Americans in design and feel plays into European hands, then humble pie might just be on the menu in the United States team room come Sunday night.