Golf

Why does Europe rule in Ryder Cup?

Image: Team USA at Ryder Cup (© Chris Carlson/AP Photo)
The US has won just four of the past 13 Ryder Cups. Can this squad reverse that trend?
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Robert Lusetich

After more than 20 years of covering everything from election campaigns to the Olympic Games, Robert Lusetich turned his focus to writing about his first love: golf. He is author of Unplayable: An Inside Account of Tiger's Most Tumultuous Season. Follow him on Twitter.

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MEDINAH, ILL.

“We suck in the Ryder Cup.” — Johnny Miller

Golf’s most colorful, candid television analyst is right. But how did it get this way?

The Ryder Cup, a biennial exhibition pitting the best American golfers against the best from Britain — later expanded to include Ireland, then continental Europe — was American property virtually from the outset.

The sides split the first four matches, starting in 1927, but from 1935-85, Europe held London businessman Samuel Ryder’s little chalice only once.

As it did in the realms of geopolitics and global economics, the US became a superpower, too, in golf.

By 1977, the Ryder Cup was such a yawn that Tom Weiskopf chose not to play so he could go hunt bears in Alaska and it mattered little as Dow Finsterwald’s team went on the road to Royal Lytham & St Annes and won in a canter, anyway.

But in 1979, the decision to include Europeans — lobbied for by Jack Nicklaus, who wanted to make the matches more competitive — changed everything. Into the picture came the late, great Seve Ballesteros, who wasn’t merely a magical player but a charismatic leader.

It didn’t hurt that the hot-blooded Spaniard was good, too, at holding grudges — against the US golf hierarchy and, later, against many high-profile American players for slights real or imagined.

Ballesteros created an “us against them” mentality and managed to convince teammates not only that they could punch above their world rankings but that their greatest legacy would be to strike down American arrogance and condescension.

Seve’s revolution has been a great success; the balance of power in the Ryder Cup shifting back across the Atlantic, beginning in 1987, when Europe stirringly won for the first time on American soil.

“Something changed at Muirfield Village,” European stalwart Ian Woosnam said of the victory on Jack Nicklaus’ home course.

“We had so much belief, and the Americans started to lose heart. They knew they’d never stuff us again. It had become a proper, well-fought match. We showed them we could win on both sides of the Atlantic.”

Despite usually having the less-accomplished players, Europe has won nine of the past 13 matches and six of eight going into the 37th Ryder Cup, which begins Friday at Chicago’s Medinah Country Club.

There’s not a single player on this US team with a winning record. That's not surprising, said Tiger Woods, who has been on only one winning team (1999) in his career.

“In order to win Cups, you have to earn points, and we certainly have not earned points,” he said.

“And on top of that, I think that Phil (Mickelson), Jim (Furyk) and myself have been put out there a lot during those years. So if we are not earning points, it's tough to win Ryder Cups.”

Indeed, American golf’s Big Three have 19 majors between them, but they’ve won only 32 of 90 matches in their Ryder Cup careers. Mickelson’s 17 losses are an American record. But Furyk, with 15, and Woods, with 14, aren’t far behind.

In contrast, Luke Donald, Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter have won no majors but have prevailed in 30 of their combined 46 Ryder Cup matches.

The reasons for Europe’s domination are many, from the perception that they’re more passionate — for a long time it was believed the US players cared less, especially because they weren’t paid to appear — to the fact that in the words of longtime US player and former captain Lanny Wadkins, “They always make a lot of putts.”

Davis Love III, the US captain at Medinah, concedes that Europe’s players always get up for the Ryder Cup. Colin Montgomerie might have been a bust at majors but was unbeatable in Ryder Cups.

“Monty would come in not playing well and always play well,” Love said, “He made more putts at Ryder Cups than anywhere. And Sergio’s never been one to hole putts, but he makes them from everywhere at Ryder Cups.”

It has been obvious, too, over the years that the American teams have been tighter than their opponents, who have somehow retained the aura of the underdog while being the favorites.

MEASURING CUPS

Did the 39th Ryder Cup compare to the five best of all time?

“Looking back, we have not played our best when we have focused on trying to win the Ryder Cup,” Mickelson said.

“We've played our best when we've had fun, enjoyed each other's company and enjoyed the competition, embraced the gallery and felt the momentum.”

Mickelson cautions against looking too deeply for theories to explain American failures – from lack of bonding to bad captains – because, he said, “Sometimes we just didn’t play well.”

“One of the most fun weeks we've ever had was in '06 (in Ireland) with Tom Lehman as a captain. He was a phenomenal captain, and we played extremely poor,” he said.

Love has been on many teams and, as captain, understands the changing dynamic.

“It’s like the America’s Cup yachting races. I never heard too much about it until we started losing,” he said.

“Everybody got real interested. And now people watch it on TV and there's a lot of sponsors and we talk about it.

“I think the Ryder Cup was like that. We were winning a whole bunch of them, and it wasn't a whole lot of fun, and the PGA of America was having a tough time selling it. But all of a sudden here comes Seve and (Bernhard) Langer, and then it becomes really popular. TV made this something that America really cares about.

“There are golf fans that don't know much about golf other than the Ryder Cup, and I think that's great.

“I think that's why the fans love it so much, and our whole country is interested, because it's the US team. We just went through an Olympics, and this is becoming like the Olympics.”

Except that, of course, the US is always on top at the Olympics.

Tagged: Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III, Seve Ballesteros, Jack Nicklaus

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