This year's Ryder Cup is the most important meeting between the Americans and Europeans since the chippy War on the Shore in 1991. The matchup at Hazeltine earned its standing two years ago, the moment that Europe's Jamie Donaldson stuffed his wedge in the final singles match against Keegan Bradley at Gleneagles in Scotland. The scoreboard read: Europe, 16½; USA, 11 ½. It had happened again. For the eighth time in the last 10 meetings, the Europeans had walked away with the Ryder Cup.
While the victors partied into the wee hours—the next morning, Donaldson told a Sky Sports reporter that he was "still drunk"—the Americans crossed the Atlantic once again as losers, sans Phil Mickelson, who took his own private jet back to California. Tom Watson’s second go-round as team captain was a complete failure, Mickelson's post-event press conference remarks revealed a schism between players and administration, and even though the U.S. had the higher-rated squad (average World Ranking of 16.3 vs. 19.9), the Yanks were thoroughly whipped.
Two weeks later, the PGA of America created a Ryder Cup task force; the 11-person group consisted of PGA executives, players and former captains. It was nothing less than a desperate attempt to change the fortunes of Americans in the biennial battle that it used to dominate. The press release read: "The Ryder Cup is our most prized competitive asset, and the PGA of America is committed to utilizing our utmost energy and resources to support one of the biggest events in all of sport." That only begged the question: What had the PGA been doing before?
The announcement brought snide if predictable remarks from the opposition. Lee Westwood tweeted, "What a massive pat on the back & confidence booster it is for Europe that team USA needs to create a Ryder Cup task force!!" The red, white and blue target on the U.S. grew.
Perhaps Westwood's teammate Rory McIlroy said it best. "I get the sense that the States, what with their task force and everything that came out in the announcement yesterday, that they're desperate to win back the Ryder Cup. It's not rocket science why Europe has won the last three Ryder Cups and eight of the last 10."
Four months later, task force member Davis Love III was named U.S. captain for the second time. (Love led the 2012 squad, which lost in the Miracle at Medinah after a Sunday singles collapse.) For all the talk of a new and fresh approach, Love, who will surely be a fine captain, represented a decided in-the-box strategy. It was an unimaginative choice at best, especially after witnessing at Gleneagles the effect a captain can have. Europe's leader, Paul McGinley, was described by Ryder veteran Sergio Garcia as "a modern captain who took care of every single detail." McGinley's most notable move was his handling of rookie Victor Dubuisson of France. Knowing the shy and aloof youngster was most likely going to make the team after solid play in early 2014, McGinley penciled in Dubuisson and steady Graeme McDowell as a future partnership. He asked that they be paired at two European tour events, and the players developed a solid relationship before they arrived at Gleneagles. Not coincidentally Dubuisson and McDowell rolled to a pair of foursomes victories, winning 3 and 2 and 5 and 4.
Meanwhile, the old-school Watson essentially allowed Webb Simpson to text his way onto the team as a captain's pick, benched hot if streaky rookies Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed for afternoon sessions, and he reportedly opened his Saturday-night pep talk (with the U.S. trailing 10-6) by saying, "You stink at foursomes." It was more proof that, even though they don't take a single swing, captains can make a significant difference.
Almost 18 months later, the European team is set, and the deadline for Love to make his four captain’s picks is looming. And the pressure on the Americans has only intensified. Current betting odds have the U.S. as a slight favorite. How can the Europeans be an underdog, you ask? Well, the roster features six Ryder Cup rookies, and five players are 40th or higher in the World Ranking. (The winning 2014 team had three rookies and only one player ranked 40th or above). The biggest thorn in America’s side isn’t even on the team. Ian Poulter, who owns a 12-4-2 Ryder Cup record, will serve as a vice-captain after an injury has kept him out of play since June.
Depending on captain's picks, the U.S. has a chance to be the most balanced in recent memory with a mix of bombers (Dustin Johnson, Jimmy Walker and Brooks Koepka) and fantastic putters (Spieth, Brandt Snedeker and Zach Johnson). And don't discount the potential additions of Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler.
It has been two years in the making, but this Ryder Cup is the moment the U.S. squad must seize. The renewed emphasis on the event has only amped up the pressure. The Yanks cannot leave Hazeltine as losers while the Europeans pop champagne once more.
If it happens again, what's next?