Fact or Fiction: What's wrong with the U.S. Ryder Cup team?

Tuesday September 9th, 2008
The U.S. team and its entourage sat together during the Sunday singles in Ireland in '06, but couldn't replicate the togetherness and determination of the Europeans.
Robert Beck/SI

Trying to figure out why the U.S. has lost five of the last six Ryder Cups has become a parlor game for golf fans everywhere. Which theories hold up?

The Europeans are simply better golfers than the Americans.

You can make the case that the European teams have been deeper than the American teams over the past five Cups, but the most significant factor is this: The U.S. team, during its recent losing streak, has had Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. Tiger and Phil! The Euros, for talent on paper, have had no one-two punch remotely equal. Two of the best golfers in history have played on every American Ryder Cup team since 1997. And in those matches the U.S. is 1-4. Having Mickelson and Woods playing for 10 points between them (when they are not paired together) should all but guarantee U.S. victories. Mickelson and Woods should easily be able to combine for seven points. By that math the U.S. would need only 71/2 points from its 10 other players to win. False.

The Europeans are more accustomed to match play.

The Europeans played lots of matches as juniors, and in days gone by continued to do so as pros during match-play money games during practice rounds. That hasn't been the case for 20 years. Partially true.

The Europeans are tougher.

Sure, there's Monty in his Gucci loafers, but for the most part the European players grew up working class, didn't go to college and, as pros, don't make as much money as their American counterparts. We're not saying that their country-club childhoods and plush U.S. collegiate careers have made the American golfers soft, but ... actually, that's exactly what we're saying. True.

The Europeans putt better than the Americans.

Nick Faldo, Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia and Colin Montgomerie, among others, all tormented American golfers in various Ryder Cups with lights-out putting, then went back to being indifferent putters in majors and other stroke-play tournaments. To paraphrase Bobby Jones, there is putting and there is match-play putting with a partner, and they are not at all the same. The Euros somehow take better advantage of the team-putting mentality. Partially true.

The Europeans have fielded better teams.

The won-lost column doesn't lie. True.

The courses favor the Europeans.

The home team chooses the course and how it will be set up. Besides, the European courses since '97 — Valderrama in Spain, the Belfry in England and the K Club in Ireland — are as American as anything you'd find in southern Illinois. False.

The Presidents Cup hurts U.S. Ryder Cup play.

For Tiger, probably for Phil, maybe for Jim Furyk more than he knows, giving up a week of your life every year to represent your country in an essentially meaningless exhibition can take a toll. These three signed up as kids to play a solitary sport for personal enrichment, and for one week a year they are out of their element. Still, most players regard the freebie week as a career highlight. Partially false.

The Europeans have had better captains.

Winning captains always look better than losing captains. (Theory Number 2 applies to captains too.) Seve Ballesteros was way into Tom Kite's head. Sam Torrance brought his wife, while Curtis Strange brought Mike Hulbert. Bernhard Langer was cool, Hal Sutton overwrought. And Tom Lehman was much too serious, while Ian Woosnam was the ultimate good-time Charlie. True.

The Europeans are loose; the Americans are tight.

Just look at them. The Euros treat the Ryder Cup as an all-expenses-paid holiday, with an open bar and a nightly all-you-can-eat buffet. The Americans, of course, have the same banquet spread before them, but not the same attitude. They see no novelty in it. After all, they play on a Tour that does not equate golf with fun. How can they be expected to suddenly switch gears? They can't. True.

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