GLENEAGLES, Scotland -- Despite all the talk of veteran Phil Mickelson, 44, and super-veteran Tom Watson, 65, the oldest captain in the history of the Ryder Cup, four American twenty-somethings could wind up being the difference maker at this week’s 40th Ryder Cup at Gleneagles.
Unburdened by past failures, infectious with their enthusiasm, and aggressive by nature, Keegan Bradley, Rickie “USA” Fowler, Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth could spark a U.S. upset. (Webb Simpson, 29, also has yet to turn 30, but somehow seems too grown up to include here.) Much the same way that Bradley revitalized Mickelson at the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah, the youngest four Americans, if all goes to plan, could revitalize a beleaguered U.S. side that has lost seven of the last nine Ryder Cups.
“The youth, as I said, they can very often determine who wins and who loses the matches,” Tom Watson said.
If American fans want to blame this two-decades-plus Ryder Cup funk on anything, they can fault the dusty, old Ryder chestnut that says experience trumps all. It does not, and that tragic misconception has led to some terrible moments from supposedly composed veterans. Chief among these was 40-year-old captain’s pick Curtis Strange making three straight bogeys to lose his singles match to Nick Faldo as Europe won a squeaker in 1995. And Steve Stricker, another captain’s pick, looking all of his 45 years and then some as he went 0-4-0 at the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah.
Today, conventional wisdom has begun to swing in favor of young legs, young nerves and new blood. For that we can thank Bradley, or 28-year-old Billy Hoschel’s amazing play in the FedEx Cup. (Don’t believe for a second that Tom Watson wouldn’t shave his own head to have Horschel on this team.)
Spieth, who at 21 is the youngest player on either team, was talking the other day about the 2010 Junior Ryder Cup, which also was played at Gleneagles. The course hasn’t changed much in the last four years, Spieth said, and the U.S. team room occupies the same space as it did at the Junior Ryder Cup at the Gleneagles Hotel. But there’s one big difference.
“It's got a full bar -- that's different from the Junior Ryder Cup,” Spieth said. “Ping-Pong tables, we may have had those in Junior Ryder Cup. But there weren't pictures of guys on the team that have won many majors and many PGA Tour events. You've got the physio boards for guys to work on you. That wasn’t there for the Junior Ryder Cup.”
These young Americans have a history of match play success.
Rickie Fowler, 25, went 3-1-0 at the 2007 Walker Cup, 4-0-0 at the 2009 Walker Cup, and 0-1-2 at the 2010 Ryder Cup. His epic birdie-birdie-birdie finish to scratch out a half a point in his match against Edoardo Molinari remains one of the highlights from Celtic Manor.
Reed, 24, won key matches over Harris English and Peter Uihlein to lead Augusta State to back-to-back NCAA championships in 2010 and 2011.
The best preparation for this week, Spieth said, was not the 2010 Junior Ryder Cup, even though Spieth went 3-0-0 and the U.S. won. Nor did he get the fullest sense of the Ryder Cup at the 2011 Walker Cup, where Spieth again went undefeated (2-0-1). No, his best preparation for this week came at the 2013 Presidents Cup at Muirfield Village, where he went 2-2-0.
“I really don't feel like a rookie,” Spieth said, “partly because of last year's experience of playing in The Presidents Cup. That was at least international professional competition. And a lot of these [2014 U.S. Ryder Cup team members] are the same guys that were on that team.”
Keegan Bradley, 28, is Team USA’s most explosive young player, and after going 3-0-0 with partner Mickelson at the 2012 Ryder Cup, the dynamic duo figure to be paired together again at Gleneagles. Bradley is not just a Ryder Cup nut, he is so energized and transformed by the event he’s the closest thing America has to its own Ian Poulter. Bradley even scared himself after holing a putt during one of his and Mickelson’s matches at Medinah; the gangly Vermonter screamed so loud he saw stars and briefly thought he might pass out right there on the green. Mickelson cracks up when he tells the story. The pairing of Bradley with the sometimes-creaky Mickelson has been a stroke of genius, knocking years off of Mickelson.
Last month Bradley found out he’d made Watson’s 2014 U.S. team as a captain’s pick, and Bradley tells golf.com, “I texted Phil immediately. I just sent him, Pardsyyyyyy with a long ‘y,’ so he knew I was on the team.”
Still, Bradley said he will try to dial down his enthusiasm this week. He now believes that his demonstrative play at Medinah may have sapped his strength by the time the event reached Saturday afternoon and Sunday.
“I wore myself out,” he said. “I was running around, jumping around, playing a lot before [the matches began]. So I'm trying my very best to get some rest, not go out there and beat balls and putt and go crazy, because it's possible you could play 36 a day for two days in the most pressure, most mentally-wearing pressure. That's my biggest thing now, is to conserve.”
Bradley and Mickelson are a better-than-average bet to play in the lead match Friday, and the scuttlebutt around Gleneagles on Wednesday was that Bradley was already having the same energizing effect on his older partner as Mickelson rolled in birdies all over the course.
“Man, he is playing so good,” Bradley said.
Spieth has paired with Matt Kuchar and Reed in practice. Fowler could wind up pairing with Jim Furyk, again, or with Reed. Whatever the pairings, if the American twenty-somethings are on, look out. They may just lay the groundwork for an electrifying Yankee uprising.