Little Things Add Up in Ryder Cup: Europe Has Many Small, Often Hidden Advantages Over Team USA

The Europeans celebrate another Ryder Cup victory at Gleneagles.
Robert Beck/SI

Despite the fact that it would ultimately lose, the 2008 European Ryder Cup team was not an easy one to make. Most of the team’s usual standouts qualified on points, plus a few lesser-known surprises: Soren Hansen and Oliver Wilson. Paul Casey required a captain’s pick, as did Ian Poulter. That left a 23-year-old, up-and-coming German kid on the outside looking in, barely, which seemed like a shame given that Martin Kaymer was almost certainly a lock to play in a bunch of Ryder Cups in the future.

European captain Nick Faldo’s stewardship of that European team has been pretty much universally panned as a flop, but he did at least this right: Faldo invited Kaymer to come to Valhalla as a non-playing assistant, which Kaymer did. He wore a European uniform and an earpiece, drove around in a cart, bonded with future teammates and let the awe factor run its course. He felt the Cup viscerally as opposed to hearing of its enormity secondhand. It was a tiny investment in Europe’s future success, and the preternaturally quiet Kaymer’s presence at rockin’ Valhalla was quickly forgotten about.

If you want to know why Europe keeps winning the Ryder Cup, start with Kaymer at Valhalla, or slumping Sergio Garcia, who will surely be a European captain someday, apprenticing under Colin Montgomerie at the 2010 Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor. Golf is a simple game, but the Ryder Cup is more like a Rubik’s Cube, demanding a series of small, often boring moves that are easy to overlook amid the dazzle of the finished product. That’s why in many cases Team Europe has literally written them down, reams of valuable information passed on from one captain to the next.

After yet another loss at Gleneagles on Sunday, Jim Furyk sat before the world’s press and said, “I haven’t been able to put my finger on it,” this ineffable whatever that keeps pushing Europe to victory -- eight of the last 10 Cups -- and the Americans to defeat. But the idea that there’s one thing, one framework or ideology, is part of the problem. Despite the current American preoccupation with Paul Azinger and his winning pod system at Valhalla in 2008, there is no “it.” We don’t know if Azinger would win again, since he hasn’t gotten the chance, and a system that worked once is not a template.

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The U.S. not only lacks a template, it has confusion about the purpose of the Ryder Cup itself. If the PGA of America can’t be bothered to rehire Azinger, the only captain in the last quarter century who seems to have had a good grasp of strategy, then is winning even the point? Patrick Reed (3-0-1) seemed to think so, but Bubba Watson (0-3-0) sounded like he had another agenda as he said afterward he hoped this Ryder Cup would help grow the game. Matt Kuchar (1-2-0) said he was getting ready for the Frys.com Open.

By and large Europe and the U.S. are equally matched -- enough, at least, so that this should be a closer contest than it has been over the last 20-plus years. But Europe’s clarity of purpose is one of many small, often hidden advantages over Team USA, and little things, as they say, add up.

In retrospect, Kaymer’s invitation to Valhalla worked out nicely for Europe. He earned 2.5 points for the side as the home team won the 2010 Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor by a single point. He built on 2008 and 2010 when he rolled in a pressure-filled, six-foot putt on 18 to dispatch Steve Stricker and clinch the 2012 Cup at Medinah. And Kaymer trounced Bubba Watson 4 and 2 as Europe won the 2014 Cup 16.5-11.5 at Gleneagles.

It’s impossible to quantify the upside to Kaymer’s visit to Valhalla in 2008, but it was worth doing. I ran into two-time Ryder Cupper turned TV commentator Peter Jacobsen at the airport on Monday, and talk turned to the floundering American team. Jacobsen is convinced of the need for big changes. It’s been written that the U.S. captain’s picks should be made two weeks later, allowing the full FedEx Cup to run its course, which seems like a sensible move. But until then, Jacobsen said, FedEx winner Billy Horschel could have been this year’s Kaymer -- a U.S. player in waiting who was brought to Gleneagles to soak up the atmosphere, setting the groundwork for a more prominent Ryder role down the road, possibly as soon as 2016.

Of course Horschel might not have been able to come to Gleneagles. He and his wife just had their first child, a daughter. But Jacobsen’s point is still valid. The question is whether any American PGA Tour pro would fly all the way across the Atlantic just to experience the Cup in such a minor role. It’s not that they’re so rich they don’t care. That tired, old complaint is too simplistic. The Europeans are millionaires, too, and they can’t stop winning. No, the Americans are more likely conflicted. Why throw yourself into a U.S. cause that keeps lurching along one gambit to the next? They may not be able to explain the flawed blueprints, but they can feel it when the U.S. Ryder Cup architecture is wrong. They’re living in it.

If there was ever a road game in which the U.S. should’ve had a shot, this was it. Ian Poulter was not himself. Sergio Garcia and Rory McIlroy got off to a slow start. U.S. rookies Patrick Reed, Jordan Spieth and Jimmy Walker were running around providing precious energy. But where the U.S. should have been poised to take advantage, it was neither nimble enough -- each wrong move by Watson seemed to give way to two more -- nor was it sufficiently prepared, unless your idea of preparation is Rickie Fowler and Ted Bishop’s “USA” haircuts, and Mickelson’s silly “we don’t litigate” jibe.

Phil spoke afterward about being invested in the process in 2008, and while it was an awkward moment with Tom Watson sitting 20 feet away, the point is valid. You can’t overstate the importance of player buy-in; without it there’s no real team behind the uniforms. Without it, Kaymer and Garcia don’t go out of their way just to attend the 2008 and 2010 Cups.

Here’s how little buy-in remains on the American side: Watson led a scouting trip to Gleneagles before the British Open in July, and only Keegan Bradley and Furyk showed up. (For his dedication to the cause Bradley, the emotional weather vane of the U.S. team, wound up benched all day Saturday. No good deed, apparently, shall go unpunished.) Had their attendance been better, the Yanks might have learned, among other things, that Gleneagles is not an easy walk. The holes are linked by long, often uphill slogs.

“I thought they could handle it,” Watson kept saying after everything had gone wrong. His “it” was 36 pressure-packed hole a day. His “they” was a reference to his arthritic frenemy, Mickelson, 44, who faded in Friday foursomes, and Walker, 35, whose heavy legs -- he’d played 54 holes in roughly 30 hours -- showed in his erratic play Saturday afternoon.

You could never imagine European captain Paul McGinley taking such a passive-aggressive swipe at his players. Watson -- and perhaps one or two of his vice-captains, contemporaries Ray Floyd and Andy North, plus the semi-retired Steve Stricker -- seemed to consider the Americans a bunch of mollycoddlers. Heck, Watson’s hiring in the first place implied that his generation had in reserves the kind of grit lacking in today’s millionaire softies. Gruff, Old Tom and his team would set the kids straight.

Some of us bought it. Watson’s popularity in Scotland, for starters, seemed as if it might mitigate against crowd hostility. And his big presence seemed like it might somehow inspire. In hindsight, though, we were stuck in a timeworn Hollywood script in which the taciturn, old legend is pulled out of retirement to lead the boys to one last big score. The Ryder Cup, it turns out, is not a Gene Hackman movie, which explains why the 2014 Cup, for the United States, became a clash of generations that neither side won.

Before captaining the last U.S. Ryder Cup team to win overseas, at the Belfry in 1993, Watson told his players he’d always been lucky. Perhaps that was on his mind Saturday night when, down 10-6, he wagged his finger like Ben Crenshaw at Brookline in 1999. “I’m a big believer in fate,” Crenshaw said, all but calling Team USA’s 14.5-13.5 victory the next day. Europe duplicated the feat in 2012. Watson, needing a similar miracle, didn’t get it.

As Furyk said, he tried. Hal Sutton, Team USA’s big-hatted captain in 2004, also tried. Trying is not enough, nor is throwing some new, half-baked strategy at the wall every other year in the blind hope that something sticks. Just as Tiger and Phil playing side by side couldn’t lead the U.S. out of this mess, Cap’n Tom and friends couldn’t magically manifest red, white and blue birdies by dint of their presence and old school can-do.

Europe’s success is the sum of many small, unsexy decisions, a string of calculated moves often made well in advance and by many constituencies working as one. That’s where the U.S. Ryder Cup effort must go now. Yes, Azinger would be a natural fit as the U.S. captain for 2016, but he may be more effective still as a special advisor to captains in 2016, 2018, 2020 and beyond, keeping Team USA focused and on task. The U.S. Ryder Cup team will have arrived only when Europe’s brain trust take stock of their mounting pile of defeats and are unable to pinpoint any one thing that’s made the difference.

Anything less is hoping for a miracle.

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