Lessons From Hazeltine: What Our Staff Will Remember From the 2016 Ryder Cup
The 41st Ryder Cup is in the books, and what a week it was. Our staff takes a moment to collect what will be memorable going forward.
The Joys of an Emergency Nine
A Ryder Cup – any Ryder Cup – produces more noise than three ordinary Tour events combined. The roars out of Amen Corner at Augusta are stirring, and they literally rise, as the 12th green there is probably the lowest part of the course. But at a Ryder Cup you have many more fans and on Ryder Cup Friday and Saturday in particular, they are all following a grand total of four groups. Really, there aren’t that many courses that can accommodate a Ryder Cup. Ahead of everything else, it needs to be big, big enough to accommodate 50,000 fans all of whom want to sit at the 50-yard-line.
Crowd noise is part of the reason Ryder Cups are so intense. The player’s ability to engage the fans is why Patrick Reed, with only two notches on his Ryder Cup belt, is already part of its permanent lore. The roar of the crowd is why Amy Mickelson’s legs were covered with chill bumps on a warm day when her husband, the left-handed American golfer Phil Mickelson, made a birdie on 14 late on Saturday afternoon to put him and his partner, Matt Kuchar, 3 up against the European team of Martin Kaymer and Sergio Garcia. A close Ryder Cup on a sunny Saturday afternoon is as loud as golf gets. Loud, populated, concentrated – intense.
Which is why I was so struck by a site I saw Saturday afternoon that I had never seen before at a Ryder Cup. Four American players had Saturday afternoon off, Rickie Fowler, Zach Johnson, Brandt Snedeker and Jimmy Walker. On this Saturday afternoon, in the lush sunshine of Chaska, Minn., bright light reflecting off its lakes, two of the gents went off and played some golf.
Who doesn’t like to play golf on a perfect autumn Saturday afternoon when the course is empty, the greens are perfect and you’re not needed at home to trim the hedges?
At about 3 p.m., Johnson and Snedeker and their caddies gathered on the first tee and headed out for a quick nine. The real action was all on the back nine. They played before no fans, no marshals, no security officials, no TV cameras. Except for their matching uniforms and XL golf bags, you would have just thought it was a twosome of excellent golfers going out for a so-called emergency nine after a morning game, and in a way maybe that’s what it was. Not a find-your-game emergency. The concept of the emergency nine is to either settle a bet or extend the fun. Or in this case, stay sharp.
There could have been 50,000 fans out their cheering on the four matches in progress, but two of the guys with all-area passes were just playing the course instead. They knew, of course, that they would have one more crack at it.
That came on Sunday, when everybody plays and the crowds are far more spread out. Sunday noise at a Ryder Cup is actually less intense than what you hear on Saturday. Snedeker, going off eighth against Andy Sullivan, won 3 and 1. Johnson, in the last twosome of the day, defeated Matt Fitzpatrick, 4 and 3.
In victory, Snedeker said the presence of Bubba Watson made the Sunday difference. “He was in my ear all day, walking with me every step of the way, letting me know he was supporting me 100 percent,” Snedeker said.
Johnson, after his win, said some scripture he had recited helped him get through his match. As the song says: whatever gets you through the night.
Only a heathen or a fool would dismiss those two influences. The Bible? Bubba? Please! But the serenity of the quiet Saturday afternoon two-ball golf the two golfers had must have helped, too.
Watching Tiger Watch Golf
It wasn’t clear why Hunter Mahan was at this Ryder Cup, but the 272nd-ranked player in the world was there Saturday morning in the 5th fairway, following Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed.
Mahan was dressed in black, a headset draped over his neck, and with a pink media bib, he blended in. Nonetheless, I noticed him only as he approached (and surprised) American vice captain Tiger Woods. As they exchanged pleasantries, Reed walked over and asked, “What the hell are you doing here?” He was there to watch the greatest exhibition in golf, I suppose, but also to talk shop with Woods, a conversation that would offer a rare, unfiltered look at Woods’s weekend inside the ropes.
It was all business. Mahan joked about Tiger’s build, his plans for playing the Safeway Open, etc., but anything that wasn’t Ryder Cup related was just quick distraction from Woods’ focus. “You see the way this Pieters kid hits it?” Woods asked, turning the conversation.
“If you turn the ball over, you’re fine. If you’re spinning it, you’re kicking up mud,” Woods continued, citing the frequent mud balls players were dealing with, and why a Friday evening shot by Dustin Johnson splashed into the water hazard on 16. “That’s the thing I’ve learned by sitting on the sidelines,” Woods told Mahan. “You don’t know exactly what’s going on.”
Soon, Mahan backed off into the crowd, Reed rammed in another birdie putt, and the match continued on its way. Two holes later, Reed’s drive flirted with Lake Hazeltine. Woods phoned in the details on his two-way headset.
Fifteen minutes later, Reed finished off a miraculous up-and-down birdie. Spieth whipped around to the crowd, punching his left hand into the air. If not for his violent celebration, he would have noticed Woods’s golf cart drive past, on to the 8th hole. For the first time I saw that day, captain Woods was smiling. He was pumping his fist, too.
More Match Play Please!
Memo to The Olympics:
This is what you passed up by opting for stroke play to decide an individual gold-medal winner instead of team match play.
You missed Patrick Reed versus Rory McIlroy finger-waggling, bowing, holding an ear and shouting, “I can’t hear you!”
You missed Sergio Garcia holing a big putt and holding up his arms in a quizzical way and asking, “What happened? What happened?”
You missed the Americans making Lee Westwood putt out an 18-incher on one of the early foursomes holes—an insulting gesture—and then you missed Westwood incredibly blowing the putt.
Team match play is the most exciting format in golf. Period. You may have noticed that the NCAA Championships, formerly contested at stroke play for teams, has gained some traction as a television golf entity since it switched its national championships to team match play. It’s not a coincidence.
For all the accolades and fun of Olympic golf in Rio, it didn’t hold a candle to the Ryder Cup. Why? Match play gets personal. Reed and Rory exemplified it. Phil Mickelson and Sergio embodied it, too, in a more dignified way as they traded birdies—19 in all—in a game of can-you-top-this?
You remember that Justin Rose won the gold medal in Rio. Do you remember any of his shots? I didn’t think so. How about any of women’s gold medalist Inbee Park’s shots? Exactly.
I can name dozens of shots from the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National, and the U.S. won by six points. Ryan Moore’s unlikely eagle. Westwood gassing the tiddler at the end of Saturday’s play. Jordan Spieth’s chip-in. Matt Kuchar’s monster putt and awkward celebration. Plus, there’s more patriotism involved with a national team. Combine that with making it personal in match play and bingo, you’ve got a global Ryder Cup called The Olympics.
The beauty and passion of team match play is that every shot matters. Your supporters root for each one, your opponents root against each one. While it was a delight that a Russian woman shot 62 in Rio, her performance didn’t engender any real emotion from the viewing audience. Had the Russian women been playing the Ukraine women in the gold-medal final, however unlikely that would be, the Reed-and-Rory Show would have been mere kid stuff.
Congratulations on Rio, Olympic Games. The golf was fun. Too bad it wasn’t do or die like the Ryder Cup. Think about it before 2020.
—Gary Van Sickle
Give ’Em Five!
In the run-up to the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National, Tom Lehman told me that “the par-5s seem to be the key nearly every time with the U.S.” The Minnesota native—himself a three-time Ryder Cup player, the 2006 captain and a vice captain for this year’s team—went on to say that after doing considerable research, “we’ve figured out that the times we’ve gotten beat, we’ve gotten spanked on the par-5s. The times we’ve won, we’ve done better on the par-5s. So the focus would be to see how we can play the par-5s better.” Mission accomplished, Tom.
Critical to the U.S. racing out to a 9½–to–6½ lead after the first two days of competition was how the Yanks fared on Hazeltine’s daunting par-5s. In the statistical head-to-head, they beat Europe in nearly every category. In total, the teams played 61 par-5 holes. The U.S. won 17 of them, Europe 12 and 32 were halved. The aggressive, successful tactics yielded 32 U.S. birdies, compared to 26 for Europe. The U.S. had just two bogeys plus a Mickelson-influenced double, while Europe posted four bogeys. If it wasn’t utter domination by the U.S. on the par-5s, at least the Yanks were clearly better.
Leading the par-5 brigade was Ryder Cup warrior Patrick Reed, with his able partner, Jordan Spieth. Over 15 par-5s as a team, they won seven, lost two and halved six. In all, they recorded nine birdies and an eagle on those holes.
Special mention goes to long-ball specialist Brooks Koepka. He and partner Brandt Snedeker won all three of their par-5 holes with birdies while drubbing Martin Kaymer and Danny Willett 5 and 4 in the Friday afternoon four-ball. They were able to string together three pars and a birdie to break even in a Saturday morning foursomes match that went to the Americans, 3 and 2. And in the long-drive competition that defined the Saturday afternoon fourball matching Koepka and Dustin Johnson versus Rory McIlroy and Thomas Pieters, Koepka and DJ birdied all four par-5s, winning two and halving two, an admirable performance in a 3 and 1 loss.
My conversation with Lehman concluded with his simple statement, “The par-5s are going to be big.” Well played, U.S.A.
When it was announced that the lead singles match for the 41st Ryder Cup would be Patrick Reed vs. Rory McIlroy, social media exploded and the excitement around the biennial matches actually grew—something I didn’t think was possible. The two had emerged as the alphas on the course during the first two days of competition, but I worried that the match may not live up to the hype. Wrong!
Nothing proved that more than the par-3 8th hole, and I had a front-row seat to two of the most memorable moments in Ryder Cup history. After halving the par-4 7th with birdies, McIlroy and Reed both hit average approach shots into the 8th. McIlroy was away, putting from the front of the green, up the hill, from about 60 feet. As he struck the putt, I lost sight of the hole on the green and didn’t locate it again until his ball was about six inches away. “That’s going in,” I thought to myself, and sure enough it did. McIlroy exploded with emotion and anger, physically shaking and yelling at the crowd, one of the most electric moments I have ever witnessed on a golf course. That is, until Reed putted for his birdie.
He faced about a 15-footer to halve the hole— a hole that for the mere mortal would have shrunk to the size of a thimble the second McIlroy made his putt. Not for Captain America, though. Reed drained his putt and wagged his finger at McIlroy as if to say, “Not so fast.” The crowd absolutely erupted and sent chills up my spine.
Under the circumstances, the exchange of birdie putts and celebrations was the single greatest thing I have ever witnessed. It made my first Ryder Cup an unforgettable one.
Playing with Pontoons
Ten miles from the site of the 41st Ryder Cup in Minnesota, there’s a golf course substituting pontoon boats for carts.
Now this is how you grow the game.
Stonebrooke Golf Club is an 18-hole course located in Shakopee, Minnesota, just a short drive south of Hazeltine National. It’s a fine course with $64 weekend rates and charges $47 for twilight play. The club’s restaurant is good, too.
But what sets Stonebrooke apart from other venues is that is claims the state’s most unique 8th hole, a short par-4 where a pontoon loads up your golf carts and takes you south across Lake O’Dowd, dropping you off on the other side to the fairway.
The 7th at Stonebrooke is a great par-3 with water hard left and a glistening lake view as a backdrop. After it, just across the cart path, the 8th tee sits elevated and stares down a treacherous carry. It’s only about 180 yards, depending on the tees, and if you find the fairway – without getting caught in the tall trees to the right, which guard the green for those looking for short cuts – it’s only about 120 yards to the green. The hole is the No. 10 handicap and plays 380 yards from the tips.
While hitting on the 8th tee, an employee will hop in your group’s carts and drive them onto the pontoon. After hitting, you shuffle down a few steps and find a comfortable spot on the massive boat, which escorts you on a two-to-three minute joy ride across one of Minnesota’s more than 10,000 lakes. The pontoon even sells beer!
The boat drops you off on a large dock on the other side of the water and, after the gate’s lifted, you saddle up in your cart and, hopefully, drive into the fairway.
Ryder Reputation Rebuilt
Two years ago at Gleneagles Phil Mickelson sat on the far right side of the dais as the losing 2014 U.S. Ryder Cup team met the press. It was from that seat, with five players between himself and captain Tom Watson, that Mickelson carefully and meticulously picked apart Watson’s captaincy.
On Sunday night at Hazeltine, in the winner’s press conference for the U.S. team, the shift was apparent and the transformation was complete. Mickelson was center stage, next to captain Davis Love. There was buzzed laughter instead of passive-aggressive comments with a shiny trophy passed around instead of blame.
Phil had won.
There is no doubt that Mickelson went down with the ship in that infamous press conference at Gleneagles. (When asked of the added pressure on him this week, Mickelson coyly said, “The pressure started when some dumbass opened his mouth two years ago.) Likewise, there is no doubt that’s precisely what he intended. Mickelson does nothing off the cuff; he knew the ramifications of what he was doing and the consequences it would have for future U.S. Ryder Cup teams, as well as for himself.
In his mind, blowing the whistle was worth it. That much was evident by the the pure joy on his face as he showered fans with champagne at the closing ceremonies, even pouring some directly in Jordan Spieth’s mouth.
In the two years since the last Ryder Cup, Mickelson has been the galvanizing force in a gut renovation of the U.S. approach to this event. He was one of the founding members of the 11-man task force created to direct more energy and resources to the team. As a part of that group, he was instrumental in choosing Love as the captain of this year’s squad.
He, alongside vice captain Tiger Woods, banded together to put more emphasis on winning the Cup than they ever did as team anchors in the 2000s. Mickelson organized his Tuesday matches in the last two seasons with one eye toward this week. He wasn’t the captain, or even a vice-captain. He was the wise man, the leader, the alpha. For his entire career, Mickelson has been mentioned second behind Woods. This week Woods stood behind Mickelson on the range with a walkie talkie as Mickelson prepped for his opening foursomes match. The script had been flipped.
As he walked across a bridge to the locker room, Mickelson hugged friends and dished out thumbs-up left and right. Someone handed him a bottle of champagne.
Two years in the making, Mickelson had won.