The Real Reason the U.S. Thrives at the Prez Cup, Dies at the Ryder Cup

October 5, 2015

Since 1979, when the Ryder Cup expanded to include golfers from all of Europe and not just Great Britain, the United States has seen its traditional dominance in the bi-annual event completely disappear. In the 18 competitions since the switch, Europe has won 10 times, the U.S. seven, plus one tie. And since 1995, the Americans have claimed just 46% of the total points contested. However, over a similar time period and featuring essentially the same U.S. team members, the American squad has dominated the Presidents Cup, claiming 55% of the available points and winning eight of the 10 competitions, plus one tie. So, is the U.S. simply snake-bit in the Ryder Cup?

The data doesn’t support that conclusion. In fact, there are two key factors that explain the comparative dominance of the U.S. team in the Presidents Cup versus their struggles at the Ryder Cup – without looking at intangibles like camaraderie and language barriers.

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1. Opposition

The single biggest contributor to the gap in success between the U.S. Presidents and Ryder Cup teams is the fact that the International opposition is simply less talented than the Europeans. Looking at the scoring averages in all regular worldwide events for the last three International teams (2009, 2011, and 2013) and the last three European teams (2010, 2012, and 2014), the Europeans were roughly 1.6 strokes better than the PGA Tour average, while members of the International squad outplayed the field by just 1.1 strokes That gap may look small in absolute terms, but it actually represents the difference between a team where the average golfer is the 15th best player in the world and a team where the average golfer is 40th best in the world.

When you consider that the average U.S. team member over the last seven years has also played about 1.6 strokes better than the Tour average, it’s clear that the Americans have been able to leverage that slight advantage in talent in almost every match. Of course, in the Ryder Cup, that advantage disappears and they’re stuck competing on a more level playing field.

2. Match Structure

It’s generally accepted that the U.S. teams are always deeper than either the European or International sides, and the numbers seem to back that up. In the 2012 and 2014 Ryder Cups, a single European player competed in all five matches four times while a U.S. player did so just twice. In other words, the Americans tend to rely on depth while the Europeans lean on their elite players.

But prior to this year, the Presidents Cup was formatted so that at least eight golfers on each team had to play all five matches. That meant that the International side was unable to rely heavily on their elite talent (such as Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Adam Scott, and Retief Goosen) and had to match up against a deeper and statistically more talented U.S. squad. Plus, the structure of the two events has played a role in the outcomes. The Presidents Cup has traditionally been contested as a best of 34 matches while the Ryder Cup only has 28 matches. Shorter contests generally work in the underdog’s favor because they are more likely to be able to leverage a smaller number of breaks in their favor to earn a victory. In the Presidents Cup, the International side has had to overcome a deeper and more talented U.S. to take 18 points; if they had played under Ryder Cup rules, they would only have had to win 15 matches to claim the Cup. Of course, the reduction in matches to 30 at this year’s President’s cup could prove an opportunity—however slight— for the International team. Even so, the U.S team still heads to South Korea as the significant favorite once again.

If the U.S. does collect their ninth win in 11 tries, it doesn’t mean that success will carry over into next year’s Ryder Cup. But we already knew that, didn’t we?