American Revival: Players Bought In to Keep the Ryder Cup in the States

October 5, 2016

In the end, democracy won.

For years U.S. Ryder Cup teams have been hampered by the dictatorial style of their captains, self-styled leaders of men who declined to consult with their predecessors and treated the players like cannon fodder. In 2014, Tom Watson brought a Kremlin-style secrecy and paranoia to his captaincy, and after the U.S. lost for the sixth time in the last seven Cups, Phil Mickelson made himself an agent of change by shredding Watson in an exquisitely awkward team press conference. It was the Ryder Cup equivalent of President Reagan saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

In the two angst-filled years that followed, the PGA of America changed everything about the way it runs the Ryder Cup, beginning with a much ballyhooed 11-member task force in which Mickelson was the most activist participant. Davis Love III was part of it too, and when the task force named Love the captain for last week’s 41st Ryder Cup, it was reminiscent of Dick Cheney chairing a committee to find George W. Bush a vice president and then selecting himself. But Love is a consensus-builder at heart, and he sublimated his ego and developed a system dedicated to transparency, communication and collaboration. Love brought an unprecedented five vice captains to Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., including Tiger Woods, who in his ongoing exile suddenly needs the Ryder Cup more than it needs him. Love allowed his veterans to weigh in on his four captain’s picks and changed the qualifying system to allow a hot player to be imported at the last minute; thus Ryan Moore joined the team just five days before the first tee shot was struck. Once the players reached Hazeltine, Love empowered Mickelson to be a de facto playing captain, and the 46-year-old warrior grinded as if his reputation depended on it, which it kind of did. Love let his charges express whom they’d like to play with and often deferred to his vice captains when it came to the pairings. He even employed his designated cart driver, 22-year-old son Dru, as a double agent. “He’s the same age as half my team, and he’s friends with them,” says Love, “so he’ll come up to me and say, Jordan [Spieth] said this, or Rickie [Fowler] said that. Or they’ll be like, Hey, go tell your dad such-and-such. I’ve got all these guys giving me information; my job is just to sift through it.”

There is no better illustration of the dedication to team-building than the fact that Woods texted Mickelson—a careerlong antagonist—so often in the last few months that Amy Mickelson says her hubby and Tiger “were like BFFs.” At Hazeltine the cohesion and buy-in led to players competing with a palpable hunger, and the U.S. swept the opening foursomes session last Friday morning for the first time since 1975, ultimately pounding Europe 17–11. Fittingly, it was Moore who delivered the winning point on Sunday evening, and afterward he deflected the glory, saying, “This was for Davis. I’m just happy I could justify his faith in me.”

Love pushed all the right buttons and Mickelson (who went 2-1-1) enjoyed a cult of personality, but it was Patrick Reed, 26, who defined this victory. In only his second Cup he has emerged as the heart and soul of the U.S. team, the quality of his golf surpassed only by the lustiness of his on-course celebrations. After three sessions Europe had closed the gap to 6 1/2–5 1/2, but on Saturday afternoon Reed led an American surge in four-balls. (Love had considered resting him, but Woods vociferously insisted that Reed play.) With his partner Spieth exhibiting middling play, Reed single-handedly dispatched the top European team of Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose, helping to push the U.S. lead to 9 1/2–6 1/2. By the end of the second day, every American had earned at least one point, the first time that had happened since 1975.

To have any chance in Sunday singles the Europeans needed a fast start, so there was little doubt who captain Darren Clarke would bat leadoff. Throughout the week the fans found an unlikely target in Rory McIlroy. Europe’s alpha male twisted his face into a scowl, and his gestures toward the crowd took on an angry, badass edge; the more McIlroy was heckled, the better he played. Only Reed, whose over-the-top histrionics had the massive galleries at full-throat, seemed capable of combatting McIlroy’s mojo, but Love wavered before submitting his lineup. “The back-office team wanted him first so that’s what we did,” says Love. “I asked one question and they said, ‘No, this is what we’re going to do.'”

At one point on the front nine McIlroy birdied five of six holes but went from 1 up to all square. In a sequence that immediately passed into Ryder Cup lore, McIlroy made a 50-foot birdie putt on the 8th hole, loosed a primal scream and, cupping his ears, bellowed at the gallery, “I can’t hear you!” Reed then buried a 30-footer to halve the hole, celebrating by wagging his finger at his opponent. They exchanged admiring fist bumps, but Rory never recovered, bogeying three of the next five holes and getting closed out by a Reed birdie on 18. Rory, we can’t hear you.

When the Cup was finally clinched, tears flowed among many of the Americans. (Bubba Watson was the leakiest of the bunch, and he didn’t hit a shot, serving as one of Love’s lieutenants after being passed over for Moore.) Jimmy Walker called it “the ultimate team victory. Every player, every caddie, every vice captain felt like they had a voice, and everyone felt deeply invested in our success.” Listening in, Walker’s wife, Erin, said, “Your headline should be TASK FORCE WINS 17-11.”

That’s selling the U.S. players short; they produced golf that Mickelson called “some of the finest I’ve ever seen.” But it was Phil’s advocacy and Love’s leadership that put them in a position to succeed and led to the kind of giddiness that had Bubba planting a smooch on Moore’s cheek and telling him that he loved him. The unlikely hero rolled his eyes and said, “The Ryder Cup does funny things to people.”