The Future of the Ryder Cup: Advantage, U.S.

October 12, 2016

Since Hazeltine I’ve watched highlights of the Patrick Reed-Rory McIlroy cage match at least two dozen times. It never gets old. In the last few decades of the Ryder Cup, the best showmanship has been from the European side; think Seve, Sergio and Poults. What made Reed’s macho posturing so instantly iconic is that for once it was symbolic of U.S. supremacy. Golf fans on both sides of the Atlantic can expect plenty more Reed highlights in the years to come because the big takeaway from this Ryder Cup is that the balance of power has very suddenly and very dramatically tilted to the Americans. Phil Mickelson’s comment that the purpose of the task force was not to win one Ryder Cup but eight of the next 10 suddenly doesn’t seem so outlandish. Whether it’s the stock market or sports betting, Mickelson is always working an angle, and his big-picture prediction has merit for a number of reasons.

It starts with the players, of course. The U.S. team has a powerhouse core of young talent: Reed (age 26), Dustin Johnson (32), Jordan Spieth (23), Rickie Fowler (27) and Brooks Koepka (26). Europe has only two blue-chippers of a comparable age: McIlroy (27) and Thomas Pieters (24). (Martin Kaymer, 31, has the resume to be a stalwart, but over the last three Cups he is a mystifying 0-5-2 in partner play. He is at best a question mark until further notice.) These players are going to define the Ryder Cup for the next decade or longer, and the U.S. clearly has a lot more firepower.

What was abundantly clear at Hazeltine is that Europe can not expect to win by relying on its core four of McIlroy, Sergio García, Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson. García is a very old 36, Stenson is 40 and Rose, at 36, has been nagged by injuries over the last few seasons. As good as this aging trio has been in recent Ryder Cups, the U.S. can counter with equally reliable veterans in Zach Johnson (40), Matt Kuchar (38), Jimmy Walker (37) and Brandt Snedeker (35), to say nothing of Mickelson (46). Phil the Thrill is already talking about playing his way into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, so he may yet have another Cup or two left in him. And then there’s Bubba Watson (37), the two-time Masters champ and seventh-ranked player in the world. After his teary stint as a vice captain, Watson will be highly motivated to play his way back onto the team.

So where will Europe find the horses to recover from its worst loss since 1975? Of the six rookies at Hazeltine, three looked utterly out of their depth: Matthew Fitzpatrick (22), Danny Willett (29) and Andy Sullivan (30). Rafa Cabrera-Bello (32) played inspired golf and has the look of a key piece in the future. The jury is out on Chris Wood (28). Willett has been mediocre since his breakthrough at the Masters. He may develop into a stud, or it may turn out that he’s merely a good player who had a career week at Augusta; we’ll see. Europe certainly missed Paul Casey, who was on fire during the FedEx Cup playoffs but ineligible for the team because he is not a member of the European tour. Regardless, Casey is 39 and not a long-term solution. There was some pining for previous heroes Graeme McDowell and Luke Donald, but they have been in poor form and are 37 and 38, respectively. 

Here’s my best guess as to what the 2018 teams will look like:

To my eye, the U.S. looks much stronger. Project that into 2020 and Europe could easily be without Stenson, Rose and García, while the American core would be unchanged.

Over the last two decades Europe has enjoyed a significant leadership advantage, but that has been eradicated too. In this new task force era the U.S. has, for the first time, a clear line of succession and a dedication to collaborating and grooming future captains. Here’s what I think the lineup will be:

Woods’s health is the x-factor. If he has another setback in the coming months and hangs up his sticks for good it’s easy to see him as the captain as early as 2018; can you imagine the juice that would bring to the Ryder Cup? In this scenario Furyk would get bumped to 2022. If Woods can pull off the greatest comeback in sports history and become competitive into his mid-40s, Zach Johnson could be the captain in 2022 and Woods could slide into 2026 or 2028. However it plays out, these captains will follow the template established by Davis Love III and will be much better prepared than the lone rangers who lost so many Ryder Cups from 1995 to 2014. 

Of course, a lot can and will change in the years to come, owing to injuries, infidelities, chip yips and other unknowns. But in assessing how much the Ryder Cup landscape has changed, I keep thinking back to a stolen moment from Hazeltine. The final singles matches were playing out and Mickelson was chatting with a small group of U.S. players and wives on the edge of the 18th green. He studied a leader board that was bleeding red, the U.S. color, and openly rooted for more carnage. “I don’t want to just win, I want to win big,” Phil said. He wanted to send a message. It’s been received, loud and clear.