CHASKA, Minn. — It may be peculiar how much the Ryder Cup matters, but it does. A lot.
Just days after $10 million dollars is awarded as a bonus at the Tour Championship, the best players in the world tee it up for no money at all at this flamboyant exhibition. Nothing but pride.
This week, after a year’s worth of 20, 25, sometimes more than 30 events, that pride is palpable at Hazeltine National. “Honestly, I think we’re just tired of being told that we haven’t won in a while,” Jordan Spieth said at his press conference Tuesday.
That’s right, the American’s haven’t won in a while. It’s been eight years since the United States was victorious in this pride match. Before that, it had been nine years. European players get asked about their Ryder Cup triumphs; American players get asked about their Ryder Cup shortcomings. It happened with Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia Tuesday morning, and it happened with Spieth and Rickie Fowler Tuesday afternoon.
All of a sudden you realize why this event held in a town of less than 25,000 people matters. One side keeps winning, and the other keeps losing. At the Ryder Cup, there is no opposite home series the following month, or an opportunity for payback at a different course early next year. It arrives once every two years, and it shakes even the strongest golfers in the world to their core.
“I remember walking out there, just a ton of people, and trying to decide…maybe hit driver because it’s a bigger head,” Spieth said. “You put the tee on the ground, your hand is shaking, you’re trying to get the ball on to the tee.”
In 2014 – Spieth’s Ryder Cup debut – tens of thousands of people watched as he and Patrick Reed won that first hole at Gleneagles, and many of the holes that followed, to the tune of a 5 and 4 drubbing of Ian Poulter and Stephen Gallacher. Spieth cherishes that first Ryder Cup moment so much that he had a picture of his first tee shot made into a painting.
“I have it in my kitchen/living room. It’s the main piece of artwork that’s in my house,” he said. “I don’t have anything around the house of myself up except for that, it’s that special to me.”
It’s clear why this event matters, but for Spieth (and is teammates, too), the Ryder Cup can matter even more next week than it does now. The Americans can win, and Spieth can play a major role. For that to happen, Spieth has to play like the team’s ace. 10-time Ryder Cup player Phil Mickelson knows it.
“It’s time for him to take over the leadership role because he’s going to be the lead guy for the U.S. Team for many years to come,” Mickelson said. “He’s going to help this team win through his play, but he’s also going to help this team be successful through his personality.”
Dustin Johnson may be the sure-fire 2016 Player of the Year, and Mickelson the vocal veteran, but in many ways Spieth is the American anchor, and it’s a position of influence.
In so many Ryder Cups past, a European anchor or two has greatly influenced the success of the team. Spieth will likely be used in every session this week, his all-around game and top-3 birdie average fitting well in captain Davis Love’s game plan. Match results from 2014 would say Spieth handled that role well: that he won, calmed his rookie nerves and was the new face of the U.S. squad. But he only sort of won. As an individual in these team events, he has left more to be desired, and in 2016, he knows it.
His debut went well, and Spieth has a beautiful painting to show for it. A painting of him holding the trophy would probably look a lot better.