A few million years ago, I covered the Green Bay Packers for a newspaper. When confronted with statistics that indicated a negative past performance, head coach Forrest Gregg liked to say: “History records the past. It does not predict the future.”
It’s a good line and even better from Gregg’s perspective. It meant he didn’t have to address an offending stat, whether it was the Pack’s latest losing streak or a poor record against a team like the hated Chicago Bears.
Or, as Charlie Brown told his nemesis Lucy in the comic strip “Peanuts” when she quoted his horrific pitching numbers, “Lucy, tell your statistics to shut up!”
Golf doesn’t have stats as simple and revealing as baseball does. The Ryder Cup is upon us this week, and the obvious question is, Who’s going to win? Stats will not give us the answer, perhaps only a hint, and they don’t predict the future.
The matches have historically been so close that they’ve been impossible to forecast. In my view, the ballstriking among 24 players differs so little that the Ryder Cup is effectively a putting contest. The Europeans have putted better, by and large, than the Americans for most of the last two decades. Whether they’re really better putters or simply perform better on the greens on this stage remains an unanswered question.
Let’s take the subjectivity out of comparing these two teams and just look at the facts, whose degree of relevance is questionable.
So here’s my Ryder Cup Checklist. If you think these stats are meaningless, as they don’t predict the future, consider the famous (and often misquoted) line from noted author George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”
Hey, wait. Didn’t I write a story just like this before the 2012 Ryder Cup?
Let’s move on…
Most major titles. Europe 8, United States 11. (Europe: McIlroy 4, Kaymer 2, McDowell, Rose. U.S.: Mickelson 5, Watson 2, Furyk, Johnson, Simpson, Bradley.)
When Tiger played, this stat was ridiculously lopsided in favor of the Americans. Even without Tiger, though, the U.S. still has the advantage. If you took out Phil, too, that would finally tip it Europe’s way. The edge: United States.
Most players who have won majors. Europe 4, United States 6. This category is subtle yet startling. Half of the American lineup has won a major championship. Wait, what? That’s right. And this is a squad that is missing Tiger, who has his famous 14, and 2013 PGA champ Jason Dufner. On the other hand, European players won three of this year’s four majors. The edge: United States.
Most wins this season. Europe 12, United States 11. Didn’t you expect the Europeans to have a whopping edge in this category? Of course, Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer each won a pair of big ones, but otherwise this is pretty close. The only players with as many as three victories are Rory McIlroy and Jimmy Walker. (Europe: McIlroy 3, Kaymer 2; Garcia; Westwood, Gallacher; McDowell; Donaldson; Bjorn. U.S.: Walker 3; Reed and Watson, 2; Mahan; Johnson; Simpson; Kuchar). The edge: Europe.
Most players with wins in 2014. Europe 7, United States 6. While half of the U.S. team has won a major, half of the team also doesn’t have a win in this calendar year. Webb Simpson and Europe’s Thomas Bjorn have wins in the current season but they came before the end of 2013. The other winless players are Ian Poulter, Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose and Victor Dubuisson, Europe; and Keegan Bradley, Jim Furyk, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson, U.S. The edge: Europe.
Home field advantage. The host team has a 10-6-1 mark in Ryder Cups since 1979 when the Great Britain-Ireland team was first expanded to include all of Europe. The home-field advantage didn’t work out too well two years ago in Chicago, where home field doesn’t seem to help the hapless Cubs, either. Welcome to Scotland, gents. Bring raingear. The edge: Europe.
Most career victories. Europe 174, U.S. 97. That’s what you call a downright landslide. The Euros have won 77 more titles among them than the Americans. That’s a Tiger Woods career—he has 79 victories. Phil Mickelson has the most of any individual, 42, while Lee Westwood leads Europe with 39. Three players have won only once in their pro careers: Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth and France’s Victor Dubuisson. The edge: Europe.
All-time score. The points total since the Ryder Cup began in 1927 is U.S. 504, Europe 393. Nobody noted the 500th point in 2012, but it didn’t come in Sunday’s singles at Medinah, where the Americans won only three-and-a-half points. Point No. 500 was probably produced by Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar in Saturday afternoon’s four-ball match. The edge: United States.
All-time modern score. That all-time score stat is ancient history. It’s far more relevant to compare the teams since 1979 when Europe was included. Since then, the score is Europe 241.5, U.S. 234.5. That’s not much difference spread over 35 years. The edge: Europe.
Ryder Cup match records. As expected, this category reflects the European dominance that has claimed seven of the last nine Cups. The cumulative Ryder Cup match records of the players on this roster: Europe 69-42-17, U.S. 43-62-17. Put another way, the Americans have only 43 wins in 122 matches. The edge: Europe.
Most Ryder Cup experience. Europe 128 matches, United States 122. The Europeans also have their experience spread out a little better. Furyk and Mickelson account for 68 of their team’s 122 matches. The edge: Europe.
Most players with winning Ryder Cup match record. Europe 7, United States 4. Yes, four Americans actually have winning match-play records, believe it or not—Hunter Mahan 3-2-3; Keegan Bradley 3-1; Matt Kuchar 3-2-2; and Zach Johnson, 6-4-1. Funny, we all remember Rickie Fowler playing well as a Ryder Cup rookie in 2010, but the truth is, he didn’t win a match. His mark is 0-2-1 after an impressive rally for a halve in singles. Only one member of the European team has a losing record in Ryder Cup matches. That’s Henrik Stenson, 2-3-2. The edge: Europe.
Fewest rookies. Europe 3, United States. Everybody has to be a rookie sometime. The edge: Halved.
Best in fourballs. That’s the best-ball, or better ball, format. The Europeans have surprisingly dominated this one since 1979, outscoring the U.S., 76-65. The Americans held a 5-3 edge here at Medinah in 2012. The edge: Europe.
Best in foursomes. That’s the alternate shot format. Since 1979, the Europeans have outscored the U.S. in this category, 71-65. The Americans had a 5-3 advantage at Medinah. The edge: Europe.
Best singles records. The U.S. used to hold a significant lead in singles play versus Europe since 1979, but last year’s bloody Sunday saw the Euros win 9.5 of the 12 possible points. Youch! America is still the home of one-on-one but not by much, 93-88. The edge: United States.
World ranking. The average world ranking of the European team’s 12 players is 17.75. For the U.S. lineup, it’s 16.08 (down from 12.17 in 2012). Here’s the weird part. No American ranks among the top six in the world, but they hold the five spots from seventh through 11th (Furyk, Kuchar, Watson, Mickelson, Fowler). The Euros are top-heavy, however, with four of the top five spots (McIlroy, Stenson, Garcia, Rose). Webb Simpson is the lowest ranked American at 32nd. The Europeans have three players ranked lower—Gallacher, 33; Poulter, 36; Westwood, 38. The edge: United States.
Most players ranked in world’s top ten: Europe 4, U.S. 4. It’s a dead heat on numbers but the Europeans have a big edge on where they rank in the top ten. The four European players have an average rank of 3.25 while the four Americans average 8.5. The edge: Europe.
Youngest team. Europe 34.8 (average age), United States 32.6. Does age actually matter? Or does experience outweigh youth? Age-old question. And this stat factors in the ages of the entire team, not the ages of the eight players who actually compete in each of the first four sessions. The edge: Who knows?
What does this checklist mean? Nothing but mere trivia. I dug up some on-course performance stats for the Ryder Cuppers, too, such as driving distance and greens hit in regulation and strokes saved putting, but they didn’t seem terribly relevant, either.
Enjoy this week’s Ryder Cup for what it is, an exciting format in which each hole is a tournament in itself and has a conclusion — either a win, loss or a halve.
If I was to wager against my will, I’d take Europe. That said, I consider this the most unpredictable Ryder Cup of the 13 I have covered in person. An American win wouldn’t surprise me. That U.S. captain, Tom Watson, has had pretty good luck in Scotland (never mind Turnberry in 2009), and that extra week and weekend off that Bradley and Mickelson got during the FedEx Cup might ultimately prove to be the difference.
Either way, more history is about to happen.
This just in from the Van Cynical Mailbag:
Van Cynical, This idea of a favorite is just silly, right? They are 24 great players. It all comes down to luck, attitude and putting. — Jeff via Twitter
If you reverse the order of those three things, Jeff, I completely agree. An 18-hole match between world-class golfers is the equivalent of Olympic sprinters competing in a 20-yard dash. It’s a tossup. You nailed it.
Sickle, Who’s going to play the first match for the U.S. team on Friday? — Scotty817 via email
I’d put my Euros, pounds or deflated dollars on Phil Mickelson. He doesn’t like waiting around to play. Everyone assumes he’ll be paired with Keegan Bradley, since they’ve teamed successfully before, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Phil and Rickie Fowler became a dynamic duo.
Van Sickle, Are you going to get a selfie with The Vikings singing group? They’re there right now. — Scott Turtinen via Twitter
Can you take one for me? Just go to Google Earth and click one of the planet from a satellite in orbit. I’ll wave from the Pittsburgh airport so you can spot me. Thanks!
Van Sickle, IMO, you are the least wanted senior writer. Way to back Team USA. Your article title was a disgrace. Grow up! — Jeannette Reed via Twitter (Editor's note: The letter writer is referring to a Gary Van Sickle column from last week with photos of Phil Mickelson, Patrick Reed and Webb Simpson that was headlined 'America's Least Wanted').
Once again, I forgot that my job is doing public relations for the Ryder Cup teams, not magazine journalism. And writers never write the headlines, just the stories. In-office editors come up with those after they lay out the page. If you think I got Phil’s atrocious short putting stats wrong, though, let me know.
Vans, Canada kicked ass! Thanks to the natives…–Tim G via Twitter
Hey, I’m a big fan. I wore my Montreal Expos hat during the recent John R. Williams Four-Ball Tournament last week at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., and resembled the Expos well—a good start followed by a complete collapse. Maybe I should’ve gone with the Leafs?
Sickle, Hard to believe Anthony Kim is such a non-factor. Such talent, such waste. Any chance he comes back? — Kirby via Twitter
My SI colleague Alan Shipnuck did a revealing look at the missing-in-action Kim, whose dilemma is whether to play his way back into golf or sit on his couch and collect a disability insurance policy worth upwards of $15 mill. He’s got the talent to come back. Is he physically able to? I don’t know. Even if he is, it’s all about want-to. Shipnuck’s story didn’t paint Kim as being gung-ho about pro golf.
Was it a big mistake for the U.S. to pass up Billy Horschel and Chris Kirk for the Ryder Cup? — Doug via email
Well, you’d love to have a hot hand like Horschel right now if you’re Tom Watson. Upon further review, though, Horschel won two FedEx Cups and the $10 milllion bonus, then shared the birth of a baby girl with his wife a few days later. Honestly, he’d have to be way too mentally and physically drained after those three weeks to bring his best golf. Chris Kirk is a very good player and just like everyone else, he had a chance to play his way onto the team via points and he didn’t do it. You never know who’s a good pick or bad pick until after the Ryder Cup is over. I’d say Watson played the percentages in picking a pair of former major champs, even if you or I might not have taken the same two guys.
Van Cynical, I just read where the World Golf Hall of Fame is holding its induction ceremony next year at St. Andrews instead of at the HOF in Florida. What’s up? — PeterG via email
I can only assume that means some European players will be inducted. And they’ll probably have Gary Player do a voice-over on that long-running HOF commercial he did by adding a tag-line: “The World Golf Hall of Fame, you’ve gotta go… (dramatic pause) to Scotland!”