The Secret to Europe's Ryder Cup Success Is Simply Better Players

The Secret to Europe’s Ryder Cup Success Is Simply Better Players

We'll be seeing scenes like this for the foreseeable future, says Gary Van Sickle.
Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated

GLENEAGLES Scotland — Wake up, America. Tom Watson didn’t lose this Ryder Cup by himself. It was a team effort.

Whose fault was it, really? Jack Nicklaus. He’s the fool who saved the Ryder Cup from irrelevancy three decades ago when he suggested expanding the Great Britain & Ireland team to include continental Europe because the event was so lopsided. Thanks a lot, Jack. Any more bright ideas? Like making the Memorial the fifth major? Slowing down the golf ball? Scottish independence?

Take a long slow sip of reality, America. We are witnessing a European golf dynasty.

The latest U.S. Ryder Cup loss wasn’t Watson’s fault for reading Webb Simpson’s text or sitting two rookies after a hot morning session or not allowing Phil Mickelson to unleash his superpowers.

It was the Europeans’ fault. They’re the better team. They have better golfers. And they’ve had better golfers for quite some time, but we Americans were so full of ourselves and so enamored of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, we failed to notice. Europe has pretty much owned the Ryder Cup ever since St. Jack’s brilliant makeover idea.

Think about it. The U.S. has two Ryder Cup wins in the last two decades, in 1999 and 2008. The latter happened because Paul Azinger rewrote the PGA of America playbook and out-captained Nick Faldo so badly the U.S. was able to win with Boo Weekley and Ben Curtis and J.B. Holmes and without Tiger Woods. The former, Ben Crenshaw’s miracle at Brookline, came true when Mark James cemented his worst-Euro-captain status by sitting three players until Sunday and then failing to load his stars up front in the singles lineup.

But let’s not stop there. The Americans got pretty lucky in a ’93 win — under Mr. Watson — when Costantino Rocca collapsed near the finish line and Davis Love III staggered home with the clinching point. And in ’91, Bernhard Langer was one spike mark from making a seven-footer on the last green at Kiawah Island to retain the cup.

In other words, while America has a whopping four Ryder Cup wins in 31 years (by a combined nine points), it is this close to not having won at all since 1983. Think about that. Nineteen eighty-three! (That match, by the way, was a one-point squeaker.)

See, the fact that America can’t beat Europe without NATO intervention isn’t a recent development. We’ve got three decades of futility stacked up like cars on the only road to Kiawah Island. We’ve been in denial.

After the latest loss, it was Capt. Watson’s analysis that the simple answer for the U.S. is, “We’ve got to play better.”

Not exactly. The Americans played well. They pretty much played as well as could be realistically expected. What America needs are better players.

Do a quick comparison. Forget the World Golf Ranking. For my money, the top five players in the world even before the Smackdown in Scotland (trademark pending — O.K., not really) were Rory McIlroy (two majors in 2014); Martin Kaymer (one U.S. Open in a romp, one Players); Justin Rose; Henrik Stenson (won both tours’ playoff series in 2013); and Sergio Garcia.

That’s a Fab Five. Now line up the U.S. side.

Bubba Watson is a big gun with a pair of green jackets, but he disappears for months at a time, occasionally during Ryder Cup week. At No. 4, Jim Furyk is the highest-ranked American, but he hasn’t won in three years. Next up is… who exactly? Matt Kuchar, king of the top 10s? Mickelson, who has had two good weeks in the last 15 months? Rickie Fowler and his one career win? Ryan Moore? Snee-duh-ker?

America’s top shelf is empty. For years, Tiger and Phil were clearly the world’s best players, head and shoulders above whoever was No. 3. That didn’t translate into Ryder Cup wins like we assumed it should. In retrospect, it was probably because those next-best Euros like Lee Westwood and Luke Donald and Ian Poulter and Miguel Angel Jimenez were better than we wanted to believe. Also, those pre-Azinger qualifying rules led to Ryder Cup lineups that included the likes of Chris Riley, J.J. Henry and Brett Wetterich.

Golf has a new world order. Rory stands alone. Those other Euros are a notch lower, but if Ryder Cup rookie Victor Dubuisson of France is as good as he looks, Europe’s Fab Five may in fact be a Super Six. At 38, Stenson is the elder statesman of the group. Garcia and Rose are 34. Kaymer is 29. Rory is 25, Dubuisson, 24. That’s a not-so-subtle way of saying these guys will be around for a while.

America needs a few entries in this elite league, guys who are potential superstars because they have won multiple major championships, not players who are superstars because of their clothing lines or corporate deals. As it is, nobody’s on that horizon.

Houston, we have another problem. The population of Europe is 742 million. The population of the U.S. is 319 million. So the next time the U.S. has three captain’s picks, let’s use them to select Australia, South Africa and Canada (just in case). If anyone asks, tell them it was Jack’s idea.