Tour Confidential: How Did the U.S. Finally Win the Ryder Cup?

October 3, 2016

Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.

The Americans stormed to a 17-11 victory in the 41st Ryder Cup, winning the competition for the first time in eight years. Simple question: How did they do it?

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: They had better golfers. Really, this year the sum total of talent favored the Americans. But the young talent on the European team was as impressive as anything.

Jeff Ritter, senior editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Captain Love was able to get his entire roster in the mix and making positive contributions on the first day. Europe had too many guys who had hardly played, or who were playing poorly, to mount a serious rally. The U.S. deserved this one. As Michael said, they were the better squad.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, Golf Magazine (@JoshSens): The lessons of this year’s Ryder Cup have very little to do with task forces or quantitative analysis or the savviness of each team’s captain’s picks or pairings. The lessons are that the results depend on timely putting, and on how great players respond to bell-jar pressure. Oh, and that the better team on paper sometimes wins, and that it helps to have a loud home crowd behind you, all the more so when that crowd is cheering for guys on their A-games like Phil Mickelson and Patrick Reed.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated (@MarkGodich): Agree all around here. Success in match play is all about holing putts, and the Americans made their fair share and then some. Credit also due to Love, who unlike Darren Clarke, wasn’t afraid to get all of his players on the course at least twice in the first two days. Not only did every player contribute at least one point, but 10 of them also collected at least two.

Joe Passov, senior editor, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): I don’t think I was correct once this year in our Saturday night predictions during majors — but I nailed it this time. I saw a runaway American win on Sunday because I felt we were fresher, better, hungrier and more experienced. The soft conditions and relatively easy greens allowed us to swing freely tee to green and to take runs at nearly every putt. Captain Love’s experience, setup skills and leadership set the tone, and the lads finally came through for him.

Whatever Davis Love III and his task force did to prepare for this Ryder Cup, it clearly worked. What’s the biggest difference you noticed between the vibe around this team and the vibe around the team that Love captained in Medinah in 2012?

BAMBERGER: Very little. The 2012 U.S. team had a tremendous rapport. They just didn’t play well on Sunday.

GODICH: More specifically, they just didn’t putt as well — at least not as well as the Europeans did.

RITTER: Getting off to the fast start on Friday certainly helped relax the team. For example, I don’t recall any American players wearing Viking hats and hanging in the crowd in past Ryder Cups, like Snedeker and ZJ did Saturday afternoon. The talent on this roster was similar to previous teams, but this time the U.S. was able to loosen up and play their best.

SENS: I can’t help but think that the role of the task force is being overstated. At Medinah, a torrid stretch by Poulter on Saturday and a few bombs by Justin Rose on Sunday kept the U.S. from grabbing hold of the Cup. That’s life. That’s golf. Sometimes the rub of the green goes your way. Sometimes it doesn’t. It’s part of the American character (and I don’t mean this in a bad way) to think that we can roll up our sleeves and put our heads together and solve any problem with a can-do attitude, that we can control the uncontrollable with hard work and ingenuity. Hence the task force. It’s a nice idea, but it’s not how the world — or the Ryder Cup — always works.

PASSOV: Josh, I concur in every way. Would Les Miles have been fired from LSU last week if there had been one more second on the clock during that winning touchdown that was reversed? Same with Love and the eventual task force. If Ian Poulter hadn’t turned superhuman, together with similarly can’t-prepare-for performances from Rose, and even from a suddenly resurgent Martin Kaymer in 2012, Love would have been hailed a hero and there would be no teeth gnashing and no task force. That is life, and it would be a lot less stressful if we would accept some of the unpredictable events that life deals us.

Patrick Reed and Rory McIlroy’s marquee singles match lived up to the hype, as Reed won 1 up and they exchanged several blows (and taunts) on the front nine. Where does this duel rank among the greatest Ryder Cup battles?

BAMBERGER: Well, it’s about 10 miles south of Nicklaus-Watson at Turnberry in ’77, can’t be compared to the Match, and was less significant than Stenson-Mickelson at the Open in July. In Ryder Cup terms, matches from ’99 and other nail-biters were every bit as significant. The golf was excellent. The histrionics unnecessary.

RITTER: Off the top of my head, I’d probably rank it behind Nicklaus-Jacklin and Irwin-Langer, since those were final matches where the Cup hung in the balance. But Reed-McIlroy was as electric as anything I’ve seen on a golf course, and it was a blast for the fans and players alike. Surely it’ll land on any top 10 list of all-time singles matches. In fact, as an homage to one of Reed’s early-career boasts, I’ll say that match is “top 5.”

SENS: No, it wasn’t the decisive anchor match, but it set the tone, and the play, especially on the front nine, was as impressive as any I’ve ever seen. There were certainly histrionics, as Michael says, but I didn’t mind them because Reed and McIlroy were showing plenty of respect to one another. Lots of playing to the crowd, of course, but that’s the modern Ryder Cup. It is outsize theater.

GODICH: I can’t tell you where the match ranks, but I can’t imagine what we witnessed over that four-hole stretch will ever be topped, unless two players do something similar over the final four holes with the Cup on the line. Sorry, Michael, but I loved every minute of it.

PASSOV: I didn’t mind that this wasn’t the anchor match, because the Cup really was on the line. Both captains acknowledged that after Saturday, the final outcome was in doubt, so they better lead with their best player. We all sensed it would be Reed and McIlroy; the question was, could the duel live up to the hype? In fact, it did, and then some. That makes it special, not just the unforgettable four-hole stretch on the front, but all the way through to the end. I was following both Langer-Irwin in ’91 and Leonard-Olazabal in ’99. Similar atmospheres, but the quality of this match tops them all. Top 5 for me all-time. Would have to access my history books to see where it falls, but definitely in the top 5.

Reed came into Hazeltine with lofty expectations after his dazzling debut at Gleneagles in 2014 and managed to eclipse those expectations. What is it about the Ryder Cup that brings out the best in Reed?

BAMBERGER: He’s got a mean streak deep inside him, just as Woods does, and that can help you play your best golf in match play, that desire to bury the other guy.

GODICH: Let’s not forget that we’re talking about a top 10 player; it’s not like he’s been wallowing on the PGA Tour. That said, he embraced playing the villain at Gleneagles, then relished the opportunity to strut his stuff in front of the home crowd.

RITTER: He’s also free to rev up the crowd at team events in ways that just aren’t possible in stroke-play tournaments, and he just feeds off it.

SENS: I don’t know, but whatever it is, he should bottle it. It would outsell 5-Hour Energy drink.

PASSOV: You guys got it. Poulter was the same way. Sort of a Top 15 or Top 20 player, but not a Top 5 — unless we were talking Ryder Cup. Then he was a different animal. Honestly, I never liked Patrick Reed’s persona, and my feelings toward him weren’t helped by the allegations that plagued him in the past. Yet, I look at him as the alpha male of this team, willing to fight all comers, and back it up, and I have to respect and admire that. He’s now earned his accolade as Man of the Match. Well played.

Phil Mickelson battled Sergio Garcia to a half point on Sunday and finished the week with 2 1/2 points. After what he said after the 2014 debacle, Mickelson said he felt a huge amount of pressure to deliver this week. Did he?

BAMBERGER: He did. He had to and he did.

RITTER: He formed a surprisingly successful pairing with Fowler, carried Kuchar on Saturday afternoon and then made 10 birdies on Sunday head-to-head again Sergio. Ten. Phil walked the talk.

SENS: Yep. Packaged and delivered, wrapped in a nice red, white and blue bow.

GODICH: Without a doubt. Most important, he delivered on Saturday afternoon after many of us questioned why he was even playing, and again on Sunday in a taut singles match. But in the wake of his 2014 comments and the shots he took at Hal Sutton, I wonder if the golf gods we’re saying, “You can have the Cup and even 10 birdies, but no way we’re letting you win that singles match.”

PASSOV: I like cutting Phil lots of slack because he’s endlessly entertaining and ridiculously talented. I root for the guy. This may not have been his greatest Ryder Cup, but it might be the most special. All kudos for pulling out that sloppy win with Fowler, giving Rickie a long-awaited first Ryder Cup point and then for splashing so many birdies on his Sunday singles card, against an always formidable Ryder Cup foe, a day after exchanging putting bombs with Sergio in four balls. Lefty proved he still has it and belonged on this team as much as anyone.

Much was said about the rowdiness of the galleries at Hazeltine, with some fans taking unwarranted verbal jabs at European players. Were the fans an issue? Or is this kind of behavior standard fare at the Ryder Cup?

BAMBERGER: It has become standard fare at Ryder Cups, although not at all Ryder Cups. At Medinah in 2012, there was very little of that sort of thing. In 2002 at The Belfry, in the wake of 9/11, there was none.

RITTER: I wasn’t there, but from what I’ve read and seen from old footage, the ’91 “War by the Shore” went beyond Hazeltine. So did Brookline in ’99. It’s unfortunate that a few knuckleheads did enough damage this week to make fan behavior a story. Maybe it’ll be better in Wisconsin in 2020, but I’m not so sure.

GODICH: Sergio Garcia’s 15 percent estimate was greatly exaggerated, since in a gallery of 50,000 that would put the number of rowdy fans at 7,500. Sadly, all it takes is one knucklehead in a gallery of thousands, and there was much too much of that. As Henrik Stenson was standing over a birdie putt at the 11th green on Saturday afternoon, someone yelled, “Hey, [Justin] Rose. I can’t see.” Stenson backed off the putt, the crowd booed and Rose turned and stared daggers into the crowd.

SENS: I was in the crowd at Brookline in ’99 when someone spat at Monty. And the names some people were calling him were a lot nastier than Mrs. Doubtfire. There are yahoos everywhere, and the larger the crowds get, the greater the odds that a few will show up. Part of me thinks that the U.S. crowd will be a little less hostile next time around because the Americans have snapped their losing streak. Amid all the patriotic fervor, there was also a fair amount of pent up frustration. Being a Red Sox fan, it reminded me a bit of the vibe at Fenway before the Curse of the Bambino lifted. There was an urgency that bordered on anger, and which now and then gave way to fans throwing debris onto the field. Nothing so ugly at Hazeltine, of course, but a similar dynamic at work. But hey, we Americans can afford to be friendly again. We won! That’s how it works, right?

PASSOV: We have such short memories. People had to pass out “Be Nice to Monty” buttons at Brookline in ’99. The “War by the Shore” Kiawah Cup was overly patriotic — players included. But I had never before heard the type of profanity used at specific players as I did this year. Just mind-boggling, and it has no place in golf, or frankly anywhere else in public. But I’ve also witnessed the coarsening of America, as overserved yahoos who would have somehow held back before now exist in an environment where there no longer seem to be any barriers. Golf clap to the PGA of America for stepping in and stating enough is enough for Sunday’s play. True, it’s just a tiny fraction of the crowd engaged in this, but it has zero place in the game, and hopefully there will be zero tolerance for this going forward.