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John Feinstein On Ryder Cup: Europe Was Better; Hubris Hurt Americans

Europe was better once again, John Feinstein says, but the Americans' hubris didn't help

November 01, 2018 - 5:30 pm

When the United States Ryder Cup team gathered on Saturday night during the 2016 matches at Hazeltine Golf Club, Phil Mickelson arrived bearing gifts for everyone in the room: dogtags.

Each had one word inscribed on the front: “Beginning.”

With the Americans leading Europe 9 and ½ to 6 and ½ going into Sunday’s singles matches, Mickelson wanted to make the point that the U.S. victory they all expected the next day was just the beginning of a new Ryder Cup era in which the U.S. would dominate the matches the way Europe had for the previous thirty years.

In the wake of Europe’s 16 and ½ to 11 and ½ pasting of the Tom Watson-captained American team at Gleneagles, the PGA of America had formed a “Ryder Cup Task Force.”

The loss at Gleneagles meant that Europe was 10-4-1 dating to 1985; 8-2 since Mickelson first played in 1995 and had won three times in a row.

Mickelson, frustrated and angry because Watson had benched him all day on Saturday, publicly attacked Watson in the post-awards ceremony press conference at Gleneagles, saying that the players had no say or input on Watson’s lineups or pairings.

In truth, one of the reasons Ted Bishop, then the President of the PGA, had named Watson as captain was that he wanted a captain who would leave no doubt about who was in charge. He wanted a golfing version of Bill Belichick. Watson, who had been the last U.S. captain to win the Cup on foreign soil (1993) fit that description as well as anyone.

Long before the matches began, Mickelson told Bishop that making Watson the captain was a mistake; that he wouldn’t be able to relate to the players, who were between 21 years younger (Mickelson) and 42 years younger (Jordan Spieth) than the captain.

Mickelson has long been a lightning rod on the U.S. team and that had been the case in the American meltdown at Medinah in 2012. He and Keegan Bradley had played superbly for two days, winning three straight matches. The plan had been for the two of them to sit out Saturday afternoon, largely to rest Mickelson’s 42-year-old legs for Sunday’s singles matches.

But when Mickelson and Bradley waxed Luke Donald and Lee Westwood 7-and-6 morning foursomes, Love had to reconsider. This was, without question, his hottest team. They had only had to play 44 holes in three matches, including just 12 that morning.

Mickelson talked Love out of playing them in the afternoon, telling him they needed to "stick to the plan," and it would be tough for he and Bradley to play in the afternoon since they weren’t mentally prepared for a second match that day.

Love listened. He sent Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods—who had sat out that morning after two losses on Friday—out again and their loss to Donald and Sergio Garcia was the beginning of the European rally from a 10-4 deficit to a 14 and ½-13 and ½ win on Sunday.

Whether Love listening to Mickelson cost the U.S. the Cup that weekend is certainly questionable. But Bishop wanted a captain who wasn’t one of the guys—which Watson certainly was not. He was respected as a legend of the game, but hadn’t played regularly on the PGA Tour for most of the 21st century.

On Saturday morning at Gleneagles, Watson faced a decision not completely unlike what Love had faced at Medinah. His best team during the first three sessions had been Jimmy Walker and Rickie Fowler. Mickelson and Bradley had won their best-ball match on Friday morning but had lost their alternate shot match on Friday afternoon.

Watson sat them Saturday morning, planning to bring them back rested Saturday afternoon. But he had to turn in his afternoon lineup with the final morning match of the day on the 15th hole. That match was Walker and Fowler locked in a duel with Europe’s best team—Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter.

The matches were close at that point: Europe would end the morning leading by one point. Walker and Fowler would halve with McIlroy and Poulter. Watson decided he needed them in his afternoon lineup. The team he benched was Mickelson and Bradley. He did it for two reasons: they hadn’t played well in the alternate shot on Friday and, if anyone could use some extra rest prior to Sunday, it was the 44-year-old Mickelson.

Mickelson didn’t want to rest, he wanted to play. He argued with Watson, who listened and then said, “Phil, it’s done.”

Whatever semblance of a relationship between the two was also done at that moment. As it turned out, Watson had made a mistake. Fowler and Walker had played three straight 18 hole matches and were drained. They lost badly to Victor Dubuisson and Graeme McDowell.

“I could tell on the third hole that Jimmy’s legs were gone,” Watson said later. “If I could have waited until their morning match was over, I might have made a different decision, but, under the rules, I didn’t have that option.”

Watson was doing what he thought was best for his team in the moment. Didn’t matter; Mickelson attacked him and all hell broke loose.

When the dust cleared, Bishop came up with the idea for a "task force." The players wanted more input, he would give it to them. Mickelson, Love, Stricker, Woods, Fowler and Jim Furyk were named to the task force along with several ex-players and PGA of America officials.

They met twice and emerged having reached one important conclusion: the best thing to do going forward was to copy what Europe had been doing for years. The PGA President would no longer choose the captain; the task force—later re-named, ‘The Ryder Cup Committee,’ after everyone in golf made fun of the notion of a ‘task force,’—would make that choice. Captains would have to have previous experience as a vice-captain and at least one vice-captain would be a previous captain.

The key was giving players input into choosing the captain. Love was a popular choice for 2016 because the consensus was he had done a good job at Medinah only to be letdown by his players on Sunday.

It all worked beautifully at Hazeltine. Love’s previous experience served him well and he even got Woods to buy into the notion that being a vice-captain wasn’t just a title, but a job.

But what really led to the U.S. rout were three things: the golf course was set up (as always) to benefit the home team: wide fairways, little rough, fast greens, easy hole locations. Europe had six rookies on the team—on the road—and several players who had keyed previous victories didn’t play: Poulter was hurt and Donald and McDowell didn’t make the team. Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer did, but just barely as captain’s picks because Darren Clarke needed SOME experience on his team. Both played poorly.

Third, the U.S. played superbly. McIroy, who went home and watched the whole thing on tape when it was over said simply: “They did to us what we’d been doing to them for all those years—they made every clutch putt.”

That was why Mickelson handed out the "Beginning" dogtags. This was just the start. The U.S. now had a system in place that would make it virtually unbeatable in years to come.

Except that all the U.S. had done was put its ability to prepare and organize on a par with Europe. It didn’t discover a secret formula for victory. Home field and a weak European team were far more important than anything Love or the PGA of America did.

But it didn’t take long for American hubris to set in. Most of the talk in 2018 was about how the American team with young stars like Spieth, Reed, Fowler, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, Tony Finau and Bryson DeChambeau would combine with the rejuvenated Mickelson and Woods to lead the U.S. to an easy victory. Sure, it was overseas but so what? The American had nine major champions with a total of 32 titles among them; Europe had five major winners but only Rory McIlroy (4) had more than one.

Except it didn’t work out that way. Le Club National outside Paris was set up the way the Europeans wanted it: narrow fairways; high rough; lots of water; slow greens. The big-hitting Americans found few fairways but plenty of water. Woods and Mickelson looked old. Europe took control with a sweep of Friday afternoon’s alternate-shot matches and never looked back. The final score was 17 and ½ to 10 and ½.

So much for beginnings.

Naturally, the second-guessing began even before the trophy was actually presented to European captain Thomas Bjorn. American captain Jim Furyk shouldn’t have picked Mickelson (wrong, Mickelson was 10th on the points list and was the team leader at Hazeltine); Furyk shouldn’t have broken up Reed and Spieth. (Perhaps, but Spieth went 3-1 playing with Thomas; he was 2-1-1 with Reed at Hazeltine).

There were other excuses, but the bottom line was that Europe was BETTER. It’s worth noting that none of the six rookies who played at Hazeltine made the team in Paris. Francesco Molinari was brilliant, going 5-0; Tommy Fleetwood was 4-1; everyone on the European team scored. Poulter and McIroy were the emotional leaders of an emotional team.

It all added up to a rout.

The U.S. will have home course advantage at Whistling Straits in two years. The young stars who were part of this butt-kicking will no doubt want to make amends. But Europe KNOWS it can win on American soil—the last eight matches there have been split, 4-4. Europe has now won six in a row at home.

The cliché is back to the drawing board—as in the Ryder Cup Committee is going to come up with some elixir going forward. There is no elixir. As Jack Nicklaus said of the "Task Force"—“I’m all for it, if it helps us make more birdies.”

Exactly. The sooner the Americans put aside their hubris and the notion that there’s a magic formula beyond playing good golf and pulling together for one week every two years, the sooner they can–perhaps–begin.

Again.
 

John Feinstein’s latest book is, “The Prodigy,” a novel set at the Masters about a 17-year-old phenom who is being pulled in all directions by the people around him while he tries to win the tournament. His most recent non-fiction book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,”—spent five months on The New York Times bestseller list. His new book, “Quarterback,” will be published in November.