HERE IT IS, the moment all of American golf has been waiting for: the first Ryder Cup of the rest of our lives!
Because the Ryder Cup is THE MOST IMPORTANT COMPETITION IN ALL OF GOLFDOM (shouting courtesy of NBC, in partnership with the PGA of America), any rendition of this three-day Europe vs. U.S. contretemps is huge. But this Ryder Cup is hugest.
That's because the U.S. team, fed up with being beat up, has had a makeover for the 41st playing of the biennial event, which will be staged this weekend at Hazeltine National, on repurposed farmland in Chaska, Minn. It has been eight years since the U.S. last won the Ryder Cup, at Valhalla in Louisville, and the previous victory before that, at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., in 1999, required a Sunday miracle.
This next bit is strange but true: In 10 meetings dating to 1995, despite the regular presence of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, Europe has won the Cup eight times. Can you imagine the Patriots, with Tom Brady at his peak powers, playing in 10 consecutive Super Bowls and winning only twice?
Mickelson, who is playing in his 11th consecutive Ryder Cup, threw the first stone in the revolution that led to (in theory) a new and improved U.S. Ryder Cup playbook. Two years ago, at a post-Cup press conference during which Americans were again left trying to explain how they had lost, he was critical of captain Tom Watson's lone-wolf style of leadership. By extension, Mickelson was criticizing the lack of player involvement and the system used by the PGA of America to select its captain.
That led to the creation of the PGA of America Ryder Cup task force, which drew ridicule from across the pond, and basic changes to the operating manual. A training system for future captains. More player input in the selection of the captain. Giving the captain more leeway in constructing his 12-player roster. Granting the captain, his assistants and the players more control over how they spend their Ryder Cup practice days, and with whom.
After a protracted discussion Davis Love III, a member of the 11-person task force, was named captain for the second time. (He had the job in 2012, when the Euros won at Medinah with an epic Sunday comeback.) The task force decided that eight players would make the team on a reworked points system, and Love was given four captain's picks, one more than Watson had. The date to make the last pick was pushed back.
Love's first three selections—Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar and J.B. Holmes—were Nos. 10, 11 and 12 on the points list and all experienced Ryder Cup players. In other words, his choices were deeply unsurprising. For his fourth choice, announced on Sunday night, Love selected Ryan Moore, the runner-up at last week's Tour Championship and one of the hottest Americans of late.
Woods, one of Love's four assistants and a counselor-in-training for a future captaincy, has been Love's primary adviser. They talk and text continually. Another assistant, native son Tom Lehman, has researched weather patterns in the Twin Cities area over the past 30 years. For his part, Love has essentially devoted the last year to this effort, U.S. Ryder Cup 2.0. He has consulted with statisticians, psychologists, Hall of Fame athletes, managers and coaches from other sports, in the name of victory and the creation of a new blueprint. It has all been well-intentioned.
There's only one problem. The Ryder Cup began in 1927, and by '83 it had been played 25 times, with the U.S. winning 22. You know why the Americans prevailed so often? They had better players!
Of the 10 teams that Mickelson has played on, the U.S. has arguably had an edge at the top of the order, but the Europeans have had more depth, more proven winners, more Sunday mettle. Yes, the Ryder Cup tests teamwork, strategy, camaraderie, desire—that's why it is so gripping. More to the point, it's refreshing to see the fellas playing for pride and not a payday. But when it's all over except for the champagne spraying, the Ryder Cup does what every sporting competition does: It tests talent. In this case, it tests the aggregate talent of 12 players.
The point is, for those of us who wave Old Glory in our living rooms while watching the matches, we've been looking at this whole thing the wrong way. It's not the U.S. squad cast in the role of the Patriots here. It's the Euros.
But here's the good news: Things change. Also, sometimes the Pats lose.
Phil Mickelson threw the first stone in the revolution. Two years ago he was critical of captain Tom Watson.