Pairing mistakes. Tiger's Ryder Cup struggles. The magic of Moliwood. Wrapping up Le Nightmare at Le National.
There is perhaps no domain in which the phrase "hindsight is 20/20" is more accurate than the sporting arena. Invariably, the losing side of any contest exposes itself to finger-pointing, blame-assigning and second-guessing. And when you entered the game/match/series as the favorite, the chorus of criticism is that much snarkier. How could they screw this up?! It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see how terrible that decision was! Wide-scale changes are needed to avoid such a debacle in the future!
Put simply: In this age of social media, when everyone is an expert and every one of these experts can publish their opinion at the click of a button, life as a loser is worse than yanking a three-footer for par.
Such is the predicament of Jim Furyk, the well-meaning and well-liked captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team, the team that lost 17.5-10.5 to Europe in a blowout that wasn't even as close as the blowout score suggests. Every single one of Furyk's decisions, from splititng up previously successful pairings to not demanding his guys play the French Open to those pinstripe pants, will be analyzed in the coming days.
Now comes the part where I go in a different direction, resisting the urge to unload my thoughts just a day after one of the most disappointing Ryder Cup losses in history. Right? Wrong. Because losses as bad as this one absolutely must prompt a post-mortem, ego-less assessment of where things went wrong. With the benefit of a good night's sleep and a full 24 hours since Phil Mickelson's rinsed tee ball on 16 clinched it for Europe, I vow to avoid spewing vitriolic insults at this top-to-bottom failure.
With all that being said, here are 18 parting shots from Le Nightmare at Le National
• It's so easy to start off with a negative here, and there will be plenty of that in just a moment. But let's start with the glorious and ridiculously under-utilized format of match play. Golf is constantly trying to make its product more attractive to the casual sports fan—hence the NASCAR-style season-long points race and aggrssive social media promotion and the Twitter partnership and so on.
Here's a free tip to the powers that be in Ponte Vedra Beach: more of this head-to-head stuff! As the Ryder Cup shows, golf is never more competitive than in match-play events. There's nothing like having to make a six-footer for birdie after your opponent just holed a 30 footer on top of you. Fans thrive on instant gratificiation, and match play makes every hole equally important and electric. "This to win the hole" is a million-times more compelling lead in than "this for par." Often times in the final round of stroke-play events, one of the players in the final pairing is competing with a guy playing four holes ahead of him for the title, depriving us of the face-to-face competitiveness that we see in virtually every other major sport.
In the PGA Tour season that just recently wrapped, there were 48 official tournaments and exactly one of them was a match-play event. Of course, I understand the value of stroke-play and I agree that it's the best way to determine a true champion. But the PGA Tour needs to put match-play to use more often. He's an idea to bring life to the Tour Championship in better way than the gimmicky, weighted stroke-play event the Tour will unveil next year: After two rounds of stroke play, cut the field of 30 down to eight and have the final eight play match play for the title. Imagine the drama with $15 million on the line.
• Here's the obligatory rant against Furyk. The decision to pair Phil Mickelson with Bryson DeChambeau in Friday afternoon foursomes was unjustifiable. Mickelson had been a disaster in the weeks leading up the Ryder Cup, but if there's one way he could have helped the team, it would have been in fourball, where he could have played his brand of brashly aggressive golf and where his wild shots aren't as damaging. To place him with a temperamental 25-year-old making his Ryder Cup debut was not fair to Mickelson, DeChambeau or the other 10 players on the roster. It is the job of the captain to put his players in a position to succeed. Mickelson and DeChambeau had no chance.
• As soon as Furyk announced on Thursday that Jordan Spieth would be playing with Justin Thomas and Patrick Reed on Friday morning, I immediately wondered the reasons why such a previously dynamic duo was being split up. If you're to believe Patrick Reed—and he really has no reason to lie—the reason is because Spieth didn't want to play with Reed. Then Reed complained that he shouldn't have sat out two sessions given his Ryder Cup pedigree.
This is a miocrocosm of the problem with the Americans' attitudes. I can't say for sure, but I find it very hard to believe that anyone on the European team approached captain Thomas Bjorn with a request to not play with another player, and there's no way they would have publicly complained about a benching. U.S. Ryder Cup teams can be weirdly cliquey and seem to place personal relationships/pride over team dynamics. Simply put, the Americans fail to place the team's success at the highest priority. Michael Bamberger put it best (as he always does): "Winning does not always come with joy and amiability, but it did this time for the Europeans, who seem to take—and this in contrast to the Americans—the Ryder Cup as a competition very seriously but themselves less so."
• As is seemingly always the case, fans aired their grievances with the TV broadcast on Twitter from, quite literally, the first tee shot on Friday. I'm sort of in the minority in that I didn't have any real issues with NBC's coverage ...except for one thing that really, really grinds my gears. I despise when an announcer leads up to a shot with "this was a bit earlier" or "this, while we were away."
I don't need to know when a shot isn't live. Lie to me. When you qualify a shot with that kind of lead-in, I know something surprising is going to happen. You wouldn't be showing a non-live three-footer for par if the guy didn't miss it. And at an event like the Ryder Cup, where roars from other holes are often audible on the broadcast, I end up trying to match a prevoius roar with the non-live shot you're showing me. Let's just stop this altogether.
• The difference between how players fared in the weeks leading up to to this Ryder Cup and how they played at the Ryder Cup is hard to believe. Case in point: Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garica. Stenson hasn't had a top 10 since June and Garcia has missed seven of his last 13 cuts. They both made every 10-footer they looked at and went a combined 6-1 on the week.
Conversely: Dustin Johnson is the No. 1 player in the world, Tiger Woods was phenomenal in winning the Tour Championship and Bryson DeChambeau has been the hottest player in the world in the past month or so. Those three players went a combined 1-11 and looked patently flummoxed the entire week.
• Related: maybe it's time we start re-thinking captain's picks. When Furyk tapped Tiger, Phil and Bryson after the Dell Technologies Championship, most viewed those as basically no-brainers (apart from maybe Phil). Those three combined to go 0-10 this week. On the other hand, Bjorn was crticized for his experience-first picks of Garcia, Stenson, Paul Casey and Ian Poulter ...and they combined to go 9-4-1.
All this goes to say, perhaps future captain's should prioritize team dynamics/course fit over current form when deciding who to use wildcards on. Bjorn picked three accurate ball strikers and a Ryder Cup legend (Poulter), even if they weren't the hottest European players at the time. Furyk picked three guys who had played really well in recent stroke-play events and a struggling 48-year-old who cant find a fairway. We saw how that turned out.
• Tiger had no juice at all this weekend. After a surreal Sunday at East Lake ostensibly zapped all the energy from his 42-year-old body, he seemed to be moving in slow motion all week. Even the fist-pump on Sunday after dropping an eagle to go 1 down felt manufactured. Fans hypothesized that he was tired or hurt or just generally disinterested. Whatever it was, his flat demeanor did not help matters. A swaggering, bouncy Tiger would have been a huge boon to an American team trying to win a road game. Instead, he looked like he could barely keep his eyes open.
After this 0-4 week, Tiger is now 0-7-1 in his last two Ryder Cups and is now 13-21-3 for his career. In non-singles matches, he's now 9-19-1. This lackluster week doesn't change Tiger's future prospects at all—it'd be foolish to alter your expectations of him next year based on this—but that awful record will act as a (albeit tiny) stain on his career resume when all is said and done. As Kevin Van Valkenburg put it, so much has been written about trying to find Tiger the right partner in the Ryder Cup. He's been paired with old guys and young guys and streaky players and consistent fairway-finders and struggled with them all. The common thread? Mr. Tiger Woods.
• A shoutout to Webb Simpson, an oft-ridiculed player who (in my eyes) gained a ton of respect for his play this week. He managed to go 1-1 alongside Bubba Watson this week in alternate shot—no small feat at all, as Watson gave Mickelson a run for his money as the worst player on the grounds—and beat Justin Rose 3 and 2 in singles. Simpson is a case study in Playing Your Game: in an era when other players built like NFL safeties carry their driving irons 275 yards, Simpson just does his thing. He carries a 4-hybird. He putts with a claw grip and the shaft of the putter along his left arm. He has a less-than-beautiful quick swing with a goofy helicopter finish. And he just beat the FedEx Cup champion and world No. 2 in singles by making seven birdies in 16 holes. Badass.
• Let's focus on Watson a bit more, as he's sort of a case study in the shortcomings of the current Ryder Cup selection process. Watson finished fifth in the points standings on the strength of three PGA Tour wins this season—one at Riviera, one at the Travelers Championship and one at the WGC Match Play. Under the current system, he played his way onto this team fair and square. That being said, it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that Watson would be a liability rather than an asset to this team.
First and foremost, he entered the week with a 3-8-0 record in Ryder Cups. He's erratic off the tee and his tee shots have more spin than probably anybody on tour. That's an awful fit for Le Golf National, where tight fairways are made even harder to hit by winds that exacerbate spin. But Furyk's hands were tied. Watson qualified for the team and he had no choice but to bring him as one of his 12.
The guys at No Laying Up have suggested letting the captain pick all 12 players. There are advantages and disadvantages to that proposal. One huge negative: personal relationships—namely, who the captain is friends with—could get in the way of the decision-making process. One huge positive: It would allow the captain, ostensibly somebody a trustworthy stalwart of American golf, to hand-select the guys he thinks give him the best chance to win.
I'm not sure what the solution here is, or if the currenty system (eight qualifiers and four captain's picks) is really a problem at all. Still, an interesting thought experiment. .
• I could not be happier for Tony Finau, whose journey to the pinnacle of golf is as unlikely as they come. His father immigrated to the U.S. from Tonga. He had no money growing up and couldn't afford instruction, so he learned golf by hitting balls into an old mattress in his garage. He took a leap of faith by skipping college to turn pro at 17, in an attempt to make money quickly and help ameliorate his family's financial stress. He grinded on minitours for a half-dozen years, including appearing on Golf Channel's The Big Break, hardly a fertile breeding ground for PGA Tour pros.
And look at him now: He's 29 years old. Combining his PGA Tour earnings with his FedEx Cup bonus for finishing sixth, he made $6,420,138 dollars on the golf course this year. He's the No. 17 golfer in the world. And on Sunday, he shellacked European golden boy Tommy Fleetwood 6 and 4 in singles. Golf has a reputation as being a wealthy man's sport, and that's not unwarranted. But Finau's story is a testament to belief, dedication and the heartening notion that professional golf is, at its core, a meritocracy. If you have the game, you can find a way to the top. Finau has always had the game. Now he's found his way to the top.
• Speaking of Fleetwood: he and Francesco Molinari were a revelation this week. Fleetwood, with his screw-your-country-club hair and beard combo, is impossible to root against. Molinari is a match-play killer whose brand of golf brings to mind those Staples ads: That was easy. It's only appropriate that the European fans devised a worthy chant honoring this legendary pairing:
• One more Fleetwood item. The whole "he looks like Jesus" thing is most often a lazy trope used to describe anyone with a shaggy beard. But Tommy Fleetwood legitimately looks like Jesus.
• Much has been made about the golf course's effect on the results. The two main points in this line of thinking have been:
1. The Europeans knew it so much better, having played a combined 233 competitive rounds at Le Golf National before this week to the Americans' eight.
2. The narrow fairways and punitive rough nullified the Americans' length advantage and made its pleathora of bomb-and-gouge players uncomfortable.
Both points have been overblown. It's not like the Europeans and Americans used different strategies in navigating the course. For the most part, you saw both teams using the same clubs off tees and playing to the same parts of greens. It wasn't a strategy issue, it was an execution issue. Guys like Koepka and Tiger and DJ simply missed way too many fairways with less than a driver in their hands. Moreover, Thomas and Finau are as bomb-and-gouge as they get, and they managed to go a combined 6-2. The U.S.'s issue was not a lack of course knowledge.
• That being said, there was one strategy thing that I can not understand. It seemed that the Americans were unwilling to change their strategy based on the opposing teams' position on a certain hole. During a five-minute stretch in the Saturday afternoon foursomes, Francesco Molinari found water with his tee shot on a par 5 and Rory McIlroy hit one out of bounds. Following Molinari, DeChambeau hit the exact same shot, going with driver and finding the same exact water hazard. Then following McIlroy, Thomas hit driver way left into a chunk of Le Golf National's comically punitive rough.
I understand wanting to stick to a game plan, but altering strategy based on your opponents' position is Match Play 101. Why not swallow pride and hit long iron/3-wood into the fairway? This happened multiple times this week (on both sides) and for the life of me, I can't figure out why.
• Tiger and Phil will get the lion's share of the criticism because they're Tiger and Phil, but the most disappointing American player for me this week was Dustin Johnson. The No. 1 player in the world was a mess on the greens, so much so that he switched not only putters but putting styles—from cross-handed to conventional—in the middle of the Ryder Cup.You have to wonder what effect the media attention he's been getting for the Paulina stuff has had on him. He's a guy who prefers operating under the radar, and he's been thrust into the tabloid spotlight recently, vaulting the laconic South Carolinian way out of his comfort zone.
• Most often, we don't appreciate the full awfulness of outfits until years after they've been worn. But sometimes, just sometimes, a sartorial ensemble comes around that's flagrantly putrid the day it's put to use. The Europeans' get-ups this week—the burnt orange, the blue shirts with the randomly placed yellow stripes, the red-white-and-blue Friday outfits while playing America—were a slap in the face to the fashion greatness of the host city, Paris.
• There were a lot of passive-aggressive tweets flowing between U.S. and European media about fan behavior. After some European fans cheered for bad American shots, American shots needled Europeans for their holier-than-thou takes from two years ago, when they suggested American fans crossed the line at Hazeltine in their heckling of European players. European writers fired back.
These exchanges are really, really cringeworthy. None of the players had any issue with the European fans' demeanor. In fact, Furyk went out of his way in the post-matches press conference to say how wonderful it was to play in front of them. I'm not sure why this has become a topic of debate, but let's put it to bed. One week every two years, fans might cheer when a guy hits it into the water. Is that so morally reprehensible?
• Even though the U.S. got crushed, what an enjoyable week the Ryder Cup always is. I sometimes feel like a bit of a sheep for caring so much about sports, when the athletes care most (and understandably so) about their personal reputations and bank accounts. It's why there's a certain feel-good aspect about watching the Olympics; you know that money isn't the principal motivator—representing your country is.
The same holds true for the Ryder Cup. These guys play for millions of dollars every week, and the one time they show true emotion is the one time they're representing their country free of charge. The Ryder Cup is about pride and being part of a team. That's what, at its core, sports is all about.