SHEBOYGAN, Wis.— Welcome to the Ryder Cup, where the European team is a heavy underdog. Again.
Have we learned nothing? Were we not paying attention during the last 20-odd years when the underdog Europeans — sorry, the alleged underdog Europeans — repeatedly steamrolled the mystified, stunned American team?
Numbers don’t lie, only lying liars who use them do. The numbers say the Euros, pardon my abbreviation, won four of the last five Ryder Cups, seven of the last nine and nine of the last 12.
Stated another way: In the last 26 years, the U.S. captured the Cup just four times.
In that same time frame, that’s also how many times the undersized, outmanned U.S. Naval Academy defeated mighty Notre Dame in football.
Europe is the Ryder Cup’s dominant Notre Dame. The U.S. is its Navy. Until the Americans do something remarkable like win back-to-back Ryder Cups for the first time since 1993, the Euros are the undisputed kings of this continental hill. They own it. From now on, an American victory — if there is another one — should be touted as an upset.
The Euros’ walk-up music would be Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” The Americans? Maybe Green Day’s “Wake Up When September Ends” because this nightmare keeps re-running more often than the dreadful “Legend of Bagger Vance” on Golf Channel.
The Euros are the defending champs. They are not underdogs despite what any statistics might say. The Americans have ten of the top-12 players in the world ranking? So what. Three years ago in France, the Americans had an average world rank of 11.2 versus the Euros’ 19.1, and half of the European team ranked lower than No. 17 Tony Finau, the second-worst ranked American. How did that Cup turn out? The U.S. got French-toasted.
Consider this sobering nugget: The last time Tiger Woods played in a Ryder Cup win was… 1999. Woods isn’t here this week in a vice captain’s role due to his recovery from a car accident in February. The U.S. was 1-7 when he played in a Ryder Cup and 3-9 when Phil Mickelson was on the team.
The secret sauce for winning Ryder Cups is clearly a European recipe. What is it? If they know, they’re not saying. But it’s some combination of chemistry, unselfishness, fun and aggressive putting that works. As a team, they are special.
Padraig Harrington, the European captain, played into that feeling by showing an inspirational video for his team Monday night that explained what a select group it is — 164 men have played for Europe’s side in Ryder Cup history.
The video is off-the-charts great. If this Ryder Cup was a battle of videos, it’s already over and the Euros just Pearl Harbored the Americans.
“He (Harrington) played a video to put it into context,” said Rory McIlroy, playing in his sixth Ryder Cup. “There are only 570 people who have been in space. Over 5,000 have climbed Mount Everest and 225 have won a men’s major championship. When you break it down like that, we’re in a pretty small group and it’s pretty cool.”
The video also tagged each player with his number according to the Cup’s chronology.
McIlroy is No. 144. England’s Lee Westwood, 48, is No. 118. Ryder Cup rookie Bernd Wiesberger of Austria is No. 164. Each player has a designated, numbered place in history. It’s like having your own parking spot as Employee of the Month, only better.
“It’s something to be very proud of,” Westwood said.
Spain’s Sergio Garcia (No. 120, by the way) said the video “was very powerful” and shows how difficult it is to make a Ryder Cup team. “It’s an honor,” said Garcia, 41. “That’s why we give it the respect it deserves.”
Garcia played his first Ryder Cup in 1999 at age 19. He has won 25.5 points in Ryder Cup play, a record for either side.
“I wasn’t really aware of that until Sunday three years ago in Paris,” Garcia said. “I’m very proud of it and it’s something I’m going to have the rest of my life, personally, but once you step on that first tee, it’s not about you, it’s about the team. I’ve always said it, I’d rather go 0-5 and win the Ryder Cup than 5-0 and lose it. That’s not going to change.”
McIlroy said simply, “We play for each other.”
Maybe the magic recipe is really that simple. There is something about putting being a major ingredient, though. The Ryder Cup, like golf itself, is a putting contest. The world’s best players all hit it well. Maybe American Collin Morikawa is the world’s current best iron player but the likes of Spieth and Westwood and Garcia are only infinitesimally behind him and on any given day, well… It’s not like the Tiger Era when he was so much the best player with an iron in his hands any yardage that nobody else deserved to be called second-best.
We’ve seen players who are — let’s be polite — average putters such as Garcia and Westwood and Colin Montgomerie turn into Ben Crenshaw on the greens when the Ryder Cup starts. How can this be? Maybe it's the team-play aspect that takes the pressure off. Putting in match play isn’t the same as putting in stroke play. In match play, the worst that can happen is you lose one hole.
In stroke play, the worst that can happen is whatever you can imagine — three putts, four putts, five putts, yikes. Putts in match play tend to be do or die and there is less worry about having a dicey three-foot comebacker if you miss because the putt may be conceded, the hole has already been won or lost or halved or your partner has to clean up your mess.
In stroke play, weak putters tend to be more worried about facing a worrisome three-footer for par than making the 15-footer for birdie. They putt more carefully, more tentatively, perhaps defensively. Doesn’t that sound more like Garcia or Monty on a normal day?
So why doesn’t this theory work for the Americans, too? Well, that’s why it’s a European recipe. There’s more to the magic sauce than meets the eye. It’s why the Europeans showed up here looking forward to having another exuberant celebration party and why the Americans arrived here excited for a chance to atone for the debacle in France three years ago—but hoping, not expecting. They also know recent history and may dread the possibility of yet another Ryder Cup scarlet letter — L for Loss.
The matchups won’t matter. The talent on each side is unmatched. The Americans have an Olympic gold medalist (Xander Schauffele); the Open champion (Morikawa); the FedEx Cup champ (Patrick Cantlay); golf’s biggest hitter and biggest attraction (Bryson DeChambeau). The Euros have the U.S. Open winner and No. 1-ranked player in the world (Jon Rahm); a Ryder Cup superhero (Ian Poulter); and a four-time major champion who still has time to carve his legacy as the best European player of all time (McIlroy).
It’ll just be the shots that matter. “I’ve watched many Ryder Cups on TV and it’s who makes the putts, who flips those matches, who grinds out the halves and who gets it done,” said Justin Thomas, who is expected to pair with Jordan Spieth for the U.S. “We have 12 unbelievable players, they have 12 unbelievable players and it’s really just who’s going to execute the best.”
History says it is usually the Europeans who do that. They’re 7-2 in the 21st century.
So don’t call the Euros the underdogs this week at Whistling Straits. Don’t even suggest it.
Or have you learned nothing?