U.S. Ryder Cup Fingerpointing Missing the Point

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It was probably inevitable that the American Ryder Cup machine would begin to crumble in on itself this year, what with its third straight loss a month ago, its eighth in the last 10. When it comes to such a dramatic and emotional tournament, defeat is painful for either side to bear, and this lasting European dominance has finally revealed more than a few cracks in the American foundation.

When the levee breaks

While the most dramatic of those losses – the historic 2012 implosion at Medinah – had more to do with collective failure under pressure than any strategy, the aftermath of this year’s loss and Tom Watson’s captaincy have brought up questions about what goes into winning the Cup and whether drastic change is necessary for the U.S.

Certainly, Phil Mickelson’s harsh words on Watson’s failed decision-making at the post-loss presser fanned the flames. (And just on that note: isn’t it funny how a “brutal,” “searing,” and “back-stabbing” press conference in golf is actually just a calm, civil discussion? Awkward, sure, but still the politest Caesar-ing I’ve ever seen).

O Captain, My Captain

So, what’s wrong with the American approach? We can all probably agree that Watson made some questionable decisions when it came to pairings and hot-hand strategy on Friday and Saturday. While the Americans actually did well in the morning sessions (winning 5 out of 8 points), Watson benched a pretty successful Jordan Spieth/Patrick Reed pair on Friday and stuck with a Rickie Fowler/Jimmy Walker group for all four rounds (which netted only three halves and a loss). He also left Mickelson and Keegan Bradley on the bench for all of Saturday, which probably contributed to Phil’s, um, temperament come presser time.

What really seems to have caused the flood of criticism though seems to be Watson’s handling of a team dinner on Saturday. Apparently, the captain presided over the players, caddies, and spouses dinner by lambasting his players’ performance and taking no responsibility whatsoever for any poor results. Whatever happened obviously riled up the team’s biggest star and led many participants to question the Cap’n both on and off the record.

Pod people

In the most direct affront to Watson, Phil pointed to Paul Azinger’s successful captaincy of the 2008 team at Valhalla as a shining example of what works in this type of format, aka the “pod” strategy – an approach that Phil was quick to point out also contributes to quite a bit of American success in the Presidents Cup.

Basically, this strategy breaks up the larger team into “pods,” which more directly invests the players in decision-making, motivation, and in their fellow pod-mates’ performance and success.

Watson, on the other hand, seems to have relied most heavily on the counsel of his “outside-the-ropes” vice captains (Andy North, Steve Stricker, and Raymond Floyd). And when the teams underperformed after lunch for whatever reason, Watson turned around and berated them for not playing well.

Wait, hold up, what was that last part? Players not playing well?

Mirror, mirror

Phil, the players, and fans can be as upset as they want about Ryder Cup captain “strategery,” but a lot of that criticism obscures the simple fact that American golfers simply haven’t gotten the job done at the Ryder Cup.

If you’re looking for somewhere to place the blame, why not look at poor performance? Check out Jim Furyk’s overall Ryder Cup record of 10-20-4, a whopping 2-8-1 in four-ball. You know who else is terrible at Ryder Cups? Tiger Woods.

All strategy aside, if your best players aren’t successful at this particular format, chances are you’re not going to fare too well in the win column.

In the open letter Watson released post-press conference, he detailed how he urged his players to “really concentrate on holes 2-5 [in Sunday singles matches], as the Europeans had won too many early battles on these particular holes.” The Americans did just that, pulling even in potential points early.

But then the Americans did as the Americans do: They let victory slip from their fingers on Sunday, not as individuals missing a lipper here or there, but as a collective. While Spieth, Furyk, and Mahan all squandered away early leads, Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson, and Keegan Bradley all got completely WORKED, barely looking alive and present in their matches.

The bottom line is that American golfers just haven’t played well enough to beat their possibly superior counterparts, and it’s debatable whether any amount of captain’s strategy could’ve changed that.

Don’t worry, there’s a task force

In response to the losing streak and Pod-gate, the PGA of America has put together a task force to take a closer look at how captains and teams are selected, timelines, and general strategy concerns. And it’s worth noting that Phil and Tiger are on said force – while Watson is notably absent.

Whether this team of rivals can right the ship and win the Cup at Hazeltine in 2016, well, we’ll just have to tune in to find out.

But you can probably bet on one thing: there’ll be pods.

What do you think the U.S. can do to improve its chances?

James Lower
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