The PGA of America gave Davis Love a mulligan after his first stint as U.S. Ryder Cup captain ended dismally after a strong start in the team matches in 2012 at Medinah.
The American team let a 10-6 lead going into singles get away, as the Europeans went 8-3-1 the final day to defeat the U.S. 14 ½ to 13 ½.
This time at Hazeltine, the U.S. lead was 9 ½ – 6 ½ going into singles. But unlike 2012, the U.S. produced a strong Sunday showing the result in just the third American win in the past two decades. The U.S. is 3-8 since last winning in Europe in 1993, but the emergence of a new generation of talent on this side of the Atlantic is cause for optimism about American fortunes in the event going forward.
The U.S. won the most recent matches 17-11, taking a 3-point lead after two days of team play before going 7-4-1 in singles, with the lone half coming in what was one of the greatest matches from start to finish in Ryder Cup history.
Although there were some obvious standouts for the winning U.S. team (Patrick Reed, Brooks Koepka, Brant Snedeker and Phil Mickelson), this was a true team victory. All 12 American players won at least one match, and only two (Jimmy Walker and J.B. Holmes) finished with losing records at 1-2.
Love was given the relatively rare opportunity of a second shot as captain after a losing debut, and displayed a little more flexibility this time, shaking up his lineup in the final four-ball session after going the entire way in 2012 with the same six teams.
The U.S. captain split up a winning team from the first four-ball session (Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar), sending out Johnson with Koepka and Kuchar with Mickelson, the first time the two had been paired together in a Ryder/Presidents Cup . Although the teams split their two matches, the pairings worked nicely, as both carded nine birdies. Mickelson and Kuchar won, while Johnson and Koepka lost to Rory McIlroy and Thomas Pieters, who were 11-under for 17 holes.
The U.S., which swept the opening alternate session to jump out to a 4-0 lead, went 3-1 the next day in best ball after losing by the same score in that format the day before. That gave the Americans a solid 3-pont lead heading into singles.
One reason Love was given a second chance was that the potential players for the 2016 U.S. squad were strongly in favor of his returning as captain, as there was little to find fault with Love’s decisions the first time he was captain.
The U.S. lost in 2012 because Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker went 0-3 in the team matches (Love sat them out in one session) and the U.S. lineup faltered in singles. In Woods’ seven appearances on the U.S. Ryder Cup team, the Americans went 1-6. The three U.S. teams without Woods are 2-1, also winning in 2008.
Love had four captain’s picks for this year’s team, and selected the second, third and fourth highest ranked players in the Ryder Cup points standings who did not qualify for the team. He twice passed over Bubba Watson, the No. 7 player in the world rankings and the highest ranked player in the Ryder Cup standings who did not make the team, going for Kuchar, Rickie Fowler and Holmes for his first three picks and Ryan Moore as his final choice after Moore lost in a playoff in the Tour Championship.
The one curious decision Love made in regard to his lineups was playing Moore both days in best ball and not playing him in alternate shot, which would seem to be his better format. Moore paired with Holmes both days and contributed very little in either match. It was speculated that Holmes was going to be paired with Watson in four-ball play had Watson made the team, and it appears that instead of trying to figure out how to best utilize Moore in the team matches, Love simply plugged him into the spot that Watson would have filled.
Moore, who compiled an outstanding match play record during his amateur days, rewarded Love for his decision, rallying from 2 down with three holes to play to defeat Lee Westwood 1-up to score the winning point. Moore won the 16th hole with an eagle, the 17th with a birdie and the 18th with a par after an excellent approach to the par 4 put him in birdie position.
While the U.S. team has deservedly been praised for its victory, a closer look reveals that the losing European team was not among the stronger lineups the Americans have faced since the matches became competitive in the mid-1980s.
Three of the six European rookies played only once in team matches and went a combined 1-5 in the Ryder Cup. Masters champion Danny Willett was relentlessly heckled by vocal American loudmouths after his brother made some very unflattering comments about U.S. golf fans in a blog post. He was 0-3 in his Ryder Cup debut, twice failing to get past the 14th hole.
Willett, Andy Sullivan and Matthew Fitzpatrick were a combined 0-7 and veterans Martin Kaymer and Westwood were 1-6, with Kaymer’s only victory coming in singles after the U.S. had already clinched its victory. On a day when Mickelson and Sergio Garcia shot 63, Stenson was 8-under, Koepka 6-under and a host of others 4 or 5-under, Sullivan, Willett and Fitzpatrick all failed to finish under par in their singles matches, none of which reached the 18th hole.
The Euros got strong showings from rookies Thomas Pieters (4-1) and the under-utilized duo of Rafa Cabrera-Bello (2-0-1) and Chris Wood (1-1 with a tough singles loss to D.J.), but when five of your 12 players contribute little or nothing, the chances of victory are minimal.
Even with the snub of Bubba, who contributed to the team as a last-minute addition as an assistant captain, the U.S. team had three players with Georgia ties among its 12 participants, along with the captain.
Former Augusta State star Reed was one of the U.S. leaders, going 2-1-1 in team play with Jordan Spieth, who contributed little in a decisive victory over Euro stalwarts Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson in the final four-ball session. Reed had seven birdies and an eagle in that match, one day after he and Spieth were steamrolled by Rose and Stenson in four-ball.
After a strong showing in alternate shot in the first match of the Ryder Cup, a win over Rose and Stenson, Reed and Spieth squandered a 4-up lead after 12 holes in alternate shot the next day against Garcia and Cabrera-Bello, carding six birdies over the first 12 holes before making three straight bogeys
For eight holes, Reed’s leadoff singles match against Rory McIlroy was likely the most explosive battle in Ryder Cup history, with both players 5-under at that point after each produced a succession of great shots and monster putts. Neither could sustain that level of play the rest of the way, but Reed won the match with two birdies on the last three holes to thwart the European home of running the table in the early matches.
Fowler also helped in that regard with a less spectacular win over Rose, and Mickelson did more than his share, getting only a half point despite 10 birdies in his match against Garcia.
Mickelson’s Ryder Cup record has been stellar early and late in his career, with a pronounced dip in the middle, which coincided with America’s struggles. He split two matches with Fowler the first day, and teamed nicely with Kuchar for a key win in four-ball on Saturday.
Kuchar and Dustin Johnson resumed their 2014 partnership the first day, winning easily in alternate shot, but Kuchar did not provide much help in four-ball that afternoon in a loss. Love paired him in that format the next day with Mickelson, with the two making for the best-natured pairing of the matches.
After leading 3-up in singles against Kaymer after a sizzling start, Kaymer rallied to win 1-up in a match decided well after the U.S. had wrapped up its victory. Kuchar finished with a 2-2 record.
As has been the case in most of his Ryder Cup appearances, Zach Johnson served as an alternate shot specialist, splitting two matches with new partner Walker. Johnson and Walker were 1-down after 11 holes the first day against Garcia and Kaymer and had not won a hole, but won the next five holes in succession, three with birdies, to win 4-2 in a U.S. sweep of the session.
Johnson and Walker were 3-down to Rose and Wood the next day after 13 holes, and almost pulled off another comeback, winning 14 and 16 with birdies before losing 1-up. Johnson made sure there would be no late rally in singles by the Euros, pulling away on the back nine to win the anchor match 4&3 over Fitzpatrick. Johnson was one of three St. Simons Island residents who were part of the U.S. victory along with Kuchar and captain Love.
There was a lot of attention focused on the task force created after the most recent U.S. loss at Gleneagles in 2014, with the players having more input into decision making after Tom Watson received criticism, most of it from Mickelson, for not including the players more.
The only visible impact of the task force was the “Billy Horschel rule,” which gave Love a last-minute pick. Horschel was not picked two years ago before winning the last two Playoffs events, including the Tour Championship, after the roster was finalized.
That resulted in Love essentially being forced to select Moore with the pick to justify the process, leaving the U.S. with a team that did not fit the two Ryder Cup formats as well as it would have with Watson on the squad. But it did make the U.S. stronger in singles, as Watson is winless in Ryder/Presidents Cup play.
It denied golf fans an entertaining Holmes/Watson pairing in four-ball, but the already rowdy U.S. fans didn’t need any more incentive. Some of the spectators from the Howard Stern/Donald Trump segment of the populace were outright rude and boorish toward the Euros, something the NBC broadcasters made an effort to ignore.
Since the “War at the Shore” at Kiawah Island in 1991, the Ryder Cup has taken on a more contentious atmosphere, with the crowds moving in the direction from partisan to insulting. Let’s hope the 2018 galleries in Paris don’t become more like a European soccer crowd.