It’s been 25 years since the United States team won the Ryder Cup in Europe, but the U.S. losing streak is not quite as bad it as appears.
Or is it?
There have been just six Ryder Cup matches played in Europe over the past quarter century, but the Americans’ record in the U.S. during that span is less than stellar, especially compared with the Europeans’ home record.
Europe is 3-3 in the last six Ryder Cups played in the U.S., with the teams 4-4 since the biennial matches became competitive in 1985. Since then, Europe holds a 10-5-1 lead, with the U.S. team winning just once in Europe the past 30-plus years, that coming in 1993.
There has been some speculation that this is one of the strongest squads the Americans have fielded in the Ryder Cup, but a closer examination of the U.S. indicates that it is a team that may not be well suited for the venue.
Le Golf National in Paris is the host course, and is known for its narrow fairways, significant rough and some dangerous holes with water very much in play, especially Nos. 1and 2 and three of the last four. It is not a course that favors longer hitters, as evidenced by the list of winners in the French Open, which has been played there since 1991.
Alex Noren, one of the European team’s most accomplished putters, won the 2018 French Open by one shot over Russell Knox, one of the PGA Tour’s shorter hitters, with Tommy Fleetwood, an excellent ball striker, the 2017 champion. Previous winners include a succession of non-bombers, including Graeme McDowell back-to-back in 2013 and ’14.
On the other hand, one of the Europeans’ longest hitters – Jon Rahm – has a pair of top 10s in the French Open, the latter this year, and American Justin Thomas tied for eighth in Paris a few weeks prior to the British Open. Because of the design, Thomas said Le Golf National will take driver out of the hands of players on many holes, which will negate the advantage in length held by the American team.
On paper, the U.S. seems particularly formidable, with 11 of the top 17 players in the World Rankings. At 25, Phil Mickelson is the lowest ranked American, with half of Europe’s team outside the top 20. Europe also has five Ryder Cup rookies to three for the U.S., one of whom is Thomas, a major champion. Nine of the 12 Americans include a major in their resumes to just five for the Europeans.
Obviously, the Ryder Cup is not played on paper, and a big question for the U.S. team is how well-suited they are for Le Golf National, considering the problems several American players have in hitting fairways, which will be at a premium in Paris.
Mickelson finished next to last in fairways hit on the PGA Tour this season, and Patrick Reed and Ryder Cup rookie Tony Finau weren’t much better. Mickelson could pair with Finau given his preference for partnering with Ryder Cup rookies.
The only U.S. team member to finish in the top 90 in fairways hit was Rickie Fowler, with accuracy off the tee a particular key in alternate shot matches, where the U.S. seems especially vulnerable.
The nine Americans with Ryder Cup experience have a combined career record of 14-21-11 in alternate shot, compared to 25-14-6 for the Europeans. After his win in the Tour Championship at East Lake last week, some might think the addition of Tiger Woods to the U.S. team for the first time since 2012 is all we need to bring the cup back home, but history does not bear that out.
Even when he was the game’s undisputed No. 1 player, Woods was never successful in Ryder Cup matches, going 9-16-1 in the two team formats (he’s 4-1-2 in singles). He has played in seven Ryder Cups and the U.S. has won exactly one of them, that one just barely in 1999. The two best performances by the American team in the modern history of the event (2008 and ’16) both came with Tiger on the sidelines.
The U.S. will need a better showing from Woods this year, especially in alternate shot, where the Americans are without the likes of Ryder Cup veterans Jim Furyk, Zach Johnson and Matt Kuchar, as well as 2017 Presidents Cup standout Kevin Kisner. Furyk is the captain of the U.S. team, with Johnson and Kuchar among his assistants.
Of the five American assistants, three reside on St. Simons Island (Johnson, Kuchar and two-time captain Davis Love), with Kuchar one of two former Georgia Tech golfers serving as an assistant along with David Duval, who is taking a break from his broadcast duties.
The only players on the team with Georgia ties are current Masters champion Reed and two-time Masters winner Bubba Watson, both of whom played their college golf in the state.
This will be Watson’s fourth Ryder Cup appearance and Reed’s third, and the two have starkly different records. Reed has been part of the best American duo in the last two matches along with playing partner Jordan Spieth, combining for a 4-1-2 mark in team play. Reed is also 2-0 in singles, including his memorable victory over Rory McIlroy two years ago.
Watson has been respectable in best ball matches (3-3), but is 0-2 in alternate shot (don’t expect to see him in that format) and 0-3 in singles. After winning the WGC Match Play Championship earlier this year, he will take a shot at improving his singles record, but like a few of his teammates, is coming off a disappointing showing last week at East Lake.
Mickelson, Watson, Reed and 2018 U.S. Open and PGA champion Brooks Koepka occupied the last four positions in the final Tour Championship standings. All four had some positive results in earlier Playoffs events, but neither Reed nor Mickelson has been in top form in recent months.
Although he has had more success in the two most recent Ryder Cups, Mickelson’s career record remains underwhelming (13-15-6 in team matches, 5-5-1 in singles), in part because he seems to bring out the best in his singles opponents on Sunday, such as Justin Rose in 2014 and Sergio Garcia in ’16.
While Woods and Mickelson are a combined 31-37-10 in the Ryder Cup, Europe’s top players have impressive records. Garcia is 16-7-6 in team matches (just 3-4-1 in singles) and has played his best golf in the Ryder Cup, even when coming into the matches struggling with his game, which has been the case for most of 2018.
Rose is 11-6-2 and McIlroy is 9-6-4, but both played poorly Sunday in the final round at East Lake with a chance to win the Tour Championship. Rose also let a late lead slip away on the 72nd hole in the previous Playoffs event.
Garcia, Rose and McIlroy form the heart of the European team along with veterans Henrik Stenson and Ian Poulter. Stenson (7-7-2) is the only one of the five without a winning record, with Poulter (12-4-2) near perfect in alternate shot matches (4-1) and singles (4-0). He was almost single-handedly responsible for Europe’s come-from-behind win in the U.S. in 2012.
The only two other European members with Ryder Cup experience are Francesco Molinari and Paul Casey, who last played in 2008. Casey has a history of struggling when in contention during the final round, while Molinari is 0-3-2 in his two appearances, although his outstanding recent play that includes his victory in the British Open suggests he may do better this time. Look for both in alterrnate shot matches.
Fleetwood has played some of his best golf in big events over the past year, and is the most likely of Europe’s rookies to make a big impact on the matches. Rahm will be a key in best ball, with Noren, along with Rose Europe’s two best putters, more of an alternate shot player. Europe has a habit of sitting out at least one or two of its rookies for multiple matches in team play, and that could be the case for both Tyrrell Hatton and Thorbjorn Olesen.
The big question for U.S. captain Furyk is finding eight players to form four quality alternate shot teams. Because of their inaccuracy off the tee, the trio of Mickelson, Watson and Finau may be relegated to best ball only, and Webb Simpson, one of the straighter drivers on the American team, struggles out of the rough. He would appear to be an alternate shot type player, but has played just one session in that format in two previous appearances.
Furyk has some tough decisions to make regarding pairings. Does he keep Reed and Spieth together after their recent successes? Does he pair workout partners Dustin Johnson and Koepka, who have similar games, or split them up to team with the likes of Simpson or Fowler? Woods has played a lot with Ryder Cup rookie Bryson DeChambeau, but is the somewhat quirky DeChambeau the best player to hold up under the intense spotlight that comes with partnering with Tiger?
The third U.S. rookie is Thomas, who may have the best all-around game on the U.S. squad and could be very useful in both formats, reportedly as a possible partner for Spieth. Fowler, whose accuracy and solid tee-to-green game makes him a quality choice for alternate shot, does not have a great record in team play (1-3-4), He is 2-4-5 overall in his three appearances, although he has played better than his record.
Johnson, who should be one of the American stalwarts with his power game and underrated putting touch, is 3-0 in singles but just 3-5 in team matches. He will need to improve on his 2-4 mark in best ball if the U.S. is going to win in Europe for the first time in 25 years. Koepka, whose three major titles the last two years have been largely overlooked, went 3-1 in his debut two years ago, and will be a key performer for the U.S., although his sometimes suspect putting could be a drawback.
Although the vast majority of the focus of the matches will be on Woods, as it always is when he’s playing, the American to watch most closely is Spieth. He did not play up to his standards this year and was the lone American to fail to qualify for the Tour Championship, largely due to some uncharacteristic putting woes.
If he can’t return to form in Paris, the U.S. may be in for another long week and would likely require a big showing in Sunday singles to avert another loss across the ocean.