By Mike Blum
When U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III was discussing his four choices to add to the team, he made a point that he wasn’t a stat guy and didn’t focus that much on numbers.
From Love’s perspective as captain, that may be a good thing, because the numbers as they relate to the Ryder Cup are not especially promising for the U.S. team.
On paper, this is one of the strongest teams the U.S. has fielded. Ryder Cup veterans Phil Mickelson (22) and Jim Furyk (30) are the only Americans not in the top 20 in the World Rankings, and the team is so deep that the No. 19 (Hunter Mahan) and 20 (Nick Watney) players did not make the squad.
Unfortunately for the U.S., the positive numbers pretty much begin and end with the respective World Rankings.
The Ryder Cup was a one-side competition for most of its history, with the U.S. losing just once between 1935 and 1983. The matches took on a more competitive nature when the Great Britain/Ireland team expanded to become a European side in 1979, with the U.S, losing in 1985 for the first time in almost three decades.
Since then, the U.S, team has won just four of 13 matches, with one Ryder Cup ending in a tie which enabled Europe to retain the Cup. The Americans are just 3-3 on home soil, with the teams alternating victories since 1983.
On that basis, this is Europe’s year to win in the U.S., with the 2012 match set for Sept. 28-30 at Medinah in suburban Chicago. If you examine the respective Ryder Cup records of the two teams, the likelihood of a European victory appears quite likely.
Of Europe’s 11 players with Ryder Cup experience, only two have losing records, and both of them have played in just one match each.
Of the eight U.S, players with Ryder Cup experience, six have losing records, with two others sporting a career .500 mark. Mahan would have been the lone American with a winning Ryder Cup record (3-2-3), but was left off the team in favor of two hot players (one of them a rookie) and a 7-time Ryder Cup participant whose career won-last mark is a dismal 8-15-4.
The main reason Europe has enjoyed so much success in the Ryder Cup since the mid-1980s is simple. The Euros have dominated the team matches, more than negating American success in singles.
The current members of the European team are 21-10-10 in four-ball matches and a staggering 29-7-7 in foursomes (alternate shot). The U.S. players are 15-28-5 and 13-24-9 in best ball and alternate shot.
Furyk has competed in 10 four-ball matches. His record is 1-8-1. Mickelson is 2-5-4 in foursomes and a surprisingly unsuccessful 5-8-2 in four-ball. Tiger Woods also has a losing record in both – 4-7-1 in foursomes, 5-6 in four-ball.
Mahan was 3-1-2 in team matches, but his recent stretch of unexceptional play cost him a spot in favor of Furyk, rookie Brandt Snedeker and Dustin Johnson, who went 0-3 in team matches in his first Ryder Cup appearance two years ago.
No one has a ready explanation for why the U.S. has done so poorly in team matches, or why the Euros have done so well in the team format. But the numbers are stark.
The four European players who have competed in at least three Ryder Cups have put up some impressive records in team matches. Lee Westwood is a combined 14-6-6. Sergio Garcia is 13-2-4 and unbeaten in nine foursomes matches. Luke Donald and Ian Poulter are a combined 9-0 in foursomes, with Donald the only European sporting a losing record in four-ball (0-1-1).
The playing records of the two Ryder Cup captains also follow the pattern. Love was 9-12-5, going 6-11-3 in team matches. Jose Maria Olazabal was 16-4-4 in team matches, 2-4-1 in singles compared to Love’s mark of 3-1-2.
If the two teams are evaluated without previous Ryder Cup results, the U.S. has a clear advantage. Europe’s top players (Westwood, Donald, No. 1-ranked Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell) are certainly a match for their American counterparts, but the U.S. is stronger up and down its lineup.
Martin Kaymer, one of only four European players with a major championship, has not played especially well this year, and with a notable exception or two, has not enjoyed much success in the U.S.
Paul Lawrie has enjoyed something of a career rebirth, but will be hard-pressed to match his 3-1-1 mark from his lone Ryder Cup appearance from 1999.
Francesco Molinari was winless in his first Ryder Cup start two years ago, and like several of his teammates, including lone rookie Nicolas Colsaerts, has not played that extensively in the U.S.
One Euro player who has played well in the U.S. is Peter Hanson, but he did not enjoy the best Ryder Cup debut two years ago. On the other hand, PGA Tour member Justin Rose was 3-1 the last time the Ryder Cup was played in America, teaming with Poulter for a pair of wins.
Love will have some interesting decisions regarding how to mix and match his players in the awkward Ryder Cup format, which requires four players to sit out each team session. For an event that takes second billing to the storied Ryder Cup, the Presidents Cup has a superior format in every regard, but don’t look for the Ryder Cup to change any time soon, much to the chagrin of the eight idle players.
Having so many players sitting out gives captains the option of limiting the playing time for the team’s second-tier members, as well as “platooning” those whose games may be better suited to best ball as opposed to alternate shot.
Love has more of a stylistic disparity on his team, with Mickelson, Bubba Watson, Keegan Bradley and Dustin Johnson better suited to four-ball, and Furyk,Zach Johnson, Jason Dufner and Matt Kuchar more oriented toward foursomes.
Dufner is one of four U.S. rookies along with Webb Simpson, Bradley and Snedeker, with Simpson the lone member of the quartet with Presidents Cup experience. He and Watson formed a successful team in the 2011 Presidents Cup matches, as did Mickelson and Furyk.
It’s assumed that Woods will again be paired with Steve Stricker, but that duo was broken up after they were drubbed 7&6 in the opening session. Woods was paired with the long-hitting Dustin Johnson for the rest of the team matches, but they didn’t fare much better, going 1-2 against mostly second tier International teams.
The U.S. team has lost four of the last five Ryder Cups, with the lone American win coming in 2008 with Woods sidelined with an injury. On paper, that was one of the least impressive of recent American teams. But without the sport’s most prominent media magnet, the U.S. jelled and scored its only decisive victory in the competition since 1981.
Mickelson has typically struggled in Ryder Cup play, but has been willing to pair up with rookies or players who were not at the top of their games. He showed some signs of life with his recent showing in the Deutsche Bank Championship, but will need to give the U.S. team more production than he has managed for most of his Ryder Cup career.
About half the players have some history at Medinah, with Woods winning the second of his two PGA Championships at the course in 2006. Garcia was 2ndbehind Woods at Medinah in 1999 and tied for 3rd along with Donald in ’06. Stricker and Poulter both scored top 10s that year, with Mickelson T16.
Based on recent Ryder Cup history, the Europeans are the team to beat. Based on the relative merits of the 12 players on each team, the Americans are the team to beat. Home soil and talent should make the U.S. a slight favorite.
But the Euros have proven to be the more resilient team, and with the ability to ride their horses and sit their out-of-form players, they could make it five wins in six matches with another strong showing in team sessions.
If the Americans are close heading to the singles, they should win. But that’s a big if.