When Ryder Cup vice captain Jim Furyk looks around the United States’ team room this week at Hazeltine National Golf Club, he will see his contemporary Phil Mickelson, with whom he contested Europe nine times in the biennial team competition.
Then he’ll turn and see 20-somethings Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed, Brooks Koepka, Rickie Fowler, even possibly Justin Thomas or Daniel Berger by Sunday night, the oldest of whom was 6 years old when Mickelson played his first Ryder Cup.
“That’s just how the world works,” said Furyk, who, like Mickelson, is 46. “It’s probably not so strange that those young guys are there and maybe a little more strange that Phil and I are still hanging around.”
There’s a new generation of Americans coming to Hazeltine National Golf Club and the Ryder Cup this week, which probably is a good thing considering this year’s home team has lost to Europe eight of the past 10 times out.
The PGA of America’s “task force” has formulated a game plan for the next decade, intended to build the kind of comprehensive, competitive program it has lacked during its Ryder Cup losing streak.
Now, more important, it just might have a young core of players to take it there for the next five Ryder Cups and beyond.
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Spieth said, “but every four or five years you’d be talking about another group of young guys coming up.”
True enough. Anybody remember the names Tiger Woods, Anthony Kim, Hunter Mahan, J.B. Holmes, Jeff Overton, Dustin Johnson, Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson, Fowler and Spieth?
Some yes and some no.
Consider two-time Ryder Cup player Kenny Perry — member of the last U.S. team to win a Ryder Cup, in 2008 in Louisville, Ky. — a goblet-half-full guy.
“Our future looks fantastic,” said Perry, who now plays on the PGA Tour Champions. “Maybe that’s what our Ryder Cup needs is a shot of youth on our team to bring more enthusiasm, more excitement. I hope they finally win. I’m sick of watching the Europeans win. … I love the youth that we see coming up now.”
Hoping youngsters ‘can put a spark in us’
Spieth, Reed, Koepka and Fowler all have been named to the U.S. team already. Fowler, who turns 28 in December, is the oldest of those four. Two-time Masters winner and PGA Tour veteran Bubba Watson is the favorite to become the 12th and final selection when U.S. captain Davis Love III announces that pick on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” depending on Sunday’s finish at the season-ending Tour Championship in Atlanta.
“There are a lot of our young guys who are really good, talented players,” said world No. 2 player Dustin Johnson, the U.S. team’s top qualifier. “Hopefully, they can put a spark in us and we can bring home the Cup. It has been a long time. I haven’t been on a team yet to bring home the Ryder Cup.”
Love invited Watson, Thomas and Berger to a practice round with team members such as Spieth, Fowler, Mickelson, Brandt Snedeker and Jimmy Walker last Monday at Hazeltine National. Depending on the Tour Championship’s Sunday finish, Love still could make Thomas or Berger — both of whom are 23 — his final captain’s pick.
Love remembers Spieth’s presence on the 2013 Presidents Cup team, when he was just 20, and Fowler’s presence on the 2010 Ryder Cup team, when he was 21.
“When Jordan walked in, he just lit the room up,” Love said. “When [captain] Corey Pavin picked Rickie as a rookie to go to Wales, it was just exciting. Here’s a young kid and he’s hot and flashy and he’s making a bunch of putts. Sometimes you just need that. You just need something different in the mix.
“What you need is a balance. You want some veterans like Phil, some middle-of-the-pack guys like a Brandt Snedeker or a Zach Johnson and you want some youth.”
If it is new blood needed, well, half the European team — that’s right, six of 12 — are first-timers at a Ryder Cup this week at Hazeltine National. Star Rory McIlroy is only 27, too, and said he is just starting to get comfortable at Ryder Cups after playing three of them already.
“Experience, I don’t know if that’s necessarily a good thing or bad thing for our team,” U.S. vice captain Steve Stricker said. “A lot of our experience is on the losing end of things.”
U.S. hoping it has a successful formula
Unless Love selects Thomas or Berger as his 12th man, the U.S. team will have just one Ryder Cup rookie, 26-year-old Koepka.
All of them, including Thomas and Berger, have won at least once on the PGA Tour, though, and Spieth has two major championships on his résumé as well.
“Their young guys aren’t rookies,” said 2013 U.S. Open and Olympic champion Justin Rose, one of Europe’s best. “They aren’t scarred by previous Ryder Cups. They have a world of experience in big tournaments, major championships. They’re a very strong team.”
Mickelson doesn’t consider himself the savvy veteran who needs to tend to a team smattered with such youth. He said he considers himself the U.S. team’s third-leading qualifier who must play his best and do his part to win big points, just like his younger teammates must do.
“A guy like Spieth is going to be a mainstay for the U.S. team for a number of years,” Mickelson said. “He has been on three teams [two Presidents Cups, one Ryder Cup] now. This will be his fourth. It’s time for him to take over a leadership role and help lead us to some victories.”
Spieth parlayed his first Ryder Cup appearance two years ago in Scotland into a stunning 2015 season when he won the Masters and the U.S. Open and contended seriously in the other two majors.
Reed has won five times on the PGA Tour and just turned 26 last month. Koepka, Berger and Thomas all contended at events and didn’t take long to turn those experiences into victories.
Now they all are — or could be — part of a team that has won 11 majors among all of them.
“Guys are getting fearless younger and having success,” Spieth said. “They’re just quick learners, quick closers. It only takes one or two misses and then they figure it out. That’s really good. The combination of experience, a little bit of scar tissue some of our older players have wanting to right the wrong of Ryder Cups past and some new blood, I think that’s a successful formula.
“It’s nothing you necessarily have to search for because it’s already kind of falling in place that way.”