PITTSBURGH – Sunday was good to sports woebegones. Cleveland won a championship, exorcising ghosts named Earnest Byner and Jose Mesa. Dustin Johnson conquered demons in his cranium and those employed by the USGA.
Which brings us to this autumn, and a state that is the new symbol of sports futility, and an event that is as capable of embarrassing America as an overeager golf rules official.
The Cavaliers’ and Kevin Love’s championship means Minneapolis-St. Paul is the metro area with the longest championship drought in Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NBA and the NHL, although Lynx fans are quick to note that their team’s longest drought this decade is one year long.
This fall, Hazeltine National will host the Ryder Cup. Johnson’s victory at the U.S. Open at Oakmont this weekend is a wonderful sign for the club on the shores of Lake Hazeltine and the United States’ chances of a rare Ryder Cup victory.
Johnson is the best golfing athlete in the world. Winning a major title — breaking the seal that contains so much angst — could lead to a breakthrough for him. If he can continue to thrive in majors he will join the supposed and temporary Big Three — Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy — among current golfing royalty.
If Johnson earns membership to that club, the United States will boast two of the four best players in the world, and another one of those is Australian. That’s an advantage for the Americans, having more firepower at the top of their Ryder Cup lineup even with Tiger Woods idle.
The Americans’ last Ryder Cup victory, and their only win in the past seven tries, came at Valhalla in 2008 when Woods was injured. That weekend, the U.S. benefited from a few fresh faces and played as if unburdened by past failures or Woods’ puzzlingly mediocre Ryder Cup record.
Midway through the 2016 U.S. Open, Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia, two faces representing European Ryder Cup success, flirted with the lead.
By the end of the tournament, it was American Ryder Cup hopefuls who had surged. Johnson broke through. Brooks Koepka played an eight-hole stretch of the last round in 8 under par. Of the 11 players tied for eighth or better, only two were Euros: Shane Lowry and Garcia.
The Americans among the top 11: Johnson, Jim Furyk, Scott Piercy, Kevin Na, Jason Dufner, Zach Johnson and Daniel Summerhays.
The top 10 Americans on the Ryder Cup points list are Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Koepka, Phil Mickelson, Zach Johnson, Bubba Watson, Brandt Snedeker, Rickie Fowler, Patrick Reed and Matt Kuchar.
That’s a formidable team, especially if Dustin Johnson is filled with confidence come Sept. 30.
Of course, the Europeans are formidable no matter their world rankings or reputations entering the event. While he seems to have been around championship golf longer than the Stimpmeter, Garcia is only 36 and at his best in international competitions.
But while the Americans will be without Woods, who has not always been an asset in the competition, the European side will be without Ian Poulter and Paul Casey. Poulter has an injured foot and Casey is ineligible. Poulter led the stunning European comeback at Medinah in 2012 and is a spectacular 12-4-2 in Ryder Cup matches, giving him the most victories and the highest winning percentage in Euro Ryder Cup history.
There are miles to go before the teams are selected. There is the British Open and the PGA Championship, and there will be difficult decisions for captains Darren Clarke and Davis Love III.
At the moment, following Dustin Johnson’s remarkable Sunday, the U.S. and Hazeltine have reason for optimism.