In the many months since their side lost another one, prospective U.S. Ryder Cup members dined at Jack Nicklaus’ Florida home, lobbed wedge shots on the four-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots’ turfed field and were fitted en masse for designer outfits 12 of them will proudly unveil this week at Hazeltine National Golf Club.
Depending upon your viewpoint, those inclusive outings will beget a more unified, better-prepared effort in the biennial match-play team competition starting Friday or else it is enough excess to make a European’s eyes roll.
Eight years after captain Paul Azinger’s unconventional philosophies helped bring the Americans the only Ryder Cup they’ve won since 1999, the home team is back with a forward-thinking game plan formulated by an 11-person “task force” that brought back Davis Love III as captain from the 2012 team and modified the qualifying process, among its many decisions.
It was assembled with current players, past captains and PGA of America officials to reverse fortunes now that U.S. team has lost the past three Ryder Cups and eight of the last 10.
Three days at Hazeltine National won’t answer whether team-building is more important than getting your best players — Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson to name two these past 20 years — to play their best.
But it’s a start.
The easy answer for the Europeans’ success since 1995 is their cohesiveness and a culture in which competitors from countries across their continent come together as a team because they spent their formative years traveling and socializing together. The Americans, by contrast, often are perceived as 12 corporations, each onto itself.
“It’s a team competition, it’s a team spirit,” said former European team star Bernhard Langer, who played 10 Ryder Cups and captained a winning 2004 team. “That’s what the Ryder Cup is all about.”
Players in a pod
Ultimately, though, isn’t golf just a game all about one guy, a stick and a ball?
“It is, except for the first two days,” Love said. “One match each day you’re alternating shots with a guy and you better get along with that guy good if you’re going to put him in the rough or if you’re going to miss a 4-footer for him. You better be a pretty good team that handles adversity well or handles success well. Even though we’re 12 guys playing an individual sport, in the best-ball format where you play your own ball your partner is relying on you to make some birdies to keep him in the game.
“It is unusual for us because it becomes a very important team-building, bonding week for us.”
Azinger fully embraced the concept of team as captain in 2008. He applied a TV documentary on Navy SEAL training he happened upon one night and brought aboard a corporate-relationship specialist who helped him separate his team into three smaller “pods” consisting of four men each.
They did so based upon personality types rather than each player’s golf game. Phil Mickelson anchored an “aggressive” group, Stewart Cink and Steve Stricker anchored a “steady” group and Kentuckian Kenny Perry anchored an “inspirational” one that Azinger affectionately nicknamed his “Redneck” group at Valhalla Golf Club in Perry’s home state.
Azinger assigned one of his vice captains to a group and those groups practiced and played exclusively together that week. He also let the first nine players named to the team choose which of his final three captain’s picks would complete each group. By doing so, he believed he gave his players “ownership” in the team.
The U.S. team went out that week and beat the Europeans 16½ points to 11½. The Americans have lost the past three Ryder Cups since then.
“That really worked well. That showed what can be done as a captain,” Stricker said. “How we all came together that week was pretty special. Whether we can bring that to other teams and have that work is another thing.”
This time around, Stricker is one of Love’s vice captains assigned to his own group of four players. That pod concept is one of many ideas Love said he has borrowed from past U.S. captains — Azinger included — who he has relied upon four years after his team lost a big lead Sunday at Medinah Golf Club near Chicago.
Azinger believed personality, temperament and friendships trumped similarities or differences in players’ golf games when deciding pairings on Ryder Cup Fridays and Saturdays.
It’s a matter that has believers on both sides and in the middle as well.
“I don’t think the two guys necessarily need to be best friends, but they have to have a working relationship and their personalities have to blend,” said nine-time Ryder Cup player Jim Furyk, another vice captain this week. “You don’t put two alphas together and expect a great relationship.”
U.S. captain Hal Sutton tried that in 2004 when he paired Woods with Mickelson in an experiment Sutton said everybody wanted to see and somebody had to try at least once. The world’s second- and fourth-ranked players at the time labored and lost twice the first day, never were paired together again and the U.S. team lost lopsidedly.
“We’ve been guessing at this for a long time, haven’t we?” Sutton said when asked whether personality or complementary (or opposing) golf games matter most. “You know, I don’t have an answer for that, just like you don’t or anybody else doesn’t. The answer I have for that is: play well. If they play well, it takes care of everything. If they don’t play well, you can’t pair them out of playing poorly.
“Good is good and bad is bad and it has always been that way.”
Both Ryder Cup players past and present — such as Sutton and current world second-ranked Dustin Johnson — would prefer to let the mystery be.
“I think I can partner well with pretty much anyone — except for Phil,” Johnson said. “I’ve played with Jordan [Spieth] in the Presidents Cup and I played with Matt Kuchar the last Ryder Cup and we did well. I love Phil and we’re great friends, but we have a lot more fun when we’re playing against each other, not as partners.”
A team of two
Mickelson and Woods each have losing lifetime Ryder Cup records — two of Mickelson’s losses came soundly when paired with Johnson in 2010 in Wales. Meanwhile, European players who never won a major — Colin Montgomerie, Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood, to name four — have thrived come Ryder Cup time.
Only the pairing of Spaniards Seve Ballesteros and Jose-Maria Olazabal have won more points in Ryder Cup history than longtime friends Westwood and 2016 European Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke.
“We traveled the world together for many, many years,” Clarke said. “We played our practice rounds together week-in, week-out, wherever we were in the world. We never, ever apologized to each other because we never had to. We just knew each other inside out and that’s why we were successful.”
Langer theorizes the Americans should bond better because they’re from one country while the Europeans come from many different countries. But Europe’s best partnerships included two Spaniards together, Englishman Ian Woosnam and Sir Nick Faldo together, best pals Clarke and Westwood together.
“I know the U.S. sometimes gets knocked that they are not as close as the Europeans,” Kuchar said. “I always beg to differ. If anybody is ever in our team room, it is amazing camaraderie we have.”
Six-time major champion Faldo and Woosnam won as many points as Clarke and Westwood, in two fewer matches together. Faldo calls himself a believer in strong partnerships, not team building.
“To me, it’s a team of two,” said Faldo, a CBS/Golf Channel analyst and the Ryder Cup’s all-time winningest player who captained the last European team to lose one, in 2008. “Two guys, two caddies and go play your opponents. Sorry, I’m old school.”
Old school or new school, it sure helps when you play your best in the Ryder Cup.
“You can put two guys out there who hate each other, their games don’t match and if they both shoot 65, you have a real good chance of winning,” said ABC/ESPN analyst and two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North, who played his one Ryder Cup in 1985. “You put two friends out there and they both shoot 70, there’s a good chance you’re going to get beat.”