News & Opinion

Don’t expect Ryder Cup romp for U.S.

A prominent American golf writer at one of the sport’s biggest monthly publications made a rather bold and foolhardy declaration late last fall: “The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” he wrote. The insinuation was, of course, that the young U.S. nucleus of Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Patrick Reed & Co. will be golf’s 1927 Yankees in softspikes; the Euros would be best served to dash for cover and brace for “a decade-plus of blowouts.”

And then, presumably, for full effect, the writer then walked across the office and stuck his head inside the jaws of a hungry 1,200-pound crocodile. Drumroll, please. 

Know this, folks: Europe may not have won the last Ryder Cup, but the 12 men to be sent out to face the U.S. in Paris in two months hardly will be mistaken for the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Golf, like life, is cyclical, and sure, American golf is rising as Europe, post-Lee Westwood, post-Graeme McDowell and post-Luke Donald, resets with newer faces. Still, don’t go betting all of your French francs that Uncle Sam’s boys are going to show in Paris and breeze to an easy victory in the 42nd Ryder Cup at the Albatros Course of Le Golf National. 

No, pense encore. Think again.

Forget what the potential lineups appear to be on paper. This one will not be easy. For one, the U.S. has not won a Ryder Cup away from home since 1993. That’s a long stretch. The man who holed that winning putt (Davis Love III) at The Belfry in England was a young buck then who now competes on the 50-and-older Champions Tour. (For perspective, the day after the U.S. victory, Jordan Spieth turned 2 months old.) 

“We have 25 years of scars to overcome,” U.S. captain Jim Furyk said in France in October. 

Secondly, the Euro team will not be as green and deer-in-headlights unready as the one that turned up at Hazeltine in Minneapolis, where captain Darren Clarke tried unsuccessfully to get six rookies up to speed. Having dropped six of the previous seven cups, the U.S. needed victory as much as the event itself needed a U.S. victory. Job done. The next task – winning away from home – will be far more difficult.

One only has to look at what happened on Sunday to get the latest neon sign that Europe is going to boast a stronger side this time around. In France, at Le Golf, where the Ryder Cup will be played, Sweden’s Alex Noren rallied for a significant victory. Noren has three other top-3 finishes in strong fields this year (Farmers, Honda, WGC-Match Play). On this side of the pond, at the Quicken Loans National just outside our nation’s capital, Italy’s Francesco Molinari blistered the field by eight shots (shooting 62 on Sunday on a difficult golf course) to capture his first PGA Tour title. Five weeks earlier he won the BMW PGA, one of the Euro Tour's flagship events, edging Rory McIlroy and Noren. 

Italy’s Francesco Molinari will bring superb ball-striking to the Ryder Cup for a European team that the Americans cannot afford to overlook.

Italy’s Francesco Molinari will bring superb ball-striking to the Ryder Cup for a European team that the Americans cannot afford to overlook.

Noren and Molinari are the types of players that Europe could use in France. You think of Ryder Cups always being settled on the greens, but Le Golf will provide a different test. The course is tight and challenging, and ball-striking will be paramount. One of the U.S. team’s biggest assets, length, will be neutralized by the tightness of the golf course. 

“It’s not like you’re going to hit 14 drivers,” European captain Thomas Bjorn said last week. That only helps Europe.

Molinari, whose weakness is the putter, ranks second on the PGA Tour in strokes gained tee to green; Noren, a far better putter, is 27th. These are the guys who will need to push Europe across the line. Don’t think it can’t happen, especially if Europe enters a home Ryder Cup as significant underdogs. That can be a great recipe.

Europe’s chances will depend on the back half of the lineup. The top – McIlroy, Justin Rose, perhaps Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia, as long as the Spaniard starts finding form – are seasoned, successful cup veterans.

Two of Bjorn’s first-time competitors will be Jon Rahm and Tommy Fleetwood. Rahm finished fifth in Paris last weekend, won the Spanish Open, and at 23, plays well beyond his years; Fleetwood narrowly missed clipping Brooks Koepka at last month’s U.S. Open. He's a terrific player. Both rank in the top 10 in the world, so it doesn’t feel right to call them “rookies.” 

Add into the possible Euro mix an Ian Poulter, a Ryder Cup legend rejuvenated and now in the world’s top 30, and Paul Casey, wanting to play another cup after a 10-year absence, maybe a Matt Fitzpatrick and Rafael Cabrera-Bello (each now possessing Ryder Cup experience), a streaky hot putter such as Tyrrell Hatton ... and it gets kind of interesting, doesn’t it? 

Maybe the Ryder Cup isn’t dead. Send the crocodile home. 

Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: Twitter: @jeffbabz62