Rock bottom came on a chilly Sunday evening in late September, which had turned as dark as the moods of the U.S. Ryder Cup captain and his players. The Americans had just endured yet another thumping, losing the 2014 matches, 16½-11½, at Gleneagles in Scotland.
It wasn’t just another loss; it was one more stinging, utterly demoralizing defeat. The U.S. had lost three straight Ryder Cups, six of the past seven and eight of the past 10. Among the Americans, everyone involved was mad.
Tom Watson was the captain, the first repeat captain for the U.S. since Jack Nicklaus in 1987. He was chosen, primarily at the behest of PGA of America president Ted Bishop, because Watson was the last captain to win on foreign soil, at the Belfry in 1993.
But Watson was 65 and was said to be out of touch with his players, many of whom were half his age. And after what was reported to be a contentious Saturday night at which Watson dressed down the players and waved off a gift from them, the players had enough.
After Sunday’s singles, all 12 U.S. players joined Watson in front of the assembled world golf media, and Mickelson spoke out.
“Nobody here was in [on] any decision,” Mickelson said. “Unfortunately, we have strayed from a winning formula in 2008 for the last three Ryder Cups, and we need to consider maybe getting back to that formula that helped us play our best.”
Calling out the captain in such a public setting, with Watson sitting maybe 10 feet away, was as breathtaking as it was stunning. It was the low point in U.S. Ryder Cup history.
The Ryder Cup was not quite on the edge of irrelevance but it was believed by many that the Americans just didn’t know how to be successful in this format, even when they had the best players and still held an overall 25-13-2 series advantage at the time. It was thought that the Europeans must have some secret that no one would reveal.
Players, former captains and PGA of America officials formed an 11-man task force to attempt to find a way to make the U.S. competitive again. European players and media laughed out loud at the task force, but the concept is uniquely American.
The U.S. had last won a Ryder Cup in 2008, with Paul Azinger as captain. Azinger was in charge of perhaps the weakest U.S. team in history. But following the path of Navy SEALs, he divided his team into four-player “pods,” according to personality and temperament. That’s how pairings were decided. The strategy was an unqualified success, with the Americans winning, 16½-11½. Many thought the approach should be the blueprint for future American teams.
But captains Corey Pavin in 2010, Davis Love III in 2012 and Watson chose their own style and method. All three lost. Although to be fair, Love’s team had a 10-6 lead going into the Sunday singles before Europe staged its most dramatic comeback to win at Medinah near Chicago.
Love would be brought back as captain for 2016, although many couldn’t understand why Azinger wasn’t chosen. Assistant captains included former and future captains, in much the same manner as the Europeans operate. And although Azinger’s system wasn’t perfectly replicated, many of its aspects were used.
The turnaround was as startling as it was swift. The U.S. won a decisive 17-11 victory at Hazeltine National in Minnesota. In many ways, the 2016 Ryder Cup was perhaps the second-most important in the matches’ history.
The first was in 1987, when Europe won in the U.S. for the first time. Captained by Tony Jacklin and led by Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam, Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer and Sandy Lyle, Europe beat the U.S., 15-13, at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio. The Europeans became supremely confident in their method and their abilities, and it provided a sufficient tailwind for their teams to dominate the matches for most of the next 30 years.
But the 2016 victory by the Americans was equally important to the health of the Ryder Cup. The U.S. triumph in 2008 was seen as an outlier, a one-off, especially after the Americans lost their third straight at Gleneagles. Azinger’s plan was revisited, and it was found that the pod system or some derivation of it engendered genuine bonding as teammates within each four-man group.
Not only did 2016 change the U.S. fortunes but, more importantly, the victory revived enthusiasm for the Ryder Cup among everyone involved – players, fans, officials and media alike. And as fickle and unpredictable as golf is, many observers are now saying that the U.S. has such a strong team that the Americans are bound to dominate for the next few years.
The Europeans, of course, will have something to say about that next week at Le Golf National near Paris. It’s a home game for Europe and, as we said earlier, the U.S. hasn’t won in Europe for 25 years.
But for the first time in years, the outcome doesn’t appear to be a foregone conclusion.
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf