SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – At the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine, Phil Mickelson presented a gift to his 11 American teammates and various members of their supporting crew. It was a dog tag, and inscribed on one side it read simply, “The Beginning.”
The gesture spoke volumes of an approach that was two years in the making. It had begun in 2014 at the U.S. team’s news conference after being buried by the Europeans, 16½-11½, at Gleneagles in Scotland. Mickelson pointed the blame for the U.S. defeat squarely at the feet of captain Tom Watson for straying from 2008 captain Paul Azinger’s winning formula at Valhalla. Airing the U.S. team’s dirty laundry was a calculated decision by Mickelson.
It led to the appointment of an 11-man U.S. Ryder Cup task force that implemented a series of changes. Foremost, the U.S. developed a blueprint and leadership structure, not just to end the losing ways at Hazeltine but for the next decade of Ryder Cups. It also ratcheted the pressure on the Americans to win to DefCon 1. Or as Mickelson put it, “The pressure started when some dumbass opened his big mouth two years ago in the media center.”
But Mickelson and Team USA made sure that the losing streak became history. The final score of 17-11 did not properly reflect one of the most spirited competitions to date. What did was the grin of captain Davis Love III as he wrapped his arms around the 17-inch golden chalice, the first time an American did so since 2008 and just the second time this century. It was almost as big as the cup itself. Love had been at the helm in 2012 at Medinah when the U.S. squandered a 10-6 lead in spectacular fashion. It’s quite possible there never would have been a task force had the Americans simply done their job that day. So, after a job well done at Hazeltine, Love raised a glass of champagne and made a toast to a successful beginning and a blueprint for the future.
Which brings us to this week. The changes instituted by the task force again will be put to the test. The long-term vision is to match the European dynasty that began in 2002, a run of eight victories in 10 tries. The real litmus test for whether the Americans are on to something and have found a formula for future success is to win on foreign soil, which hasn’t been done since 1993, when Tom Watson captained the U.S. to a 15-13 victory at The Belfry in England.
Victory at home? The U.S. has been there, done that. There clearly is a home-field advantage to the Ryder Cup, just as the oddsmakers typically give three points in a football game. Still, the quarter-century of road failures by the U.S. side is flat-out embarrassing.
Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, who will team together in Match 3 of this morning’s four-balls (pairings), were still in diapers the last time the U.S. was victorious. Don't bother bringing it up to U.S. captain Jim Furyk, who played on five of those losing sides, beginning in 1997. He said he has been reminded of this dubious distinction since the day he accepted the job.
Actually, it was even before then. Less than an hour after the winning putt dropped at Hazeltine, I asked Furyk what it would take to end the drought. Trying to be clever, he responded, “14½ points.” It didn’t take long for him to notice the error of his ways. “Actually 14," he said. "I’m not used to saying that.”
Furyk called the winless streak on European soil “a thorn in their side,” and added, “It's not anything I need to mention in the team room. There's not like a big ‘25’ sitting in there anywhere. They are well aware of it, and they are well aware of how difficult it is to win in Europe, and you know, that's the battle we fight this week."
Earlier this year, Furyk did pinpoint one reason why Europe might have an edge at Le Golf National.
“Every Ryder Cup they've won on home soil, their guys have known the course because they've played a European Tour event there,” he said, noting that Le Golf National is the annual home of the French Open. “It's a great pick, in that respect. So, I give them credit for that. They're going to have a home crowd, and let's be honest: It's hard to travel.”
Maybe advice from basketball’s Michael Jordan, who visited with Team USA this week, will help.
"He talked about how he didn’t hear the crowd," Brooks Koepka said. "I took that as, he couldn’t wait to shut them up, and the second he would go off, it was – you might hear a few boos, whatever it is, but the quieter they are, you’re kind of laughing inside; you’ve done what you wanted to do, and I thought that was pretty cool.”
An estimated crowd of 50,000-plus will create a hostile environment for the Americans. It will take more than just Patrick Reed waving a finger to shush the chorus of “Olé, olé, olé.” But for Mickelson, the U.S. team’s most vocal leader and wily veteran, he knows that at age 48 this might be his last Ryder Cup as a player, and he's desperate to avoid being shut out on the road.
"It would be one of the moments I would cherish the most if we were able to come out on top," he said.
Not only would it erase one of the black marks in Mickelson's career, but bringing the cup back home also would validate that the American blueprint for Ryder Cup success was built on a sturdy foundation.
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adamschupak