News & Opinion

Wanted (and fast): U.S. Ryder Cup star

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – For a fistful of euros, U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk ought to consider taking out a classified ad in Le Parisien, a French daily newspaper, ahead of today’s singles matches at the 42nd Ryder Cup.

Wanted: One great American Ryder Cup player. Can start immediately. Benefits include insurance, three weeks’ vacation, and being an American hero for life. All applicants welcome. And, oh, we really need just one.

That’s all. One. Face it, the U.S. certainly doesn’t lack for great players. Younger, older, tall, short, lefties, righties, major winners, FedEx Cup winners … we have them in all shapes and sizes.

Today’s game is more global than ever before, and yet in the Official World Golf Ranking, the U.S. boasts 12 of the top 20 players on the planet, including three of the top four (Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Justin Thomas).

But here’s where we are after two head-scratching days outside Paris at the Ryder Cup: Johnson, the world No. 1, is 1-3, and now owns a losing Ryder Cup record (7-8). Koepka, a two-time major winner this season who looks as if he could bench-press a double-decker bus, lost two of his three games. Tiger Woods? Phil Mickelson? Four matches. Zero points (scores).

Did Woods really win a golf tournament seven days ago, or was that a weird dream?

Task force, be damned. We continue to have one huge void every other year in this incredible pressure cooker known as the Ryder Cup. As we try to gain a step on those feisty Europeans, a team that always represents a sum far greater than its parts, who is our go-to-guy, the one whom we can count on like the U.S. mail, our fearless leader?

Europe seems to produce them off some assembly line, like widgets, out of a hidden warehouse in a remote corner of England. Or maybe from the satellite office in Madrid.

For years, we watched Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal, the Spanish Armada, spin their magic in this event. In the Ryder Cup, in hurricane parlance, Scotsman Colin Montgomerie was forever a Category 5. He and Bernhard Langer made a formidable pair. In the modern era, Ian Poulter and Sergio Garcia seem to show up at the Ryder Cup in some sort of mediocre, run-of-the-mill form, then pry open cans of spinach and turn into unbeatable European Popeyes. (We’re guessing that’s why Poulter always is beating on his chest, to loosen up all of that spinach.)

Form-wise, Garcia had no business even being at Le Golf National, if we’re being honest. He had a miserable year on the golf course. He missed the cut at all four majors and has done very little since that beautiful green jacket was slipped over his shoulders in April 2017. But like Monty, and like good ol’ Mr. Reliable, Poults, Garcia has made the Ryder Cup his fifth major. This is his event, his specialty. A victory today in singles would give Garcia 25½ points, making him the winningest player in the history of the Ryder Cup, passing Nick Faldo. All that from a guy who most thought might never win a major championship.

And right on cue this week for Europe, Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood, two guys who begged captain Thomas Bjorn to be paired, stepped out of the “Field of Dreams” cornfield to go 4-0 over two days. Fleetwood looks like the bass player in a neighborhood garage band. Molinari has the look of a guy who, wearing a bowtie, wants to tell your table about tonight’s specials.

The French just might erect a sign in the hills for these two: Hooray for Moliwood!

The Moliwood pairing took down Tiger Woods three times this week. Think about that: Tiger. Three. Times. Fleetwood never had played in a Ryder Cup; Molinari entered this week gasping at 0-4-2. On cue, they rose.

Some guys are a good fit for Augusta (Woods and Mickelson), or suited for the tight fairways of an old-style U.S. Open (think Curtis Strange). Europe produces players built for the Ryder Cup, passionate guys who outright live for it.

To find the last great Ryder Cup player who donned red, white and blue – a truly great Ryder Cupper – one needs to shuffle through the record books more than 25 years. Hale Irwin (13-5-2) and Tom Kite (15-9-4) were solid, as was Larry Nelson (9-3-1), but Lanny Wadkins was last card-bearing U.S. Ryder Cup stud. When he holed out at his final Ryder Cup, in 1993 – the last time the U.S. won on the road – Wadkins was 20-11-3. It’s not that the current crop of players doesn’t care. They bristle at any whisper that they don’t. But they fail to solve the riddle. We hold open auditions every two years to find greatness, and nobody can memorize the lines.

The U.S. lacks Ryder Cup hitmen. We sometimes put out pairings as if we’re throwing spaghetti against the wall. We thought we had a great Ryder Cup force of nature in Patrick Reed, Captain America himself. Who knows? Maybe he still can be our Poulter. Not this week. Reed got his dream pairing across from Woods, but he might have performed better at Le Golf National had he played left-handed. Balls in the water, balls out of bounds … it was surprising that he didn’t cut the line of fans at an on-course merchandise shop to buy an extra sleeve or two.

Before his two losses with Woods, Reed had a record of 6-1-2 in two Ryder Cups, and he had been sensational alongside fellow Texan Jordan Spieth. We’d finally found a rock-solid pairing. In two Ryder Cups, those two were 4-1-2 together. But Spieth wished to play with his buddy Justin Thomas, and Furyk split up a highly successful tandem. (Spieth and Thomas have been bright spots for the U.S., going 3-1, winning twice on an otherwise rough Saturday. Thomas is fiery, and he has been impressive in his debut. Maybe he will be our guy.)

Woods, 42, and Phil Mickelson, 48, have been the class of U.S. golf for a long time. They own 123 PGA Tour titles. But the Ryder Cup is their kryptonite. Woods lost for the 20th time (against 13 victories) on Saturday afternoon; Mickelson, who already set a record for most U.S. defeats – in fairness, that’s also a testament to his having made a record 12 teams – sat out for two sessions at Le Golf on Saturday. Making it all the more painful, it was pinstripe pants day. Dang! Mickelson is 18-21-7.

Underwhelming.

Asked about his poor Ryder Cup record years ago, Woods, who dropped to 13-20-3 after going 0-for-France during the past two days, retorted that nobody could quote Jack Nicklaus’ record in the Ryder Cup. That's true, and granted, Nicklaus was playing lesser competition from Great Britain & Ireland than the more polished players whom Woods faces today. But Nicklaus was 17-8-3. When he ventured home to Palm Beach from Scotland’s Muirfield, or England’s Royal Lytham, or Walton Heath, he always returned with the cup. If Europe holds on in singles today, Woods’ teams will be 1-7. Not all his fault, mind you, but the greatest player of his generation – arguably ever – bears some responsibility for that, don’t you think?

Before the U.S. posted a much-needed victory in Minneapolis two years ago, Europe had won eight of the past 10 meetings. And though the U.S. squad is a far more organized and communicative group than it was the last time it traveled to Europe for an away game – remember the mutiny of Gleneagles in 2014? – it still has an opening for a great new Ryder Cupper to emerge. It really could use one. Soon.

Who can be that player? Our Poulter? Our Garcia? Our Justin Rose? Do you know of somebody? If so, please dial the number at the bottom of the classified. Ask for Jim.

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: jeffbabz@att.net. Twitter: @jeffbabz62