News & Opinion

Desire emerges as Europeans' X factor

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – Once the cup was back in their hands, that beautiful little 17-inch gold chalice that spends an inordinate amount of time in Europe, that’s when the real fun could begin. There they sat across the dais, 12 proud players flanking their respected captain. They cracked jokes and blew playful kisses to one another, shared funny phone messages, and giggled like teenaged girls at a slumber party.

The European Ryder Cup team truly is a modern marvel. Every two years, with few exceptions, the Europeans take all sorts of seemingly mismatched parts, many of them recycled and seemingly worn down, gather in the garage and hammer away. When assembly is finished and the garage opens, out comes a sleek and shiny Bentley that roars smoothly down the Ryder Cup highway.

How does it happen? That’s the part that nobody ever fully explains.

“That’s a hard one. We give everything to each other,” said Paul Casey, 41, the Englishman who was playing his first Ryder Cup in a decade. He wanted to feel it, taste it, one more time. Thomas Bjorn, his captain, persuaded him to give it a go.

“I so wanted to be part of this,” Casey said. “It’s absolutely amazing. But the meaning of ‘team’? It’s something that you can’t measure.”

Team Europe – front, L-R: Justin Rose, Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton, Thorbjorn Olesen, Rory McIlroy and Paul Casey; back, L-R: Henrik Stenson, Alex Noren, Sergio Garcia, captain Thomas Bjorn, Ian Poulter, Jon Rahm and Francesco Molinari – gets its hands on yet another Ryder Cup.

Team Europe – front, L-R: Justin Rose, Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton, Thorbjorn Olesen, Rory McIlroy and Paul Casey; back, L-R: Henrik Stenson, Alex Noren, Sergio Garcia, captain Thomas Bjorn, Ian Poulter, Jon Rahm and Francesco Molinari – gets its hands on yet another Ryder Cup.

Even leading 10-6 into Sunday, Europe figured it would have everything it could handle from an American team that is outright better on paper, higher ranked, more accomplished and far more decorated (nine major winners to five). But playing on the tight confines of Le Golf National, a course lined by dense, Brillo-pad-tough rough, was nothing like playing on paper at all. Europe didn’t just hold off Team USA on Sunday; it thrashed the wide-eyed visitors. Embarrassed them. It turned a tense afternoon into something of a laugher, reeling off victories in six of the final seven singles matches, soundly winning the session (7½-4½), and rolling to an impressive 17½-10½ triumph (scores).

Cue the celebration soundtrack that will ring inside the heads of the U.S. players when they place heads to pillows for the next two years: “Ole, ole, ole, ole … Ole … Ole.” And then the party could begin.

“We didn't drop our guard all week long,” Justin Rose said. “We stayed on point as a group.… The discipline that we showed got us to this point where we can now let our hair down and now really drop our guard hard.”

The U.S. is poised for a special time in golf, with several special 20-somethings on its team, young men who grew up together and are a tight-knit bunch. When it’s written that Europe is even tighter as a group, and that European players simply desire this cup a little more, it always comes off as insulting to the U.S. players. It shouldn’t. It’s simply a high compliment and a tip of the cap to the other side.

While the U.S. continues to tinker, add to and revise its playbook on the heels of its 2014 team crash under Tom Watson at Gleneagles, Team Europe operates out of a proven one that needs few new pages. Kids in the U.S. grow up on practice greens in twilight pretending to make putts to win the Masters or the U.S. Open. Young European players make those putts dreaming that they are winning the Ryder Cup.

For them, this is a little different, that’s all.

“This was our second major,” said NBC’s David Feherty, a Northern Irishman who played in the 1991 Ryder Cup. “We had the Open Championship and this. It means more. I’m not saying the American team isn’t trying. Every ounce, they’re trying.”

The nature of the Ryder Cup is that a losing captain will be second-guessed, and a winning captain likely will receive more credit than is due. That said, Bjorn truly did a magnificent job.

Europe lost its opening four-balls session, 3-1, but in the process got four of its five rookies out on the golf course. It wouldn’t lose another session (tying one, winning three others).

Bjorn went with established pairings – such as Justin Rose-Henrik Stenson – and those he trusted from the players who pitched them. Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood convinced their captain that they were close mates and would make a good team. Then they went out and brought back four points in team play. Molinari finished 5-0. No European in history had done that.

The European team really is about being 12 strong. Every player on Bjorn’s side contributed at least a point and felt an integral part of the overall mission.

“There’s such a gulf of talent between your Rory McIlroys and Justin Roses and your Thorbjorn Olesens and your Tyrrell Hattons,” said Graeme McDowell, a Ryder Cup standout who served as a vice captain for Europe. “Those [last two] are young guys, and they’ve got their whole careers ahead of them. But our top players are incredibly good at making these guys feel like they’re a huge part, and that they’re an equal, and that they deserve to be here. They get along together incredibly well.

“I’ve got to single out guys – Rory and Justin, especially. Sergio [Garcia] is like the glue in the team. Rory, I could see it in his eyes when he got here. He was just a different guy. He was ready. The individuality was gone, and he was ready for the team. They’re so good at it, and it comes very naturally to them. That’s the X factor.”

When the Europeans turned around a 10-6 deficit to win at Medinah six years ago, their captain, Jose Maria Olazabal, armed the players with a terrific motivational quote that inspired the players to give every fiber of themselves in the singles. It also captures the spirit of what Europe brings to the table as a team, this all-out, we’ve-got-nothing-to-lose mentality. Olazabal would tell the team, “All men die, but not all men live.”

So, on Sunday evening on the outskirts of Paris, before the players, vice captains and captain were headed their separate ways, bound for separate countries and separate lives, the brothers who will forever share the bond of being the 2018 winning Ryder Cup team were going to celebrate what they’d accomplished. For Europe, an underdog, it was a convincing victory over a stacked American opponent.

And that beautiful little cup that the Europeans all love so much is in their hands again.

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