News & Opinion

U.S. should have seen this one coming

There was never enough red on the Ryder Cup scoreboard in France, but there were plenty of red flags for the United States even before the matches began.

The Ryder Cup returned to its default setting: Europe winning fairly easily. The Americans don’t need finger-pointing, captain-bashing, second-guessing, soul-searching or a task force to know what went wrong. I’ll just quote the title of an old Jim Bouton baseball book, “I Managed Good, But Boy Did They Play Bad.”

There is no strategy that fixes lousy play. This Ryder Cup was that simple. The Europeans played well, all 12 of them. The Americans played poorly. Relatively speaking, they stunk.

Maybe they can blame the narrowed fairways and ferocious rough (like U.S. Opens used to have) at Le Golf National for part of it. Credit European captain Thomas Bjorn for a course setup that exposed the Americans’ most glaring weakness: accuracy off the tee.

But this defeat hinged on the most basic elements: missed putts, missed greens, penalty strokes. How many water balls can one team hit? How many fairways can one team miss by 30 yards?

The Americans were much better putters, according to the statistics, but that’s not how it played out. Perhaps that was the home-course advantage, because the Europeans have a tour event there every year.

We should have seen this coming. Red flags first went up a week earlier at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. The bottom four finishers in the 30-man Tour Championship were U.S. Ryder Cuppers. It wasn’t East Lake’s fault, it turned out. They weren’t playing well, which should have been a big Uh-Oh Moment heading into the Ryder Cup.

Look, it’s normal during Ryder Cup week that one or two of the 12 players aren’t in form. It happens every time.

Captain Jim Furyk had an unsolvable problem, however. He didn’t have one or two players hitting on only a few cylinders; he had half of his team misfiring. When the Ryder Cup starts, you can’t pinch-hit for everybody in the lineup.

Nobody was in worse form than Phil Mickelson, who finished 24 strokes behind winner Tiger Woods at East Lake. Woods would have to have spotted Mickelson six shots a round that week to have made it interesting. I’ll bet you can’t wait to watch their pay-per-view match next month, right?

Give Mickelson a tip of the cap for telling it like it is. He knew that his game was off and said he hit a lot of balls on the range trying to straighten it out but was unable. He was very disappointed, but the Ryder Cup is all about timing, just like major championships. Players prepare to play their best for one week, whether it’s in Augusta or St. Louis or Paris. Golf isn’t that easy.

The only strategy question for Furyk was why he sent out Mickelson in foursomes, which is no place for a struggling golfer. His outing with Bryson DeChambeau on the first day was as curious as it was disastrous.

A tougher question might be why Mickelson was chosen as a wild-card pick, but that’s an inquiry to be asked before the Ryder Cup, not in hindsight.

DeChambeau was another brick in the American wall of failure.

He was the hottest player in golf just over a month ago, winning the first two legs of the FedEx Cup series. Winning is draining, mentally and physically, and even after a bad start at East Lake, he still was grinding for a shot at the FedEx Cup’s $10 million bonus at East Lake. DeChambeau looked like he already was out of gas at East Lake. In Paris, he was down to just fumes, losing foursomes matches with Mickelson and Woods and his singles match. We didn’t see DeChambeau play like DeChambeau.

The same goes for Patrick Reed, Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Woods.

Reed’s Ryder Cup week was summed up by a moment late in a foursomes match when his partner, Woods, laid up from the rough so Reed was free to be aggressive with his approach shot from the fairway. Reed flared the ensuing shot into the water. Another point lost. Reed got benched for Saturday’s action. He and his wife vented on social media about the perceived insult, throwing assorted others under the bus and failing again to grasp anything about the concept of a team, but Reed rallied to win his singles match.

Watson won three times in 2018, but his game seemed unusually discombobulated, even for Watson, who had been sick earlier in the week. He won a key point in foursomes because partner Webb Simpson played his brains out.

Fowler chipped in and holed a plethora of 20-foot putts. Most of them were for pars, it seemed, because he struggled tee to green, too, like most of the team.

Johnson regained the No. 1 world ranking after the Tour Championship, which was crazy because the man whom he dethroned, Justin Rose, finished second at East Lake – ahead of Johnson. Johnson didn’t play like the world’s No. 1 golfer. Talk about timing? Johnson’s putting stroke went away at East Lake, where he switched putters and went to a crosshanded grip. He gamely fought his stroke all week, but something was amiss. Those missed putts that TV commentators wrote off to misreads looked more like Johnson physically wasn’t able to square up his putter face at contact. The Ryder Cup is a putting contest above all else, and Johnson took a beating on the greens.

Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas had a mix of good and bad moments in team play. Don’t forget, Spieth was so far off his game that he didn’t even qualify for the FedEx Cup finale. Before the BMW Championship, Spieth was asked about what he’d do if he didn’t qualify for the Tour Championship. Spieth was mildly offended, because he was 27th on the points list, and the top 30 would advance to East Lake.

He would have to play pretty poorly not to make the finale, and that’s exactly what happened. “I just didn’t have it this week,” he said at the BMW. Spieth got it back for stretches in Paris, but only for stretches. He got smoked in singles.

That brings us to Woods. He made no excuses for his play and his 0-4 record. He probably could have. No one looked lower on energy all week. In fact, Woods moved in such measured fashion that some media members speculated that he might be injured. Woods is secretive, so we’ll probably never know.

Winning that Tour Championship was such an emotional week that Woods understandably would have felt drained. He wasn’t running on fumes. It looked as if he was out of fumes, period. And his fused back might have been too fatigued to let him perform at his best. He certainly looked like a ghost of the man who grinded out a big victory at East Lake. Maybe he should have joined Mickelson in the rest area for Saturday afternoon’s foursomes session.

With a handful of teammates playing poorly, the U.S. needed Woods and others to play great golf. Woods didn’t. Simpson played very well. So, too, did Thomas. And Tony Finau, who had a 2-1 record and a crushing singles victory. Finau was the only successful captain’s pick. The other three – Woods, Mickelson and DeChambeau – combined to go 0-9.

We shouldn’t read too much into this U.S. loss, just as we shouldn’t read too much into the 2016 U.S. victory at Hazeltine. There, European stars Rose and Henrik Stenson were nursing significant injuries and unable to play their best. If you plug them into the lineup for five matches at 100 percent, does the outcome change? Maybe, maybe not. Instead, the U.S. won fairly easily.

The tables were turned this time. The Europeans played very well, and the Americans played very poorly.

In the City of Light, this Ryder Cup could be viewed in such black and white hues. And in red flags we failed to notice.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle