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European Tour voices at the Dunhill Links offer postmortem on ‘worrying’ Ryder Cup defeat

Richard Heathcote

September 28, 2021

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — It would be an exaggeration to say that hushed tones were the order of the day. But there was definitely a subdued air about the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship practice range at St. Andrews, where the European Tour will reconvene this week for the first time since the Old World’s 19-9 shellacking at the hands of the New in the 43rd Ryder Cup. Indeed, the venue could hardly have been more appropriate. Is anywhere in golf more suited to a post-mortem on a European Ryder Cup team many felt was too mature than the Auld Grey Toon

Whatever, the record-breaking reversal suffered by captain Padraig Harrington and his band of not-so merry men was definitely dominating most of the conversations in between shots. And, not surprisingly, there wasn’t much good to say about all that went on at Whistling Straits over the weekend.

“The long and short of it was the Americans were strong on paper and they were strong on grass,” said David Howell, chairman of the European Tour Tournament Committee and the man who will sit down with the three most recent Ryder Cup skippers—Harrington, Thomas Bjorn and Darren Clarke—to select the man who will lead Europe in Italy two years hence. “It was more to do with the brilliance of their performance rather than anything our team did wrong. They just outplayed us. They looked like a college team without any fear, worry, stress, or scar tissue.”

That “big picture” assessment was echoed elsewhere, a multitude of theories emerging as to why just about everything had gone so disastrously wrong (on the course at least) in Wisconsin.

“The whole thing is worrying from a European perspective,” said Eddie Pepperell. “We have some good young players coming through, but they have work to do. As for last week, look at the difference between now and three years ago in Paris. Back then we had Francesco Molinari, maybe the best player in the game at the time but who has fallen away since. Rory McIlroy was playing a lot better then than he is right now. Justin Rose had just won the FedEx Cup, but didn’t qualify for the team this time. Tommy Fleetwood was playing his best golf in 2018, but has struggled a bit this year. So we had four world-class players at or near the top of their games in 2018. This time we didn’t have that.”

Robert Rock, the man with maybe the simplest swing on tour, applied that same economy of thought to his analysis. This latest result, in Rock’s mind, was simply inevitable. And, in many ways, overdue.

“It was just about time an American team turned up and played like that,” said the Englishman. “It was going to happen at some point. They are just that good. On paper, they should win most of the time and play like that in doing so. We are always behind when it comes to world rankings. But for long enough, where we over-performed, they didn’t quite gel. This time they performed as they should. And we didn’t, although we weren’t as bad as people think. We were a bit under-par and they were a lot better than that. It’s always an over-achievement when we beat them.”

Digging a little deeper, there are those who feel that the COVID-induced dip in prize money and general quality of field on the European Tour has had an impact on those members of Harrington’s squad not based in the U.S. Using Will Zalatoris as an example, Pepperell suggested that Americans would do well to avoid trips across the Atlantic, such is the potential shock to their systems that can result.

“For whatever reasons, the Americans don’t seem to suffer the same high and lows our guys do,” he said. “They play in pretty much the same environment all the time, which is a big contrast to playing over here. Look at what happened to Zalatoris this year when he played in the Scottish Open and the Open in consecutive weeks. Remember that awful stroke he put on a short putt at Royal St. George’s? Six days on links greens had destroyed his stroke. I thought at the time he should never come over here. He shouldn’t even play in the Open if that’s what it does to his putting stroke. He should stay in the States and putt on fast greens every week.”

The perennial topic of course setup also got an airing. With the notable exception of the so-called “Miracle at Medinah” in 2012, the most recent Ryder Cups have produced a string of comfortable home wins. And Whistling Straits was no exception.

“Being able to set up the course is a huge benefit to the home team,” said Alex Noren, who played on the winning European side in 2018. “Maybe it should be the away team that gets to do that. The crowd last week would have been worth more than ever before because there were so few Europeans. I think the Americans would have won anyway, but it definitely helped. It’s like two or three extra clubs in the bag.”

Inevitably, the atmosphere created by the presence of Tiger Woods in past American team rooms was raised. Strangely, or perhaps not, the three U.S. victories in this century have come in matches where Woods has not been a member of the side. So maybe his absence last week was actually a good thing. Pepperell is one who contends that Woods’ lack of enthusiasm for the biennial contest was plain to see and so too many of his teammates followed that negative lead to inevitable defeat.

“They also had a problem with Tiger in that they couldn’t work out who to put with him,” added Howell, a member of the 2004 and 2006 European teams that both recorded 18½-9½ victories. “There was no obvious pairing and they were always trying to find someone to play with him. He was clearly an intimidating person to play with. In contrast, Dustin Johnson, their current star, is a dream to play with. It’s not Tiger’s fault. He transcended the game, didn’t he? The way he’d gone about his career almost as well. He was a bit more brash. He was trying to beat his competitors on the ground on the PGA Tour and you don’t get the impression DJ is trying to do that in quite the same way.

“You also have to remember that when you partner someone with the best player in the world, you are weakening them,” continued Howell. “But the burden is on that person to enable the other player to play better. Tiger maybe wasn’t the best at realizing his job was to facilitate great golf from the other guy and it wasn’t just about him.”

The view that the almost complete absence of visiting fans at Whistling Straits impacted greatly on the European players gets short shrift. While it didn’t help the Old World cause, the virtual silence that greeted any away success wouldn’t have mattered much, according to Danny Willett. But he wasn’t ruling it out entirely.

“You definitely don’t get the same adrenaline rush when you hole a putt and maybe only your mum and dad are clapping in a crowd of 50,000 people,” said the former Masters champion, who was part of the losing European squad at Hazeltine in 2016. “So you are constantly trying to get yourself up. That can be tiring over a long three days.”

Moving forward, the consensus is that, for the European Tour hierarchy charged with Ryder Cup decision-making, the next few months are a time for reflection, not ruction.

“There is a danger of overreacting,” Pepperell said. “And I don’t think we will. At least not the players. We’ve given them a couple of good doings. But in contrast to what we’ve seen from the Americans after heavy defeats, not one of the European team had anything bad to say about Padraig. Our lads are great at that. They are clearly realistic enough to know that, if you lose 19-9, even the best captain in the world wouldn’t have made too much difference.”

Still, amidst the hand-wringing that will surely continue, Howell summed up the whole thing best: “It comes down to this, the Americans had the team you would want and they performed exactly as you thought they might.”

End of story.