FIRE PIT COLLECTIVE
Does the Ryder Cup matter anymore?
Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.
To say they wasted no time would be an understatement: Ryder Cup Europe executives removed Henrik Stenson as their captain for next year’s event even before he was announced as a new LIV Golf recruit. As things stand, it is unlikely that Lee Westwood, Paul Casey or Sergio Garcia or Ian Poulter, all European Ryder Cup stalwarts and LIV signees, will wear a Ryder Cup uniform again. Ditto for Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau on the U.S. side.
To borrow a favorite Twitter word of the host of next week’s LIV event at Trump Bedminster: SAD!
Donald Trump used to imagine how he could have the Ryder Cup at Trump courses on both sides of the pond. Well, the chances of that happening are somewhere between slim and none as long as Trump remains associated with LIV Golf.
The sudden influx of $1 billion (or $2 billion or $3 billion) from the House of Saud is proving to be the single-most disruptive force professional golf has ever felt. We’ve seen the hand-wringing from PGA Tour and DP World officials. But what’s obvious now is that this Saudi money will have a devastating impact on Ryder Cup golf. If one of the goals of this golf investment by Saudi Arabia’s national investment fund, overseen by its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, is to appear more Western, that part is already backfiring.
The Ryder Cup matters because the players and captains and assistant captains on both sides care about the Sunday night scoreboard totals. When Greg Norman, the CEO of the LIV Golf series, attended the Ryder Cup for the first time last year, when it was played in Kohler, Wisc., he said he could see for the first time the enormous appeal of team golf, and he doubled down on his commitment to having a team component in the LIV tournaments. As an Australian, he was active for years in the Presidents Cup, but that event, more often than not, has been a snooze-fest dominated by the Americans.
The greatness of the Ryder Cup has been the many years the event has been a nail-biter, and how the pendulum has swung between Europe and the U.S. But the root of the greatness has been how Ryder Cup passion has been handed down. In this regard, there’s a straight line from Seve Ballesteros to Jose Maria Olazabal to Sergio Garcia to Jon Rahm. The U.S. equivalent to that would be Ben Crenshaw to Payne Stewart to Phil Mickelson to Dustin Johnson. That’s all in jeopardy now.
You could say the Ryder Cup, one of the great spectacles in all of sport over the past 40 years, is in jeopardy. Over all those years, the event has been viewed, accurately or not, as a civil war between scrappy European Tour players and coddled PGA Tour stars. All the Europeans made their first marks in the game abroad. The path to the U.S. team was the American country club, followed by a short stint at an American university, followed by success on the American tour, the gold standard for professional golf.
The Ryder Cup was king-of-the-jungle stuff, which is why so many people who aren’t avid golfers watch it. As a sporting event in North America, the Ryder Cup had a secure perch, south of the Super Bowl, of course, but north of the Stanley Cup finals.
You can’t replace Mickelson and Garcia and the others and the institutional knowledge and passion they represent. Now that we know they were willing to forfeit their standing in Ryder Cup lore for a mere payday, it will make us, ordinary fans, wonder why we ever cared so much in the first place. It’s like they’ve spat out our passion, and put their own on the curb.
As the U.S. and European tours become closer in their joint fight against the LIV series, the natural enmity between the two tours will start to wash away and the Ryder Cup’s fighting spirit will take a hit along the way.
It is actually sad.
The European Ryder Cup executives will replace Stenson with somebody, but whomever it is, that person will know he wasn’t the first choice, and the players on the team will know that too. The 2023 Ryder Cup matches will be played in Italy. The 2025 matches will be played at Bethpage Black. It was widely suspected that Mickelson would be an assistant captain under Zach Johnson next year and would be the captain at Bethpage in ’25. That’s not going to happen.
It was only 10 months ago that Mickelson, at Whistling Straits, had in a weird way a starring role on the U.S. team, simply by being a talkative, opinionated and charismatic assistant captain to Steve Stricker. He walked along inside the ropes with his wife, Amy, as chants rained on him. He was the reigning PGA Championship winner and an icon of the PGA of America, which runs the U.S. Ryder Cup team. Someday he’d captain a team that Will Zalatoris would star on, and Will Zalatoris would mentor some kid whose name we don’t even know.
Then came all that oil money, and all this disruption.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Bamberger@firepitcollective.com