The Loop

In the Ryder Cup, the "underdog" card trumps all


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September 27, 2016

CHASKA, Minn. -- Last week U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III said this year’s squad is “maybe the best golf team ever assembled.”

That seems ominous.

Hyperbole or not—or supposedly out of context as Love tried to backpedal off this comment on Tuesday (it wasn’t)—perhaps the Americans should instead embrace a different outlook this week at Hazeltine National Golf Club, one pointed out by one of Love’s captain’s picks leading into this year’s competition.

“We’re always the underdogs, in my opinion,” J.B. Holmes said. “How can [Europe] be the underdogs?”

Good question, since Europe has won six of the last seven and eight of the last 10 Ryder Cups.

Yet, somehow, every two years there it is. Europe. Underdog. Even the betting windows say so.

“We’re always the underdogs aren’t we?” European captain Darren Clarke said with the wry smile of someone who knows better.

How exactly has Europe come to be the underdog and managed to remain one, despite its success over the last two decades? The notion is one that is built on history, stretching back to the early days of the biennial event.

In the first 27 Ryder Cups, the Americans won 23 times, tied twice and lost outright just twice. Most of that success came against a much smaller and clearly outmanned Great Britain & Ireland team.

The matches had become so lopsided that players from continental Europe were added starting in 1979. Once they were, it wasn’t long before the tide shifted.

The U.S. won that year and in each of the next two Ryder Cups, but in 1985 at the Belfry, Europe dusted the Americans, winning by five points. In 1987, Europe won again, this time by two, and on U.S. soil for the first time.

Nonetheless, Ray Floyd, U.S. captain in 1989, said his team that week was a collection of “the 12 greatest players in the world.” Not so fast. The two sides tied, and Europe retained the Cup.

Love wasn’t on that team, but he is old enough to have learned from it, even if he tried to hit the breaks on his earlier comment by saying Tuesday that it was something he would tell his team, much the way a football coach like Nick Saban would his, and not some braggadocious or bold statement.

This year, it might look like the U.S. has the advantage, at least on paper.

The average world ranking of the American team is 16.3, compared to Europe’s average of 27.8. The U.S. has seven of the world’s top 20, Europe five of the top 20. The Americans have just two Ryder Cup rookies, Europe has six. This year’s matches are also being played in the U.S.

This is the kind of stuff Europe thrives on.

So is Love's comment. Just ask current and former players.

"Whenever we are going up against one of the greatest team ever assembled, that's motivation enough, just to say, how good a victory this would be if we go out and beat these guys on their home soil," Rory McIlroy said.

“Any good team will use anything they can to their advantage,” said Paul Casey, a member of three previous European teams, including two winning ones in 2004 and 2006. “Being an underdog is always something that gets things going. It’s a very useful and powerful tool and you twist it however you can.”

Know what else is useful? Guys who deliver.

Europe’s team has a four-time major winner fresh off two wins in his last three starts (McIlroy), the Open champion (Henrik Stenson), the Masters winner (Danny Willett), the Olympic gold medalist (Justin Rose) and a couple of Ryder Cup stalwarts (Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood).

Never mind that Martin Kaymer made the clinching putt in the Miracle at Medinah, or that Thomas Pieters, knowing he had to play his way into being a captain’s pick shot 62 alongside Clarke in Denmark and three days later won the tournament.

So how exactly is Europe the underdog again?

“The underdog card is just a strategic move just to get the media not to have expectations and not throw extra things on there,” Holmes said. “We're the underdogs. We have no expectations.”

Maybe someone should tell that to Love.