SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France—It’s back to the drawing board for the U.S. Ryder Cup contingent after another miserable effort in Europe. Maybe they should throw out the drawing board, too.
The United States was no match for Europe in the 42nd Ryder Cup at Le Golf National, losing 17½-10½, the second largest setback for the Americans in the history of the matches. The loss was even bigger than the supposed train wreck Tom Watson oversaw in 2014 at Gleneagles, in Scotland. That squad, without Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson, lost 16½-11½, a defeat so dyspeptic that the PGA of America convened a special Task Force to address U.S. shortcomings in the biennial competition that Europe now has won nine of the last 12 times.
Of course, there no longer is a Task Force; decisions run through a Ryder Cup Committee. It’s difficult to figure out what decisions they could have made differently that would have changed this outcome. Europe’s dozen players outplayed their American counterparts, hitting more fairways, making more putts, converting more birdies.
“At the end of the day I tip my cap to the European side,” said U.S. captain Jim Furyk. “My team fought hard. I’m proud of them. I would take these 12 guys back into this tournament at any time. It’s just that their team played great. Every time we tried to put a little pressure on them, they responded.”
Conversely, the U.S. did not respond. It never seemed in sync, even when winning three out of four matches in the opening four-ball session. It just appeared to be hard work for three days, and in the end, the Americans had no answers to a spirited European defense of its home soil, extending America’s frustrations abroad for at least another four years.
What went wrong? Why did America, which has lost six straight times in Europe dating back to 1997, fall so far short? A few clues:
The Fatigue Factor: Eleven Americans competed in the Tour Championship in Atlanta. Europe had five. While this is not anything new for the United States—it sure didn’t affect the squad in 2016—it made a difference this week when they had to travel abroad. It appeared to be especially hard on 40-somethings Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, the latter who won the season finale, always a draining enterprise. The two captain’s picks, 48 and 42 years old, respectively, went a combined 0-6 this week, leading to a seventh team loss in eight Ryder Cups as teammates. Both looked sluggish and out of sorts. They just didn’t have it after playing seven of the last nine weeks.
“I think the fatigue would be making an excuse, and we’re not making excuses,” Furyk said.
“It’s disappointing, because I went 0-4, and that’s four points to the European Team,” said Woods, who was competing in the Ryder Cup for the first time since 2012. “And I’m one of the contributing factors to why we lost the Cup, and it’s not a lot of fun.”
He’s a big reason, though more because of things out of his control. See the next two items.
The Tiger Effect on Team USA: It continues to be a net negative when he plays. Woods can’t seem to bring his A-game to these matches, and after an 0-4 record at Le Golf National, he slipped to 13-21-3 overall. His two partners this week, Patrick Reed and Bryson DeChambeau, were of little help in the team games. He now has had 14 different partners in Ryder Cup four-ball and foursomes competition and is 9-19-1. He is the sun burning up those closest to his orbit.
The Tiger Effect on Team Europe: Woods isn’t currently No. 1 in the world like he had been many times in earlier Ryder Cup appearances, but he remains the man everyone wants to beat. And when Europe beats him, the satisfaction is unmistakable. Look at the emotion Jon Rahm exhibited after closing out Woods, 2 and 1, in singles. It appeared over the top. It was just an honest, visceral reaction that meant plenty to a player who has been influenced by the 14-time major winner. A Tiger scalp is a memory to savor. In the case of this Ryder Cup, it also was the catalyst to Europe’s comeback after losing the first three four-ball matches on Friday. When Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood rallied to beat Woods and Reed, it sparked a run of eight straight European wins, which is a record. The U.S. never recovered.
Putting: It always seems to come down to putting. The Europeans enjoyed a massive advantage in familiarization with the greens. USA came into the week with seven of their 12 players ranked among the top 44 this season in strokes gained/putting: Webb Simpson (sixth), Mickelson (10), Dustin Johnson (30), Woods (39), Rickie Fowler (40), Bryson DeChambeau (41) and Justin Thomas (44). Europe had one, Justin Rose at No. 17, and only four of the top 100 starting with Rory McIlroy at 85, Paul Casey (89) and Ian Poulter (97). Francesco Molinari was a staggering 181st in the statistic. And yet Europe dominated on the greens. Alex Noren, who won the 2018 French Open at Le Golf National, capped off this Ryder Cup, appropriately, by sinking a monster birdie putt at the last to beat DeChambeau, 1 up.
“I think the Europeans definitely did a good job on the golf course. They know it pretty well,” Furyk said. “It was set up well, they thought, in their favor. It was a tight golf course. Their players played very well. We've just got to tip our caps.”
The Buy-In Factor: This wasn’t supposed to be an issue. But it still is. The U.S. commissioned a Ryder Cup Task Force to get the players more involved in the process of how the team is assembled and organized, and it seemed to work well at Hazeltine National in Chaska, Minn. But if the U.S. Ryder Cup Committee and the players were fully invested, then more than six of the 12 players on the team should have seen Le Golf National’s Albatros Course before Tuesday. The U.S. was outplayed because it was out-prepared. In an era when most players either use NetJets or have their own airplanes, there’s no excuse to not make a scouting trip sometime in the last two years. Is it any surprise that rookie Justin Thomas was the leading U.S. scorer with four points when he was the only player who competed this year here in the French Open?
Picks: Furyk's choices for his captain’s picks—Woods, Mickelson, DeChambeau and Tony Finau—scored two points, both by Finau. It was hard to argue against any of the choices, even Mickelson who deserved to be here after nearly qualifying automatically. Still, that doesn’t mean that Furyk should have selected his good friend. Ryder Cup, with five pressure-packed sessions compacted into three days, is a young man’s game; there’s simply no other way around it, and it's been proven time and again. Mickelson’s experience counts for plenty, but the young legs of Xander Schauffele or Kyle Stanley, the latter who ranked sixth in driving accuracy on the PGA Tour this season and would have been well suited for the narrow course setup, almost assuredly would have counted for more.
Furyk said he looks forward to meeting with the Ryder Cup Committee soon to discuss next steps and review the factors that contributed to the thorough U.S. defeat. “I hope it’s as soon as possible,” he said. “I’ll definitely kind of go through some things in my head and probably work with the PGA of America and our Ryder Cup Committee, and we’ll move forward.”
Forward would be ideal—after at least two steps back.