Ryder Cup 2023: The uncomfortable reason the match's future isn't as rosy as you'd think
ROME — Each player in the opening American foursome had the same look of confusion and resignation when reaching the 10th tee Thursday morning, realizing that even as the supposed pace cars of the final practice round they would be waiting, the result of going out behind the Junior Ryder Cup. There is a lot of waiting this week, what with formalities and responsibilities and ceremonies. U.S. captain Zach Johnson said his main responsibility is to declutter the things thrown at his players, which is sort of an indictment of the entity doing the throwing. But even with Johnson’s KonMari Method approach there is still a lot of waiting during the transition from one activity to the next, and waiting gets old real fast.
But as the sport collectively waits for the 44th Ryder Cup to begin in earnest, there is one aspect that cannot be delayed any further, and that is for the Cup to regain its competitive juice.
The unacknowledged and uncomfortable truth is the Ryder Cup has not been close for some time. Europe is coming off its worst defeat in the event’s 96-year history in 2021. In 2018, the Americans lost by a whopping seven points. The winning side has won by an average margin of seven points in the last four cups and over the last two decades the averaging winning margin is almost six. No matter the margin of score there’s always that 45-minute window on Sunday when it seems like the event will flip on its head and anything and everything could happen. Yet that feeling is not mutually exclusive to the fact that only three matches this century have been decided by three or fewer points.
Worse, the result has become predictable. The viewer at home will hear the United States has not won on the road since 1993 ad nauseam over the next three days. However, the Ryder Cup home team has won seven of the last eight matches and 10 of the past 12. Those matches haven’t been particularly close, with the home team winning by an average margin of five points. In themselves each match has its own explanations, but in the aggregate the data is too large and deep to dismiss. A similar result this weekend won’t just solidify the calculation; it may mean the entire equation needs to be recalibrated.
Which leads to a notion that a close match won by either side is not just the desired outcome but the one absolutely, unequivocally needed. Anything else could jeopardize the integrity of how the event is run and its standing among the golf populace.
Actually, there’s another result that wouldn’t correlate to questioning the Ryder Cup’s system and structure. An American blowout win would be seen as a paradigm shifter of sorts. It would validate everything the U.S. Task Force was supposed to achieve and solidify the likes of Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka, Scottie Scheffler and the duo of Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay as a core of American players that gets the Ryder Cup dynamic better than their predecessors. It’s an ending easy to understand, not only given the regular-schedule success of Scheffler, Koepka and others but also because the Europe team—while very formidable and stronger than originally envisioned—is currently one in transition.
The line of thought leads to a hypothesis that on the surface is wildly unfair, because it means that for the Ryder Cup to retain its competitive relevancy the Europeans cannot win in definitive fashion.
The unfortunate reality is that sports culture, when dissecting an outcome, often focuses on what led to defeat rather than appreciating the road to victory. Though that can occasionally be a useful exercise it discounts what the winner had to do to get where they needed to go. Look no further than the 2018 Ryder Cup; instead of crediting Europe for a resounding performance most of the discourse centered on why the Americans continue to no-show on the road.
Conversely, if a European blowout does happen, at a match where it’s not supposed to happen, it’s fair to wonder if there’s something systematically wrong with how the Ryder Cup is contested. European backers may read the above and spit at their screens at this American-based spin, for it is a predisposed belittlement of what their club could achieve. The European’s frontline of Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy and Viktor Hovland is arguably better than America’s best players; Tommy Fleetwood, Matt Fitzpatrick and Tyrrell Hatton are top-30 players in the world and Ludvig Aberg and Nicolai Hojgaard are fledgling superstars. Not exactly a rag-tag group of replacement players.
And yet one doesn’t have to squint too hard to see the storm on the horizon. A European thrashing this weekend, coupled with the United States repaying the favor in 2025 at Bethpage, would make for nine home wins in the last 10 events, almost all of the blowout variety. At times each side has held the conch of power, but for it to swing so dramatically and conclusively every two years is not a rivalry; it’s the byproduct of a broken apparatus.
The bigger issue would be how to fix the structure. One solution would be for an independent governing body to be in charge of the course set-up, taking away the home team’s ability to cater its proverbial stadium to its strengths (or their opponents’ weaknesses). But as professional golf becomes more and more singular in terms of how the game is played on both sides of the ocean, the differences in profile between an American player and European player is almost non-existent. And if the scoring discrepancies are predicated off the passion of the parochial crowds that’s no good either, because even if the PGA or DP World Tours allowed for galleries to be more loud and passionate in order to better acclimate players for these conditions, you cannot replicate the special type of fervor this event conjures. That’s part of the Ryder Cup’s magic and shouldn’t be cheapened.
Again, this does not mean for the Ryder Cup to stay the Ryder Cup the United States needs to win. It does mean, however, if the outcome is no longer in doubt come Saturday night, it’s time to seriously rethink the ecosystem that continues to turn Sunday singles into Sunday coronations.
That’s why what’s on the line is not the winning aspirations of America or Europe but the future of this event as a whole. It’s a premise that is ridiculous; the Ryder Cup is a phenomenon and one of the most beloved institutions in the sport. It’s been on an upwards trajectory for almost 40 years with no ostensible signs of slowing down. But it’s a fallacy to think what has happened before and what is happening now will happen forever, and if a blowout happens and intervention does not follow, the game is threatening to tear down what it has built.
As the first foursome of Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Scottie Scheffler and Sam Burns continued to wait for the Junior Ryder Cup to clear Thursday morning—let it be known that the Junior Ryder Cup too was a blowout, the Euros winning 20½-9½—Thomas told Scheffler that Burns would be “out for blood” in their ensuing practice match. When Scheffler asked why, Thomas replied, “Because he got bludgeoned” yesterday. Hopefully it was not an omen.
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