Ryder Cup 2023: Why it went wrong for America and wondering if it will ever get right
A talented U.S. team struggled at Marco Simone, unable to achieve its goal of ending a 30-year road winless streak in the Ryder Cup.
ROME — He has no tell, forever stoic against the chaos that surrounds him and his eyes concealed by shades. The only noticeable stress is the gray in his beard from watching the things Jordan Spieth has done. But every man has his breaking point, and caddie Michael Greller reached his Saturday, on the 16th tee at Marco Simone to be exact, a Spieth decision by Zach Johnson intervention causing the caddie to shift his weight, tilt his head and grimace. Seconds later—after Spieth switched from driver to 3-wood and the ensuing shot went into the water, ultimately ending the match in a loss—the world discovered what Greller already knew to be true.
What Greller witnessed was a microcosm of what went down in Rome. Though a spirited Sunday charge was entertaining, it proved to be nothing more than the scenic route to the inevitable, as the Americans once again fell big on the road and are left wondering where to go from here.
“You know, right now everything is extremely surreal and almost foggy. For me to come up and devise some sort of plot of how to change or alter or whatever you want to call it, I wouldn't even know where to start right now," Johnson said after his team’s 16½-11½ defeat. "I know I'll reflect. It's natural when you have something of this magnitude."
Make no doubt, this was a tour-de-force performance from Europe. Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Viktor Hovland and Tommy Fleetwood were who we thought they were and more, and any player with a question mark next to his name delivered an answer with vigor. Captain Luke Donald and his assembled crew have earned their flowers. And yet, as the sun dances behind the skyline of the Eternal City to send this match into the past, this feels like a Ryder Cup that was lost as much as it was won.
The first knock was delivered before the matches began with an undisclosed virus making its way through the U.S. locker room and knocking out several players something fierce. That could partially explain why the U.S. stumbled in foursomes Friday morning, and by “stumbled” we mean getting swept for the first time ever in the opening session. There was a window Friday afternoon where the Americans had a chance for a 3-1 session victory; instead in every potential winning match the U.S. watched their opponents celebrate on the 18th green, leaving with just 1½ points. Saturday morning was more of the same, lowlighted by Scottie Scheffler and Brooks Koepka—arguably the two best Americans players—suffering the worst loss in Ryder Cup history, 9 and 7. Entering Saturday afternoon the Europeans held a seven-point advantage.
Through the first three sessions Johnson was no cheerleader. He tried to play it cool, or as cool as Zach Johnson can appear. He stressed he wasn’t worried, that he had faith in his guys in his room, that they are not a bunch that needs encouragement. That Johnson was gone and in his place was a captain insisting their fate had not been decided. He clapped, he cheered, he shouted. It was the type of frenetic energy one has when buying a couch too wide to fit through the front door, refusing to acknowledge a truth that can’t be adjusted.
The thing is … it kind of worked, the Americans finally winning a session. Yet it was undercut by Johnson relaying, in his words, “data” to Spieth on the 16th tee, and though Spieth is responsible for ultimately hitting the shot, Johnson’s ploy backfired. It was far from the only instance where Johnson’s strategy failed.
There were the captain’s picks, perhaps one of the most consequential responsibilities of the job. Johnson’s six selections went 4-12-4 on the week. He inserted Rickie Fowler in the Friday morning lineup, which looks curious given rumors that Fowler was under the weather and made worse by the fact he didn’t play at all Saturday. Johnson went with Sam Burns and Scheffler despite their rough Presidents Cup together and that analytics don’t paint them as the most compatible grouping. In the end, the buddy-buddy pairing produced unfriendly results. Meanwhile, Johnson kept riding Spieth despite Spieth looking lost with his game and himself.
On Sunday night Johnson chalked up most of the carnage to sticking to his pre-week game plan rather than adjusting to how the Ryder Cup was playing out. He then admitted he “should have listened to his gut” more yet also didn’t know what that would have meant.
“There's something to be said about observing and witnessing that helps your decision process, and then you include everything else and you try to find every possible scenario so that you can score points,” Johnson said. “I would say that it's pretty evident that the other team did a better job of that, certainly the first two or three—first three sessions. I think it's really that simple.”
It was a confusing end to an uninspiring captainship.
The blame is not Johnson’s alone. Putting continues to be the bane of Scottie Scheffler’s existence but the rest of his game wasn’t particularly great en route to a 0-2-2 record. The World No. 1 was outscored by Europe’s Robert MacIntrye, who according to DataGolf’s true strokes gained has been worse than several Korn Ferry Tour players over the past six months. Xander Schauffele was supposed to be one of the rocks for the U.S.; instead Schauffele’s game was crushed to pieces, failing to log a single point Friday or Saturday. Wyndham Clark was second in automatic qualifying but was statistically the worst player this weekend. Justin Thomas failed to prove his critics wrong, finishing 21st out of the 24 players in strokes gained. Fowler conceded the winning putt to Fleetwood, which, depending on your perspective, is either a lack of competitive fire or recognition of the moment.
The problems extended past the playing roster. Europe was surgical with its vice captains, utilizing a mix of peers and elders and heroes as their helping hands. The U.S. went with the same uncles they trot out at every team event, voices while respected are essentially of the same voice. The lack of cohesion by the PGA Tour and PGA of America—which has not improved in the months since the surprise framework agreement between the tour and Saudi Arabia—continues to be an issue, with most American players having five competitive weeks off before Rome while their European counterparts played less than 14 days ago.
“You know, clearly our start Friday, the entire day Friday, was not what we were looking to do. And it's really hard to come back in an away game when you fall so far behind,” Spieth said. “I've been a part of that before. So I would say like, you know, I think if you ask—I think maybe if I rephrase the question, if you asked us when we would like to play the Ryder Cup relative to our schedule, I think we would probably say, give us a week after the Tour Championship or two weeks after and then go, instead of five.”
It’s fair to wonder how bad the result could have been had the Americans not received a jolt of life thanks to a report about team fracture and protest staged by Patrick Cantlay, a report the Americans denied and rallied around. And to their credit, the Americans made it interesting on Sunday and seemed to give a damn. But these are professionals and the stakes are too high and emotions are too invested to take solace in moral victories, and "interesting" doesn't mean much when the final result is still a blowout.
Worse, it is an outcome that lends itself to the same existential questions that have been recycled for the better part of three decades. Variations of the above could be said for almost any away loss since 1993, give or take a post-match mutiny or two. The characters change but the story remains the same, task forces be damned. It is an outcome that threatens the integrity of the event, because instead of asking why the U.S. can’t solve its road problem perhaps the ask should be if it can be solved. The home team has now won eight of the last nine and 11 of the last 13 Ryder Cups, with an average winning scoring margin of five points.
Johnson and his boys made plenty of mistakes, but it's fair to wonder if they even had a chance. Because winning on the road requires the road team to be flawless and golf isn't a game of perfect.
Should the trend continue there will be a storm on the horizon. 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. Which will be fine for United States fans, because 2025 will be at Bethpage Black, and the result will make many believe the team has finally figured it out. Then it comes back to Europe in 2027, and the same crisis will return because the Ryder Cup is trapped in a perpetual time loop. This doesn’t mean the Ryder Cup lacks excitement or importance or heart. It just means it’s not a sporting event, because in sporting events the outcome is always in doubt. The Ryder Cup is proving itself to be nothing more than an exhibition, and that's the most dispiriting problem of all.