It is the main question, maybe the only question, ahead of this year’s match in Rome. Can the United States, O-fer on the road since the beginning of the Clinton Administration, break its 30-year slump? But there’s a bigger question on the same wavelength, one that hasn’t been as widely acknowledged because it’s a bit uncomfortable and without a simple fix: Has homefield advantage in the Ryder Cup become unfair?
For all the abstract concepts like leadership, chemistry, desire and heart, even differences in socio-economics between tours and continents that are bandied about and retrofitted to explain the results, the one incontrovertible throughline from the past three decades is the Ryder Cup has been decided by which team is playing at home.
Yes, the United States has not won an away game since 1993. But that is not a fate specific to the American club. 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. The lone aberration from this 19-year-stretch, the 2012 Ryder Cup, required an all-time comeback—or meltdown, depending on one’s perspective—to be the exception to the rule. The result has only become more exaggerated since the Miracle at Medinah, each of the last four matches constituting as blowouts with the home team winning by an average margin of seven points.
Is Ryder Cup Homefield Advantage Unfair?
The myriad ways the home team can set up a golf course to its specifications influences the competition more than one might think.
“I don’t feel like playing away is getting any easier,” Rory McIlroy said at Whistling Straits in 2021. “If anything, it’s probably getting a little tougher … I think winning any Ryder Cup is huge, and it’s a monumental achievement for all that are involved, but I think over the years winning a Ryder Cup on the road has just become more meaningful for some reason.”
In a vacuum, each match has explanations. For Americans, the 2018 defeat was chalked up to lack of scouting and a failure to cater its roster to the course and setup. In 2014, a divide between captain and its players was the take delivered on a platter thanks to Phil Mickelson’s blistering post-match referendum on Tom Watson. Europeans are guilty of playing the blame-game too: questionable strategies from Mark James and Nick Faldo were criticized after coming out on the business end in 1999 and 2008. Sometimes one team merely outguns its opponent, which was the universal takeaway from the Americans’ resounding 2021 victory.
Conversely, this is a trend that stretches into the previous century and a 2023 win for Europe would make for too many data points to dismiss. The correlation between host and success is irrefutable. The why is just as straightforward.
“I think obviously you've got the fans,” Padraig Harrington said ahead of the 2021 Ryder Cup. “I think more to do with the home setup is a big part of it. Clearly the home captain gets a choice in how the golf course is set up, and he's going to do everything he can in that setup to get it to favor his players. I think that has a big effect on it, to be honest, just really the setup of the golf course.”
Fans are fused into the DNA of the Ryder Cup. It’s the only time the game allows for partisanship, and while that passion can overstep its boundaries on the whole it is respectful and serves as the undercurrent that powers this event. In that same breath, homefield advantage has been disappearing across the big four professional sports leagues in the United States, and that has nothing to do with fanbases becoming less zealous. Certainly the uniqueness of the Ryder Cup atmosphere outside the ropes compared to other golf tournaments does not make for the strongest of parallels, yet it is odd that while homefield advantage is disappearing in other professional leagues it’s only strengthening in golf. This is not to say that support doesn’t matter at the Ryder Cup; anyone who’s watched the event can speak to the beautiful sight of fans and players coalescing into something that is bigger than themselves. However, that support, while meaningful, is likely over romanticized, and definitely can not be quantified.
Which brings us to Harrington’s second point, course setup. Teams and captains have been manipulating Ryder Cup venues since 1957, when Dai Rees burnt out the greens and tightened the fairways at Lindrick Golf Club to give Great Britain its first win since 1933. Over the ensuing decades leaders from both sides have done everything in their power to play to their team’s strengths while magnifying their opponents’ weaknesses. Paul Azinger told the Valhalla superintendent in 2008 to shorten the rough past 300 yards, allowing his big hitters to wail away without penalty. A similar strategy was employed at the past two U.S. sites at Hazeltine and Whistling Straits, leading to grumbling from the Europeans that the setup was too weak. On the other end of the spectrum, Europe has consistently emphasized accuracy off the tee, a strategy that has become alien—arguably extinct—on the PGA Tour during the bomb-and-gouge era. Slower greens have also been a recurring theme at European venues, with Americans typically preferring faster putting conditions.
On the surface, these broad strokes seem outdated. The romanticism of different playing styles between the PGA and DP World Tours has mostly been diminished by equipment optimization, and in the ever-growing globalization of the sport, most of the European players make the PGA Tour their primary circuit. In short, the modern game is basically the same on both sides of the ocean. Yet home teams influencing their venues is not as simple as the height of the rough.
Both teams utilize analytics departments when cultivating their friendly (or unfriendly) confines. At the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris, it wasn’t just that the fairways were tight; captain Thomas Bjorn’s stats group identified many of the American players had a tendency to miss big with their drivers, so he had the gallery rope lines moved back in order to minimize the chances of wayward drives finding trampled down rough. The move paid off; the heavily-favored Americans were smoked.
But was that move, and the moves of so many captains before, gamesmanship or treachery? Each side has accused the other at times of contrived setups, to the point that how a course is arranged is now defined in the captains’ agreement:
It is recognised that the home side has the opportunity to influence and direct the setup and preparation of the course for the Ryder Cup. It is hereby agreed that any such influence, direction and/or preparation will be limited to course architecture/course design, fairway widths, rough heights, green speed and firmness, and will conclude the Sunday prior to the matches (Sunday, September 24th 2023). From Monday, September 25th 2023 all daily decisions related to course preparation/setup including frequency and height of mowing tees, fairways and greens, determining if the greens should be rolled to maintain speed, firmness and smoothness, and selecting tees and pin positions, will be the responsibility of the Match Committee alone. The Match Committee is made up of one representative from both Ryder Cup Europe and the PGA of America. This is done to maintain the integrity of the Ryder Cup.
However, as sources with both the DP World Tour and PGA of America told Golf Digest, this is not particularly policed, and neither side wants to come off as sore losers. Besides, the home team has already made its intentions well known before Ryder Cup week, and likely mapped out a game plan for the week, which includes scenarios that would require mid-event adjustments.
There is a solution, one which would see a neutral party overseeing the course setup. But good luck having either side acquiesce to that change. It’s arguably been Europe’s biggest equalizer over the past three decades, and coming off losses the Americans don’t want to surrender the asset when it’s their turn to utilize it. Moreover, ceding setup means acknowledging its importance, which officials for both sides aren’t keen on doing, for it threatens to demystify the very aura—that the match is won by passion and gumption and fortitude, things that can’t be measured—that gives the Ryder Cup its juice. Maybe that’s why a recurring answer on this subject from players and officials on both sides to the idea of an unfair playing field was, Yeah, well, play better.
The problem is, the seemingly predestined results are undercutting the very thing that’s supposed to be on the line. The Ryder Cup is no longer an exhibition; it's arguably the most dramatic theater the game can offer. But what makes great theater is the notion that anything could happen, and for far too long, the Ryder Cup has stuck to the script.
For the inside story of how the home teams tricks up its own course for an advantage, watch the video below: