The five theories on why Europeans dominate the U.S. in pairs matches


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September 29, 2016

CHASKA, Minn. -- In my exhaustive investigation of Ryder Cup phenomena since 1983—the start of the competitive era—I was able to put a statistical button on what everyone with a brain has known for some time: The Europeans are far better than the Americans in Ryder Cup pairs play. While singles has been nearly even over the last 23 years (the U.S. holds an impossibly slim 96½-95½ advantage), the foursomes and fourball records tell a far different story:

Foursomes: Europe 69½, America 58½

Fourball: Europe 72½, America 55½

Identifying the problem is the easy part. Explaining it? That's proven to be more difficult, and perhaps impossible. There's no obvious reason why America should lag behind Europe the minute you put two golfers on a team together. It's still golf, and if anything, the American players have traditionally been a little better than their European counterparts, at least for the rest of the year. But the minute you add the team element, things go haywire for the U.S., and the dismal performance over the years is the primary reason Europe has run up an 11-5 Ryder Cup record since '83.

But just because there's no clear explanation doesn't mean nobody has tried. Here now, for your consideration, are the various known theories used to answer the unanswerable question.

1. The Americans are more nervous

I put the question to Jordan Spieth, and he wasn't the first to offer the idea that the Europeans are somehow more relaxed:

"I don't know why the Europeans have a better record in the team play. They don't play any more team events over there, I don't think. They all come from different countries. Some of them speak different languages that are even on the same team. I think they have just felt more relaxed going in."

This begs the question of why the Americans are more nervous. Maybe a record of failure compounds the pressure, adding weight to each Ryder Cup which the Europeans don't have to face, or maybe the Americans are just more uptight in general. But this theory actually raises more questions than it answers, and also treats the Americans and Europeans as two separate blobs, rather than 24 individuals who all react to pressure in different ways. Worse, it doesn't distinguish between singles and pairs, and why America consistently fares worse in one than the other.

2. The Europeans get along better

This is maybe the most common theory, and least defensible. It may be true that the Europeans are more congenial with one another, for the simple fact that the smaller purses on the Euro Tour mean that families don't travel with the players quite as much, leading to more golfer-to-golfer interaction on a daily basis. Still, the idea that the Americans actively dislike each other, and that this somehow overrides their desire to win the Cup, is pure conjecture, and holds very little merit.

3. Different languages actually help the Europeans

This is an obscure one, propagated by Thomas Levet in a BBC radio interview. Essentially, the theory goes that because the European team doesn't share a common language, it actually makes them more eager to please each other, and hence better teammates. It's kind of seductive, in its odd logic, but it ignores two facts. First, almost every European golfer in the last 23 years has spoken enough English to get by, so they do have a convenient lingua franca. Second, the Presidents Cup features players with legitimate language barriers, and the Americans smoke them routinely.

4. Socio-cultural mumbo jumbo

This one is my favorite. The Europeans, the story goes, come from a part of the world with a more socialist mentality, both in government and in everyday life. It's more collaborative, less intensely competitive, and places greater emphasis on the community than the individual. America, meanwhile, is a ruthlessly capitalistic, selfish, me-first country in which emphasis is placed on individual achievement rather than the collective good. Thus, the Americans are good at playing by themselves, but they falter when forced to join forces with a countryman, while nothing could be more natural for the Europeans. This is the most theoretical of all the guesses and kind of brilliant because it can't be disproven, but I'm still very confident that it's nonsensical pseudoscience. Americans grow up playing team sports, too, guys!

5. Europeans play more alternate shot growing up

Well, that's boring. And also incomplete, even if match play is slightly more common among the European junior ranks—it's not like alternate shot is difficult to understand or execute, and the U.S. practices enough so that it shouldn't be a huge shock when it's time to play a real match. Also, as the statistics show, the U.S. is slightly better in alternate shot (foursomes) than in fourball, so this actually explains nothing.

We might have to conclude, after considering the meat of each theory, that there is simply no perfect explanation for why this has happened. Maybe it's a combination of all five, or maybe it's something else entirely—maybe, in fact, it's luck. For now, we'll just have to co-exist with the mystery.