By John Wunder
It’s Ryder Cup week and the top 24 players from Europe and the U.S. will descend on Medinah Country Club in Chicago, Ill. Since 1999, with the exception of the Valhalla matches, the Ryder Cup has been a source of pure disappointment and confusion for American golf. Some may say that the culprit is bad luck or the U.S. Team’s inability to make putts at the right time, but I would call it a lack of connection among the players. These matches have been more of an exhibition in European camaraderie and character building than anything. If America is ever going to truly turn the page, this is the team and this is the moment.
The 2012 team very much mirrors the victorious Valhalla squad. Swapping FedExCup champion Brandt Snedeker for Hunter Mahan, Bubba Watson for J.B. Holmes, Jason Dufner for Boo Weekley and Keegan Bradley for Anthony Kim, the U.S. Team has the personality and talent blend to make a statement. The 2008 squad looked like the team we all hope to watch every Ryder Cup. It wasn’t the victory that solidified this point, but the faces of the U.S. players during the matches. The celebrations, the tenacity and more than anything the laughter. We watched 12 guys having a blast… together.
This process starts with Captain Davis Love III and his ability to blend personalities and not necessarily styles of play. I agree that this tact has been effective in the Presidents Cup, but this is not apples to apples. The Ryder Cup is a different animal than The Presidents Cup.
History plays a big factor in the pressure of these matches, but even more so is the the fear by the Americans that they will be overtaken by the Europeans on the world stage. For that reason,the Americans know they have something to prove this year. It’s not that the U.S. dominates the sport, but they know they have the better team this year.
If you watch previous Ryder Cup matches, it’s apparent that the blinding difference in styles is purely social. As an example, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell are good partners not for the reason of ball flight or golf ball model, but simply because their personalities work well together. If you pulled their uniforms off it’s just two buddies having a game.
Seve Ballesteros set the tone for this in 1995 taking a young David Gilford under his wing and literally fathering him to good play. In 2006, the European team came together like the Clarke family and dominated alongside their emotionally wounded brother Darren. It’s the human element that the 2010 U.S. team lacked. It’s that yin-and-yang and selflessness that wins these matches.
The bonds that can be created in these matches are invaluable to young players. Fred Couples has mentioned numerous times how his pairing with Ray Floyd in 1989 literally changed his career. That friendship still lasts today. Mickelson formed a similar bond with Anthony Kim in 2008. Mickelson more than anyone has attempted to create this vibe but it’s fallen on deaf ears. Even to this day you will find him on Tuesday practice rounds playing with Bradley, Mahan and Dustin Johnson.
For the first time 36-year-old Tiger Woods can use his life experience to truly mentor a young player and guide him thru the week. In past years he has been more deity than player and his human side was hard to find. But 2012 is different — he has picked himself off the ground and is no longer the biggest stick on the street. Medinah has been a source of good memories for Woods (he won the PGA Championship there in 1999 and 2006), and beyond his physical ability his past memories to draw from have been his greatest weapon. He can take this chance to pair up with a Keegan Bradley or Bubba Watson and literally stoke the fire.
I challenge Tiger more than anyone to take on a new idea. We all know he prefers the quiet grinder type, but If you turn the clock back to 1999 it wasn’t Furyk or Stricker who inspired Tiger’s best golf, it was Steve Pate. The combination of the stoic Tiger and the unpredictable Pate led to not only great viewing but pure electricity that inspired the rest of the team. Tiger had no choice but to just enjoy the show, and the birdies flew. As an onlooker I still find Tiger isolating himself in practice and rarely bonding with anyone. Look back in GolfWRX tournament pictures and notice the one constant besides his Nike Blades… Arjun Atwal. I’m hoping this pattern changes. It’s what the U.S. team needs.
The U.S. approach to winning these things reminds me of the movie Moneyball. Jonah Hill’s character mentioned that the decision makers in baseball had an “imperfect understanding of where runs come from.” This is true for U.S. golf. If I’m Davis Love, my pairing decisions are not going to be made based on what happens on the course, but based on the social interactions my players have. Who makes who laugh, smile, tick, etc. Let’s face it — all of these players can play under pressure, hit the shots and make the putts. They wouldn’t be here otherwise. But when push comes to shove the X factor of these matches is the ability to settle down and go have the time of your life with someone you have a connection with.
Come sunday evening we will know if the scope of U.S. golf has evolved and become the fraternity that everyone likes to call it. I’ll be watching along with the rest of the world and I hope to see 12 individuals become a family.