Slowing down on the call for American dominance
Once it became obvious that the 2017 Presidents Cup was going to be a rout in favour of the United States, the conversation shifted from the event to talk about how good the American side was, both in current and historic terms. Below is just a sample of some of the questions being asked online in the aftermath of the event.
Is this the best team ever assembled? Does Europe stand a chance next year at the Ryder Cup? What’s the point of playing the Presidents Cup going forward? Where was Kiradech?
Okay, that last one was me.
And while there are absolutely valid questions about what to do with the Presidents Cup going forward, and I’m not sure that anyone has the right answer unless you completely blow up the format, but the first two questions are what I want to tackle here, mostly because I think we’re all getting a little too far ahead of ourselves here when it comes to what this means for the future of team competition, and specifically the 2018 Ryder Cup.
The best team ever assembled debate is the perfect thing to tackle for anyone with skin in the content game, especially when it comes to the topic of potential American dominance in the wake of a clear beatdown of a much lesser side. This is the kind of story that will drive far more traffic and engagement and create more talking points than a close match on Sunday would have, but to be fair, the conversation isn’t completely invalid either if you assume that everyone hits their potential going forward.
The 2016 Ryder Cup felt like the start of something special for the Americans, and with the influx of young talent on display at Liberty National last week, it’s very easy to get excited about this group going forward. Of who you would typically consider the core team of players (Spieth, Johnson, Thomas, Reed, Fowler, Koepka and Berger), DJ is the oldest at 33 followed next by Fowler at 28, so you can definitely see how, at the very least, the Americans have a great base for the next decade of team competitions. Filling out the roster with veterans (Phil, Bubba, ZJ, Dufner, Kuchar), young guys (Ollie, Cantlay, Finau, Xander, Bryson) and guys in the middle (Kisner, Hoffman, Chappell), shows that it’s hard to see many weak spots like there have been in the past. The top of the team is great and will get the bulk of the attention, but the depth has been changed from a negative to a positive and that might end up being the larger reason why this team has success moving forward.
The other big thing they have working in their favour is that they finally appear to have their house in order. The days of Tom Watson and Ted Bishop taking the reigns in some bizarre attempt to infuse an old school mentality are over, and it’s been replaced by a group of still active players like Davis Love III, Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk who actually want to involve the players who are going to be hitting the shots. Throw in Phil and General Woods being on the same page, and you have a formula that looks and feels an awful lot like the successful European model that’s been in play in recent years.
On the flip side, the 2016 Ryder Cup felt like the start of a transition for the Europeans. Sure, their top four of Rory, Sergio, Stenson and Rose matched up well against any four players the Americans threw out there, but many of the players who played pivotal roles over the years in keeping the Cup squarely in the European camp weren’t playing. Luke Donald and Graeme McDowell, with their combined 18-9-3 record in the Ryder Cup, weren’t there. Ian Poulter, the heartbeat of Team Europe who turned into a combination of Seve and Jack every two years, was hurt and reduced to a vice captain’s role. Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood were on the team, but didn’t qualify on merit and were captain’s selections largely because of the inexperience of the rest of the roster and it showed in their poor performances.
At this point, I’m sure you’re wondering what my point is because I haven’t really said anything that you didn’t know already. The Europeans appear to be on the decline, and the Americans won the last Ryder Cup by six points without Thomas and Berger. They should be a lock to take this thing easily in 2018, right? Well, not necessarily and there are a few reasons why that’s the case.
Europe’s home dominance
Europe hasn’t lost a Ryder Cup on their own soil since 1993, and their last loss prior to that was 1981. Sure, we’re talking about a relatively small sample size given that it’s only in Europe every four years, but of the twelve guys who played for the American Presidents Cup team, only Phil, Kuchar and Hoffman were even alive in 1981. Granted, the home field thing shouldn’t be as much of a factor as it was in previous years given how so many of these guys are worldwide players in 2017, but whether it’s the fan support or course knowledge, there’s something that can’t really be measured that does have an impact on these matches. Also, it’s not like the Americans haven’t been favoured to win while in Europe. On paper, they’ve usually had the stronger teams with higher end talent, but it just hasn’t mattered.
Match play is incredibly unpredictable
If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that one of the things that I go on and on about is how volatile match play is. Typically when I talk about this, it’s in reference to the WGC because the broadcast and online reactions tend to treat it like the NCAA Tournament and talk about upsets, when in reality, the difference between the best player in the world and the 64th best player in the world is non-existent in an 18 hole sample. The reality though is that this definitely applies to the Ryder/Presidents Cup as well.
Look at what happened last year at Hazeltine on Sunday in the Phil Mickelson/Sergio Garcia match. Both guys were on fire, particularly as the match was coming to a close, and they ended up halving the match with 63. If one shot for either guy goes a different way, the match is over and if say, Sergio had shot 62 and beaten Phil 1 up, no one in their right might could have said that Phil deserved a loss, but he would have gotten it anyway. The same thing happened last week at Liberty National when Justin Thomas was great but Hideki Matsuyama was just a little bit better, and it put a point on the board for the Internationals.
Now, is that going to happen in every match? Of course not, but it’s a reminder that you can still play an incredible round of golf and the margin for error is so thin, that it can get away from you. All of these guys are really good, and it’s not going to take much for the points to sway.
We’re a long, long way from the 2018 Ryder Cup
We’re essentially still a calendar year away from the 2018 Ryder Cup getting underway, which Shane Bacon perfectly captured with this tweet after the Presidents Cup concluded:
I mean, this one is obvious, but so much can happen in the course of twelve months that even though we should have a pretty good idea of what the teams look like, there’s a chance that we really don’t. Case in point: it might be hard to think back and remember this, but in the early portion of the year, Patrick Reed was terrible. His results were bad, and the underlying numbers were even worse. He was blaming Callaway for his problems, and even now, aside from his putter, he’s not performing at the level that you would expect for someone of his ability.
Even though everyone expected that he would be on the team, he wasn’t an automatic qualifier for the vast majority of the year and to be honest, he wasn’t that close to the top-10 either. Runs of bad form happen, and so do injuries. Remember the 2014 Ryder Cup? As much as Tom Watson did a horrible job once on the ground at Gleneagles, things happened that prevented DJ, Tiger, Steve Stricker and Jason Dufner from suiting up and it handcuffed Watson from the jump.
I’m not suggesting that guys like Spieth, DJ and JT aren’t going to be there by any means, but we’re so far away from this starting that so much can change. Speaking of that…
The Europeans should be a lot better, too
There’s no doubt that on paper, the American team is looking much stronger now than they have in previous Ryder Cup years. The influx of young talent has them well set up going forward, but if you project that out and don’t understand that the Europeans are also likely to be better in 2018, you’re not taking a look at the full picture.
As I mentioned above, we’re a long way out yet from this thing starting, but if you try to figure out right now who is likely to be on the European side, things start to look way better than they did in 2016. First off, it seems unlikely at this moment that either Westwood or Kaymer will be on this team, and even though that takes away a lot of experience, the lift in talent that Europe will receive in this area should be noted.
The big four of Rory, Sergio, Stenson and Rose should be aided significantly by the addition of Jon Rahm, who is currently the world’s number one ranked European, and frankly, a terrifying menace on the golf course. Throw in Thomas Pieters, who Rory has already said he wants as his partner, and you have a top six that at least personally, I would match up against anyone.
Six rookies teed it up for Europe in 2016, and while it’s unlikely that all of them will be back, the kind of experience that they received, particularly with a hostile American crowd, will serve them well going forward. Of those six rookies, the obvious guys to look at as returnees are Pieters, Rafa-Cabrera Bello and Matthew Fitzpatrick, all of whom are super talented, and in the case of Fitzpatrick, wildly underrated by a large portion of the golfing audience. Throw in two more underrated players in Alex Noren and Tommy Fleetwood, who are probably two of the best twenty ball strikers in the world, and you have a nucleus that isn’t as well known as the Americans, but is very formidable.
The last two spots right now are interesting because one of them will likely come down to whether Paul Casey rejoins the European Tour. If he does, Sunday struggles aside, he adds another very talented player to the mix and even though he wouldn’t have made the difference at Hazeltine, Darren Clarke definitely could have used him on the roster.
And what about Poulter? If he can keep playing the way he is right now, it’s going to be basically impossible for Thomas Bjorn to leave him off the team, and even if you don’t think much of him as a player or person, you have to admit that he brings something to the roster that was sorely missing in 2016. If it’s not him, younger players like Tyrrell Hatton, Thomas Detry or Renato Paratore could make the leap in the next year, or maybe it’s a steady hand like Francesco Molinari who joins the squad again.
I’m not saying that the Americans won’t win next year in France, or that their domination going forward won’t take place, either. It might! And if it does, I’m not going to be shocked. Their nucleus is young, talented and unlike a lot of American teams in the past, the genuinely seem to like each other. They are going to be very tough to beat, but suggesting that it’s a foregone conclusion that they destroy Europe next year in France just doesn’t make a ton of sense to me.
Either way, I can’t wait to see what happens.