Yes, it’s PGA Championship week, but let’s take a quick moment before delving into the season’s second major and talk about the Ryder Cup.
The Ryder Cup stands as one of the finest events on the golf calendar, an every-other-year throwdown where golf sheds its staid, selfish image and becomes, for one glorious weekend, a team sport.
The US throttled Europe last fall at Whistling Straits to win the Cup, and now, a new book documents how that historic triumph was decades in the making. “The Cup They Couldn’t Lose” (Hachette, $29) by Shane Ryan breaks down the many ways Team USA captain Steve Stricker countered decades of European dominance … as well as the years of American incompetence and mismanagement that led the team into the desert in the first place. It’s golf nerd nirvana, but more than that, it’s a brilliant sociological study of psychology and team-building.
“Both teams want to win the Ryder Cup,” Ryan writes, “but there is a specific, unmistakable desire among Europeans to beat America that doesn’t exist the other way around. For the Americans, it’s never quite as personal – they’re the reigning kings of the support, they know it’s not going to change, and it would never occur to them to have a specific grudge against the UK or Europe. They’re simply too good.”
The Ryder Cup was established in 1927 as a friendly competition between the United States and England. For most of the first four decades of its history, the event was little more than a biennial beatdown, an American triumph so constant and thorough that the Cup nearly died. Jack Nicklaus, of all people, stressed the need for the Cup to expand to all of Europe, but it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that Team Europe – under the steady, precise, visionary captaincy pf Tony Jacklin – began taking chunks out of the USA’s hide.
By then, America was doomed, though in its arrogance and assumption of superiority – We just show up and we’ll win – it took several more years for Team USA to realize just how far it had fallen behind Europe, and how much work had to go into making a triumph like Whistling Straits a reality. Even after Paul Azinger captained America to a decisive victory at Valhalla in 2008 using leadership tactics inspired by Navy SEALs, the United States failed to change its thinking on a foundational level. That led to the 2014 debacle at Gleneagles, where Europe embarrassed the United States and Phil Mickelson humiliated Tom Watson in the post-tournament interview room.
The continued futility frustrated everyone on the US side. “You know, if I could put my finger on it,” said Jim Furyk, losing Team USA captain in 2018, “we would have changed this [stuff] a long time ago.”
Coming into the 2021 Ryder Cup, Europe had beaten the United States in nine of the past 12 events even though the United States boasted the world’s best players (from Mickelson and Tiger Woods to Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth). But the US seemed to show an uncanny knack for annihilating itself, whether it was Mickelson ripping Watson or Patrick Reed disrupting the locker room in 2018. And as 2021 drew near, Stricker had to wonder whether the then-burgeoning feud between Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka would have the same effect on his team’s all-too-fragile psyche.
“What we would find out,” Ryan writes, “is that Steve Stricker was a different kind of American captain. He was the kind who learned from everything, especially the mistakes.”
One of the book’s finest sections is a deconstruction of all the myths surrounding America’s decades-long futility in the Ryder Cup. “We just need to play better,” “Europe is more unified,” “America is a team of individuals,” “ Europe just wants it more” … there’s merit to all those rationalizations and more, but as Ryan documents, there’s no substitution for preparation backed by good old-fashioned psychological motivation.
“We go to try to win the Ryder Cup, whereas the US tries not to lose it,” 2021 European captain Padraig Harrington said. “Because they’re favorites, because they should win, they’re afraid, whereas we’re the country cousins! We have a point to prove.”
Disclosure: Shane’s a friend and companion on inside-the-ropes walks at various tournaments. He’s also a hell of a writer, researcher and interviewer. He managed to get microscopic yet revealing tidbits out of former captains and players that will thrill hardcore golf geeks, like the way Stricker kept a list of the balls each player used on his phone, or the way European captains would stagger the alternate-shot lineups to give Jon Rahm the best opportunities to wield his world-breaking putter.
What makes golf great – player against course, player against themselves – is still present in the Ryder Cup, but amped to an infinite degree. You make a putt to win a tournament, congratulations, you burnished your own career. You make a putt to win a Ryder Cup, you’re a national hero and a golf immortal.
The nationalistic element of the Ryder Cup – you’re not just playing for yourself, you’re playing for your country – inspires some and terrifies others. Colin Montgomerie, Ian Poulter and Sergio Garcia have one major among the three of them, but are three of the greatest Ryder Cup players in history. Woods, on the other hand, is 4-2-2 in singles matches but only 9-19-1 in the team events.
Contrary to the restrained decorum exhibited at most golf tournaments, Ryder Cup crowds are loud, raucous, profane, wicked … in short, it’s like a college football crowd in the gallery, and it’s a magnificent home-field advantage. Ryan captures every bit of that raucous spectacle, from the Packers fans who booed Stricker, a Bears fan, to the beer-chugging that Daniel Berger and Justin Thomas did on the first tee when their playing was done for the day on Saturday.
The Ryder Cup is an event like any other, and “The Cup They Couldn’t Lose” perfectly embodies what makes it so great. The next Ryder Cup is scheduled for September 29-October 1, 2023 in Rome. Carve out some time for both.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at [email protected]