Teaming Up on Europe Fit the U.S. Ryder Cup Squad to a Tee
To illustrate how offbeat the Ryder Cup is from professional golfers’ norm, just recall what happened on the first tee at midday during last Saturday’s second round.
American teammates Justin Thomas and Daniel Berger came to the raucous amphitheater at Kohler, Wisconsin’s Whistling Straits to stoke up the grandstand fans, as if they needed any incitement after being there full throated since well before sunrise. Thomas and Berger, both sitting out the afternoon better-ball matches, got the assembled folks even more pumped by going into a nearby cooler and tossing out beers. When it appeared that the two emergency bartenders were left without beverages, two more came flying back to the tee box. After a brief pause, Thomas turned his hat backwards and Berger pierced the side of the beer can, with both chug-a-lugging as the crowd went berserk. Thomas spiked his can.
“It looks like they are having a good time and enjoying the experience,” U.S. Captain Steve Stricker, a Wisconsin native, said. “We get ridiculed for being too tight and all that, and then we do something like that where it looks like our team is together and having a good time and trying to get with the crowd.”
The U.S. won on Sunday in a rout, 19-9, the largest margin of victory since 1975, led by Dustin Johnson’s 5-0-0 record and Collin Morikawa’s clinching half point. It was only the sixth victory in the last 30 years for the U.S., with Europe taking nine wins during that span.
What Makes The Ryder Cup Different
The Ryder Cup atmosphere is completely foreign for what professional golfers experience for 99 percent of their seasons. Usually, it’s an individualistic, flat-lined, 72-hole stroke play competition that can become monotonous unless the scenery includes azaleas and pimento cheese at Augusta, links-style golf in the UK, classic, big-boned U.S. courses, bomb-a-thons with Bryson DeChambeau or hang onto your seats with Jordan Spieth.
“Maybe there’s a little lull in the middle of the round, but the end and the beginnings are just pure adrenaline,” U.S. star Patrick Cantlay said.
“The most animated I’ve been in my career has been at Ryder Cups,” European stalwart Rory McIlroy said. “It just brings something out of you that you don’t get playing individually.”
The team aspect is unique for format and mindset. No longer focused solely on your own breathing and to stay in the moment, teammates’ energy, the fans’ cheering (or booing) and a search for the greater good of the representing country or continent become priorities in an event where the only monetary reward is for players’ charities. In addition, the format’s popularity is rooted in American team sports – particularly the NFL’s Packers and NBA’s Bucks in Wisconsin – and the fact that most recreational golfers play the sport more often in better-ball competition or by playing Nassau formats more closely associated with match play.
Plus, the attending fans are different animals, particularly with the three-year gap in Ryder Cups because of the pandemic. Clad in red, white and blue with a variety of suit jackets, Viking horns on helmets, cheese heads (in Wisconsin) or other outlandish attire, cheering for one side is completely encouraged vs. the demurer “golf clap.” The chants of “U – S – A” from the Yanks are countered with the soccer chant “Olay, Olay, Olay” from the Euros. It’s like a college football Saturday when the University of Wisconsin welcomes the fourth quarter with House of Pain’s “Jump Around” or Clemson enters the field by touching Howard’s Rock and descends the hill in Death Valley to get the Tiger fans rocking. To Europeans, it’s as close as they’ll get to the euphoria of playing in a World Cup soccer competition. For golf, it’s the rare arena where you can be booed or cheered for a bad shot or fully supported among the attendees and not feel as if some ancient rule has been broken.
That’s why the golf competition has drawn intense interest from the best of team sports. Basketball great Michael Jordan has attended every Ryder Cup since 1997 – 12 in a row – and has spent time as a roving motivator and cigar smoker. Swimmer Michael Phelps, surfer Kelly Slater and long-distance NBA marksman Steph Curry, all golf nuts, have regularly been in the gallery.
“You have to give up pieces of who you are for the benefit of the team,” Jordan said in an interview with Curry last weekend for www.rydercup.com. “The Ryder Cup is similar in that, yeah, you’ve got Tiger Woods on your team, but he can only win one point. And that may not even happen in a team format.”
A few years back, Jordan’s former University of North Carolina classmate Davis Love III, the 2012 and 2016 Ryder Cup captain, asked Jordan to prepare a motivational video for the 2012 Ryder Cup in Chicago. The video included quick snippets on the U.S. team members and few Jordan highlights, but when it did have Jordan in Bulls gear, he was usually pointing toward or encouraging his teammates.
The gathering can also lead to the usual friction that occurs in team sports. The 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island, S.C., possessed great intensity before the event began. A couple of American players sported camouflage hats to honor Operation Desert Storm troops and the branding label was “War at the Shore.” Players from each team insinuated there was gamesmanship going on during matches, such as rattling of change in pockets or clearing throats when opponents played or golf ball brands were incorrectly swapped during team alternate-shot matches. Paul Azinger, now the Golf Channel/NBC analyst, was a leading figure on the U.S. team and bristled when NBC commentator Johnny Miller was critical of the U.S. chest-beating. “He’s the biggest moron in the booth,” Azinger quipped, then paused, “I mean Mormon.”
The face-off didn’t begin in 1991 but has been palpable among the usual golf sportsmanship for quite some time. Normally insular Ben Hogan served as captain twice. In 1949, he led by off the matches in Great Britain by questioning the legality of the grooves many of the British players used in their irons. On Hogan’s second stint as captain, in 1967 in Houston, he dissed the Brits by introducing his American squad with, “Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce the finest golfers in the world.” In a private team meeting, Hogan challenged his squad to play well, ending with the comment, “But let me tell you boys one thing – I don’t want my name on that trophy as a losing captain.”
It has motivated the best, even before the Ryder Cup grew into a monster. Skip Alexander, a 1949 and 1951 Ryder Cup participant, survived a 1950 plane crash to return less than 14 months later, despite being badly burned, to win his singles match at the 1951 Ryder Cup, played in his backyard of Pinehurst, N.C.
When all was done this year, Stricker was his usual teary self. Even McIlroy shed a tear when interviewed by NBC’s Jimmy Roberts after winning his singles match – his only point scored on the week.
“I have never really cried or got emotional over what I’ve done as an individual. I couldn’t give a s—,” McIlroy said. “… The more and more I play in this event it’s the best event in golf – bar none. It is by far the best experience in golf.”