HAVEN, WISCONSIN | Whether it is more real or imagined, there has been a sense that Europe’s sustained success in the Ryder Cup stems not just from its players but from its captains and the culture that has been cultivated over the years.
Paul McGinley, who played on three European Ryder Cup teams, served as vice captain twice and was the man in charge when the Europeans routed the Americans at Gleneagles in 2014, knows all about it.
On the inside for parts of two decades and remaining in touch as a past captain who has helped choose future European captains, McGinley has also paid close attention to how the American approach has evolved, particularly in the aftermath of 2014 when a U.S. task force was created with the goal of adding structure to what had been a haphazard approach.
Listening to U.S. captain Steve Stricker early in the week, McGinley was struck by two themes – picking a team that best suits Whistling Straits and being heavily reliant on preparation.
“There were huge, big shifts in America, they hadn’t done it before. The first one was horses for courses. (Stricker) mentioned the golf course, the golf course, he referenced the golf course a number of times,” said McGinley, who now does golf commentary for Sky Sports.
“It’s quite clear that in 2018, they picked the best four players who weren’t on the team, but they didn’t pick the best four players who were most suited to that golf course.”
(Jim Furyk picked big hitters Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau and Tony Finau for Le Golf National.)
“Certainly (European captain) Thomas Bjørn did, he picked (Sergio) García, he picked (Henrik) Stenson. Anybody who’s played the French Open can see, this is a golf course you don’t shoot 20-under on, I don’t care how good you are. It’s a golf course that you win generally in single figures and I don’t think America were ready for that.
“The second thing (Stricker said) was, ‘I’m not going to be out-prepared for this Ryder Cup.’ You know it’s no doubt that we were better prepared for the golf course in Paris, and it worked.”
Given the benefit of six captain’s picks, Stricker filled out his roster with players he believed could handle the big-shouldered demands of Whistling Straits. Rather than pick Webb Simpson, Kevin Na or Patrick Reed, all of whom are gifted at getting the ball in the hole but not among the game’s longer players, Stricker went instead for Scottie Scheffler, Daniel Berger and Tony Finau.
Regardless of what happened in the Friday morning foursomes session, Stricker had already committed to his afternoon four-ball lineup. It’s easy listening to Stricker to sense he has set the pairings for the entire weekend, the only question being the order in which he sends out his teams.
When Patrick Cantlay said on Wednesday that he would be happier going 0-for-4 in his matches and winning the Cup than going 4-0 and losing the Cup, was it an unintentional acknowledgement of what Stricker had already told his team, players knowing when they would and wouldn’t play?
“Americans are more front-footed. Just look at the way they play golf. Americans are great going forward. They’re a boxer, a great boxer throwing punches.” – Paul McGinley
From McGinley’s perspective, a subtle cultural difference has also impacted the Ryder Cup. It’s not as easy as taking the European playbook and following it like an instruction manual that comes with a piece of furniture from Ikea.
“I can see a shift in the mentality of the Americans and just because we have done something that’s worked for us – this humility and this under-promise over-deliver (approach) that doesn’t mean that America has to do it because America is different.
“Americans are more front-footed. Just look at the way they play golf. Americans are great going forward. They’re a boxer, a great boxer throwing punches. So we’ve got to try and get them on the back foot. Maybe these conditions (windy and cool thus far) are going to throw them a bit on the back foot. That’s why we’re giddy about playing (in) these conditions because it stops them throwing punches and stops them getting on their front foot.”
Earlier in the week, Finau talked about the changing nature of the American team, the inevitable evolution now that Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are no longer playing. It was also apparent in the average age of the two teams this week. The Europeans have an average age of 34.5 years compared to the Americans’ 29.
“Hopefully we can change the mold here moving forward,” Finau said.
McGinley senses it is already happening but it will take more than wishing it into existence.
“He’s only saying what everybody else is saying behind the scenes,” McGinley said of Finau. “With the quality of team that America has time after time, to not just lose Ryder Cups but to lose them as heavily as they have done, something has to give and something has to be rectified. Listening to Steve Stricker and listening to players, I think they’ve got it.
“America is under pressure. No doubt they’re under pressure. But they got a lot of things working their way. … I sense a shift from the Americans and I think this is going to be very, very difficult for us to win.”
Top: Observers such as Paul McGinley says there was a shift in philosophy when Steve Stricker put together this year’s U.S. Ryder Cup team. Photo: Warren Little, Getty Images
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