By Joel Beall
The United States is a democracy, and a “democracy” is a system by which people choose the person who’ll get the blame. An ideology firing on full steam this weekend, as American fans came together to elect scapegoats for a problem thought buried in the past.
The problem being their boys fell to the Euros, again, in the Ryder Cup. Not so much a defeat as a drubbing, the scoreboard reading 17½-10½ in favour of the home team. It wasn’t even that close.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not in 2018, not ever. A task force had been assembled to make certain of that. But happen it did, and with force, its nadir an 11-match stretch where the Europeans won 10.
Raising, begging the question: Who, or what, is at fault for running golf’s Titanic into an iceberg?
Jim Furyk was a popular response, many believing the U.S. captain had been outmaneuvered by his counterpart. Others saw it as a referendum on American course setup, the bomb-and-gouge strategy so effective on the PGA Tour rendered useless in a venue where accuracy is paramount. Some rekindled the time-worn narrative that Team Europe has better chemistry and more heart.
There is validity, at least grains of it, to the above. But they’re not why the U.S. returns empty-handed.
The real reason is quite elementary, revealing an incontrovertible truth. Which is why no one wants to discuss it.
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How America came on the business end of a primal butt-whoopin’ is two-fold.
The first: The heavily-favoured Yankees ran into a European buzzsaw. Tommy Fleetwood and Francesco Molinari did something never seen from Team Europe, racking up a peerless 4-0 record. Both are world-class ball-strikers, with Molinari proving his mettle as a big-game hunter at Carnoustie this summer and Fleetwood nearly winning the U.S. Open with a final-round 63.
Conversely, you don’t plan for the historical, especially on one of the sport’s biggest stages. And if such a performance does take place, you expect it from a star. By no means are Molinari and Fleetwood ancillary characters; in that same breath, most tabbed Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose and Jon Rahm to lead in Paris. That doesn’t diminish the havoc “Moliwood” unleashed; the carnage is still fresh in their wake. Merely, it’s one thing if Michael Jordan is hitting the game-winning shot. Quite another when it’s Steve Kerr or John Paxson.
A similar perspective applies to Sergio Garcia. Like Ian Poulter, Garcia has a reputation in this event. Season results be damned, come Ryder Cup, he is a destroyer of worlds. In that prism, Garcia’s 3-1 mark is not surprising.
But it is surprising through this lens: France was just the second Ryder Cup since 2006 where the former Masters champ posted a winning mark. He’s been a .500 player over the last decade, and though losses don’t tell the entire story—his match versus Phil Mickelson at Hazeltine was an all-timer—you are what record states. That Garcia turned in the tour de force that he did, coming off his worst season as a professional, was a sucker punch to the American cause. Throw in a perfect 3-for-3 from a battered Henrik Stenson, and a nice debut from Alex Noren, and the Euros were riding a heater.
Then there’s the second part of the equation, and it’s tough to swallow.
The United States roster, billed as the deepest in team history, mostly stunk. From superstars to second wave, they didn’t bring it.
World No. 1 Dustin Johnson wasn’t on speaking terms with his putter for most of the weekend, scoring a lone point in five matches. Brooks Koepka, he of two majors this summer, was battling a wayward tee ball, no matter the club in hand. Three captain’s picks, including arguably the greatest player of all-time, were a collective 0-for-9. Patrick Reed has built a persona off this event, yet appeared to be playing with a borrowed set of left-handed sticks, shooting by one marker’s tally an 85 during Saturday four-ball. That Reed didn’t score until the cup had been called was sadistically apropos.
In short, the Europeans were simply better.
It’s OK; no-shows and stumbles and smackdowns happen. In all sports, distinctly in golf. But this, the Ryder Cup, is more than golf, we are told. For pride, country, each other. More so than any tournament or player, fans are personally invested. A sentiment great for the competition, in build-up and engagement. Problematic, however, when it comes to acceptance.
• • •
Blame is a heck of a instrument, and for the purposes of the Ryder Cup, applicable on many levels.
For fans, it’s a defense mechanism. The Ryder Cup engenders a “them versus us” rationale, and when “them” win, it’s easy, understandable, to be in denial. Fans feel attacked, betrayed even, so rather than admit victory, they are looking for an excuse, a patsy, for defeat. Psychologists say this line of thinking is normal when things don’t work out the way envisioned, and that the attributions made during this period can be distorted. This is chiefly true when making judgments involving the blameworthiness of actions in terms of intent versus outcome.
Returning to the aforementioned “What went wrong?” items, were American players thrown off by the course’s tight confines? Sure, but so were the Europeans: per data site 15th Club, the Americans hit the fairway 51 percent of the time through two days, the Europeans only slightly better at a 56 percent clip. The bigger difference was putting. Somewhat astounding, in that Le Golf National’s putting surfaces are more Americanised than the greens normally seen in Europe.
What about Thomas Bjorn running laps around Furyk? The U.S. captain made mistakes, and perhaps splitting up Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas would have spread the wealth. There’s also the chance that the Americans would have lost by an even wider margin in that scenario. Mickelson, never shy on his opinion, said Furyk and the vice captains set the team up to perform to its fullest; the players didn’t live up to their end of the deal. Coming from Mickelson, who has been at every Ryder Cup since 1993, they are words not to be taken lightly. (Also of note: When a reporter asked Furyk why Bjorn was the better captain, Rickie Fowler responded, “Well, he wasn’t a better captain.”)
Speaking of captain, how about the U.S. wildcards, that the wrong players were picked? The alternatives seem logical, but are not pragmatic. Xander Schauffele is a superb talent; he would have had the same driving issues (122nd on tour in accuracy) the critics claim he would have fixed. Kevin Kisner is straight off the tee, not so much in his second shots (169th in approach). Matt Kuchar posted one top-10 finish since the Masters. These were the 12 best American players, a view universally held until Friday.
How about the Europeans’ clubhouse rapport? Reed’s incendiary NYT interview aside, the core of this U.S. team has been together for a previous Ryder Cup and last year’s Presidents Cup, and longtime observers testify it’s the best chemistry American golf has ever enjoyed. Moreover, both players and writers will claim that, while there isn’t turmoil or bad blood, the Europeans aren’t as close-knit, buddy-buddy as they’re made out to be.
Blame is also helpful for organisers. There’s a Ryder Cup in Wisconsin down the road, and there are tickets to be sold. The best way to market is through “hope,” an emotion achieved by the pitch that this time will be different. “Different” because we’ve figured out what was at fault, and now we’ve fixed it. Clearly.
However, while all might briefly preserve a sense of self-esteem, eventually, time concedes these alibis, these flaws to merit. You can only lie to a mirror for so long.
Ah yes, “time.” The most significant function of the blame game.
The Ryder Cup has transformed from an exhibition into a global phenomenon. It’s no longer consumed over three days, but years. Digested on television and podcasts and Twitter and columns and even other golf tournaments. And, let’s be awkwardly transparent, “The other team was better,” doesn’t sell segments for talking heads.
There needs to be emotional petitions, heated arguments, baseless accusations, whimsical theoreticals. All founded in implication and charge, all calling for someone’s head on a stick. Hey, we have to talk about something right?
Which you will see in the next days and weeks and months and years, until the Americans win back the cup.
There are degrees of truth to it; a 25-year-old drought ain’t a coincidence. But there also needs to be subtly, compassion, and more importantly, a nod of the cap to the other side of the pond. They played exceptional golf, not a shock as they are exceptionally good golfers.
Doubt you’ll hear it though. For, as Oscar Wilde once wrote, it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you place the blame.