Two years ago, at Whistling Straits, I wrote a post with the exact same title as this one, and looking back, the trepidation I felt in predicting an American victory looks almost comical. Everything about that week, from the captaincies to player form to home course advantage to just about every intangible you could name, screamed “American blowout”. Still, Europe’s reputation and success gave me pause, and I only had the courage to go as high as 16-12 for the Americans. In the end, it was a 19-9 drubbing. I was right on the basic result, but I should have listened to my instincts and gone all in.
Now, my so-called fear on the eve of that Ryder Cup makes me laugh. Buddy, I tell myself today, that’s not fear. What I’m about to say is the height of fear, of putting it all on the line. These are perilous words to utter, full of the most acute risk and backed up by literally no precedent in the last three decades. The time has come for historic boldness:
America will win an extremely close Ryder Cup
Having written those words, I feel roughly like someone who just walked up to UFC heavyweight champion Jon Jones, slapped him in the face, and said: “I bet you can’t kill me.” There are a few things you just don’t do in the golf world, and betting against Europe at home in the Ryder Cup is at the top of the list. The last time they lost as hosts came in 1993, and since then they’ve dealt the Americans a few close losses and a whole heap of blowouts, to the point that if you just scanned a Wikipedia list of Ryder Cup results, there’s no way you’d ever pick America to do anything but flee in terror.
No matter how much they want to cast themselves as underdogs, and no matter how much US bookies think the Americans are slight favorites (a mistake they make literally every time), the fact is that the Euros are home juggernauts.
If this feels like I’m arguing against my own thesis, well, let me pour it on thick: In the last four Ryder Cups, the home team has absolutely slaughtered the visitors, and the score has got worse every time (16.5-11.5 for Europe in Scotland, 17-11 for the Americans at Hazeltine; 17.5-10.5 for Europe in Paris, and 19-9 to the US in Whistling Straits.) In a sport where 99 per cent of the events have no partisan rooting interest, and the players don’t have to deal with an “away” atmosphere of fans rooting against them, the maniacal Ryder Cup crowds are a massive advantage that have proven close to impossible to overcome … and that’s not even accounting for other edges, like the home team’s right to manipulate the course set-up.
Finally, we have to acknowledge a point of unavoidable bias: Americans are really bad at seeing their own faults. Every single time the Ryder Cup comes to Europe, Americans like me get suckered into believing our own hype and majesty, and thinking that this time, this time, we can’t possibly lose. Like Charlie Brown lining up to kick the football, or an oblivious man about to walk into a manhole, I may be stumbling toward the same exact trap.
So … with history and logic and even nativist instinct against me, why am I predicting an American win? Because literally everything else favours the visitors.
To understand this point, you have to understand a bit of Ryder Cup history, and here’s the 20-second crash course: America won almost every Cup from the first in 1927 until 1983, when Tony Jacklin took over the captaincy of a fledgling Team Europe and engineered a stunning and almost instant transformation. From that point on, Europe dominated the event with comprehensive strategic mastery, routinely embarrassing the overmatched and frequently clueless US leadership, all of which led to the traumatic but history-altering humiliation at Gleneagles in 2014. The Americans were beaten so decisively that weekend that the result spawned a mini-revolt, which spawned the Ryder Cup Task Force, which has been, by any standard, a glowing success.
Today, the US are led by a small and efficient cabal that includes men such as Davis Love III, Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker, Fred Couples, and this year’s captain, Zach Johnson. They have made it their mission to understand why Europe were successful for all those years, duplicate what they could, and come up with inventive American solutions when a carbon copy was impossible.
From a logistics and leadership angle, it’s been a sea change, and with concepts like a minimisation of all extraneous obligations and hoopla, they’ve shown a sharp understanding of American psychology and how it differs from the collective passion that propels Team Europe.
Paul Azinger was the original instigator of most of these principles, from the big picture stuff like course set-up and captain’s picks and statistical guidance to the smallest organisational detail, and after Gleneagles, Love and his cohorts have overseen an evolution that is stunning for how far it’s come in less than a decade.
(An illustrative moment: After the Whistling Straits Ryder Cup, I spoke to Love, and he told me that they were already looking at what went wrong. Remember, this was a 19-9 US win. When I pressed for detail, he spoke about granular concepts like food delivery and transportation, right down to the type of water Dustin Johnson drinks. There is literally nothing these guys have overlooked.)
The results have followed suit. For the first time since 1983, the US have won two straight home Ryder Cups. They’ve won every Presidents Cup, a competition that has sneakily become more and more challenging with time. The players are happy, comfortable, and thriving.
There is, of course, the one glaring exception: They haven’t yet won a Ryder Cup on European soil. Their one shot in the post-Task Force era, in Paris, was a disaster, and though it’s my opinion that Furyk ran into a storm of unbelievable bad luck that week, the fact remains that they lost, and lost badly. And until they manage to climb that last hill, the revolution will not be complete.
But make no mistake: They are working toward that moment, and the moment is coming. The Americans are on the ascendancy, and for the first time since the late ’70s, they can credibly say they have the superior Ryder Cup organisation. The reason I believe that climactic moment is imminent, and will come to pass this weekend at Marco Simone, is a combination of the leadership structure, the belief and passion of the players, and the strange transitional moment in which Team Europe finds itself.
To Europe’s credit, the form of their players looks good or possibly very good, and unlike Padraig Harrington, Luke Donald seems like a strict system captain who prioritises attention to detail and won’t be caught making any late blunders. But this is a team that has been led in spirit, for decades, by players who moved to LIV Golf and aren’t around this week. Even if they were, Whistling Straits showed that they were an aging generation anyway, and perhaps in the late sunset of their Ryder Cup careers even then.
Now, into that leadership vacuum, steps the likes of Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy and Viktor Hovland. Some, especially Rahm, are battle-tested and reliable. Others, like McIlroy, have had uneven careers with great moments offset by major disappointments. And too many to name — Hovland, Matt Fitzpatrick, Shane Lowry, if I must — have yet to prove themselves in this format. Without the crutch of legends like Ian Poulter and Sergio Garcia, there is some doubt about the spiritual centre of Team Europe … and make no mistake, Europe need a spiritual centre.
The US, on the other hand, do not, and that difference in philosophy and “unity” has been recognised and exploited by the American leadership. What the Americans do have is a large group of successful, tested players who grew up watching their country get trounced in the Ryder Cup and want to win as badly as any American generation ever has.
With successful partnerships such as Justin Thomas-Jordan Spieth, Xander Schauffele-Patrick Cantlay as the backbone, the world’s best player in Scottie Scheffler, Cup stalwarts Collin Morikawa and Brooks Koepka, comforting veteran personalities like Rickie Fowler, and rookies who have shown true mettle in either the Presidents Cup (Max Homa), match play generally (Sam Burns), or high-stakes major championships (Brian Harman, Wyndham Clark), there is remarkable depth and skill here. Make absolutely no mistake: No matter what hype attends the late surge of European form, the Americans have the better team.
In my opinion, they also have superior leadership, and they have the historical momentum. If this Cup were being played at a neutral venue, the prediction would be a no-brainer. Instead, if they want to overcome this last great hurdle, they’ll need to knuckle down and do it in one of sport’s toughest environments. Europe will not submit easily on home soil.
Even so, it’s my belief here on the eve of the 44th Ryder Cup that they will submit, and that the US will complete a journey that started with Phil Mickelson’s coup against Tom Watson at Gleneagles, and assume the undisputed spot at the top of the Ryder Cup mountain. This is the final act of the changing of the guard. This is the crescendo, and when it’s over, nothing will be the same.
The prediction: US 14.5, Europe 13.5
Main image: The US team celebrate winning the 2021 Ryder Cup. Richard Heathcote