Minutes after Europe’s Ian Poulter had defeated the United States’ Dustin Johnson in their singles match at the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris, NBC’s Jimmy Roberts asked the Englishman why this tournament matters so much to the European team. Americans, Roberts said, just don’t understand how important the Ryder Cup is to the European golfing community and pressed Poulter to “help us understand.”
Poulter, who at 41 was not only the oldest member of the 12-strong team but also a captain’s pick, was silent for a few seconds, glancing towards the celebrating fans in the background. By beating Johnson—the world number one—on the 18th hole, Poulter had pushed Europe to the brink of victory, a triumph that was confirmed about 10 minutes later when a woeful Phil Mickelson dumped his ball into the water at 16 and conceded his match to Francesco Molinari.
A mainstay in the Ryder Cup team since his debut in 2004, Poulter has earned the nickname “The Postman” because of his ability to deliver when it matters. As you would expect from somebody who has won the “little gold trophy” five times, his answer was probably not what Roberts wanted.
“I don’t think I can quantify to you guys to let you know how much this tournament means,” Poulter said, in the interview with NBC. “You see it in the emotion when we hole putts, you see it in the emotion of the fans and to be able to represent Europe is extremely special, and to be able to win this thing back is even more special.”
There is No I in Team
Anyone who thinks that golf is boring will not appreciate how the Ryder Cup is somewhat unique. North America’s dedication to it’s home-grown sports (football, baseball and basketball) means that there is rarely an opportunity for the U.S. to take on other countries on the world stage. With the exception of the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics, most Americans don’t get to see the emotions that can be generated when national pride is at stake.
When you add into the mix that the tournament is played over three days and features 24 matches spread over three golf formats (fourballs, foursomes
Poulter’s comments, for instance, were reflected in how rookie Jon Rahm celebrated his 2 and 1 victory over Tiger Woods, the 23-year-old Spaniard clenching his fists in delight while a clearly-drained Woods waited patiently to congratulate him. The sight of rookie Tommy Fleetwood body-surfing on the hands of fans was an emotional release for many, his long hair making him look like he was at a heavy metal show rather than at a golf course.
Even the emotion and alcohol that flowed out of the stands when victory was secured also backed up Poulter’s belief that this competition—which offers no prize money, just pride—means more to European fans than their American counterparts.
Two years ago, the United States battered the Europeans 17-11 in Minnesota, winning the trophy for the first time since 2008. This time, the tables were turned in dramatic fashion, with the European team recording a 17½ to 10½ victory at the Le Golf National course.
Trailing 3-1 after the first day’s morning fourballs, Europe then swept the U.S. 4-0 in the afternoon foursomes, before ending day two with a 10-6 lead. The Americans put up a brief fight in the singles on day three, reducing the lead to a single point at one stage, but Europe just moved into a different gear, with U.S. players like Jordan Spieth and Bubba Watson getting a spanking from Denmark’s Thorbjorn Oleson and Sweden’s Henrik Stenson, respectively.
The winning point was (rather aptly) secured by the Italian Molinari, who treated Mickelson over 16 holes in much the same way that you would a dog being taken to be put down … kindly letting the veteran believe for brief moments that something awful wasn’t about to happen, without it ever looking as if Phil was ever going to produce a win for the U.S team. In fact, Molinari went 5-0 over the three days, becoming the first European player to achieve a perfect score at the tournament.
Reputations Mean Nothing …
The plain and simple truth is that the European team is exactly that. A team.
A group of guys who enjoy being with each other and who punch well above their weight when it matters. Irrespective of world ranking or tournament victories, Europe is a unit, as opposed to the collection of individuals that often represent the USA in the Ryder Cup. Granted, that might seem to be a sweeping statement, but the fact remains that—away from home, at least—the Americans struggle to deal with the intensity generated by their often lesser-known opponents.
On paper, the United States should have been able to retain the trophy that they won in 2016, but it is telling that Patrick Reed—the self-proclaimed “Captain America”—said to The New York Times that U.S. captain Jim Furyk felt it necessary to post a sign in the team room that instructed his players to “leave your egos at the door.” Reed also told the media source that the “player-friendly environment” was supposed to be the catalyst for team bonding, a situation that the Europeans had turned into a science over the last 20 years or so.
On the flip side, very few of the European team are household names and it is extremely likely that somebody like 26-year-old Tyrell Hatton can probably go and do his weekly shop without being mobbed. Even a global superstar such as Rory McIlroy is a vital cog in the machine, playing to the crowd whenever possible and making sure that the newbies don’t get overwhelmed.
“Something happens to European players in the Ryder Cup that appears to sweep up far fewer of their opponents,” wrote the BBC’s Tom Fordyce. “You could see it across the rolling hills and greens of the course all week: a transformation in mood, a stirring of the spirit, a corresponding surge in form. It feeds into the galleries and it comes back amplified like some beautiful collective madness: logic doesn’t matter round here, reputations are for somewhere else.”
Rookies and Wildcards
The U.S. team arrived in France with 31 majors between them, compared to Europe’s eight. Eleven of them were ranked in the world top 20 of players, Europe could only boast six. Five of Europe’s team were playing their first ever Ryder Cup and one player—Paul Casey—was taking part for the first time in 10 years.
Even Ian Poulter, a pain in the backside for the US team for most of his Ryder Cup appearances, only got the nod as a Captain’s pick by Thomas Bjorn. And yet, Europe thrashed the U.S. and produced an emphatic victory that will go down in Ryder Cup folklore.
“At the end of the day, reputations don’t mean a great deal here,” said England’s Justin Rose. “It’s the players that find inspiration on the day.”
This was the eleventh time that Europe had won the Ryder Cup outright since 1979, with the USA failing (once again) to take anything away from their trip across the pond. In fact, North America’s golf superstars have now failed to win on foreign soil for over 25 years … a record that they never really looked like breaking over the three days.
Yes, there were flashes of brilliance from the USA, but they were few and far between. The team was the favorite to win before a ball had been hit, and the consensus was that this was the best group of players ever picked. The roster was packed with major winners and young talent that has been setting the PGA Tour alight in recent months. None of that mattered.
Tiger Woods, for example, was a pale imitation of the aging warrior that won his 80th title the weekend before he jetted to Paris. Phil Mickelson was just awful, becoming the all-time leader in Ryder Cup losses. World number one Dustin Johnson looked as if he had no idea how to play the course and lost four of his five matches. Rickie Fowler lost three matches, and I can count the number of genuinely jaw-dropping moments of play from him on one hand.
“European players consider the Ryder Cup the highest honor of their careers,” said SBNation’s Brendan Porath. “They had the course exactly how they wanted it. The USA did what they do and played awful golf, made some tactical mistakes, and didn’t seem to really enjoy it. Europe did the opposite, and that’s what they always do, no matter the world ranking disparities. You should never, ever be optimistic again about the USA’s chances to win a Ryder Cup in Europe.”
Europe’s Victory is a Team Effort
Naturally, the plaudits will go to Thomas Bjorn, the European captain making a series of tactical decisions that swung the odds in his team’s favor. But that is underplaying why Europe won the Ryder Cup.
The bromance between Tommy Fleetwood and Molinari, the legendary Sergio Garcia rolling back the years to become the highest points scorer in Ryder Cup history, the passion of Ian Poulter, the soccer-style chanting of the fans, the WhatsApp group chat that the players reportedly set up before the tournament even began … all of these factors were crucial to the win.
Golf is rarely thought of as a team sport, but once every two years we get to see just how quickly a group of individuals can bond. In Paris, we saw a band of brothers triumph over a talented but flawed “team.” And while we now have to wait until 2020 for the next installment of this sporting theater, it is fair to say that harnessing a team spirit is likely to be a constant topic of conversation for one set of players.