Jim Furyk was beside himself, at a loss to describe what went wrong in a press conference that was spiraling out of control.
“We’ve fallen short quite a bit, and it’s — you know, five of you have already asked me tonight what’s the winning formula and what’s the difference year-in, year-out,” Furyk said. “If I could put my finger on it, I would have changed this shit a long time ago.”
It’s rare, even previously unheard of, for Furyk to cuss into a microphone for all the public to hear. But he was beaten down and pissed off after the USA was whupped again in Scotland at the 2014 Ryder Cup. It was the USA’s eighth loss in 10 cups and perhaps the American side’s most spectacularly embarrassing failure.
The usually staid Furyk’s exasperated cussin’ came in the middle of a disastrous — or entertaining, depending on your vantage point — press conference in which Phil Mickelson drove a bus over captain Tom Watson, the PGA of America, and the entire team USA approach to this biennial match play competition.
It has now been four years since that low point and 25 years since the Americans have won a Ryder Cup on European soil, which is where the most unique, most intense, and best event in golf takes place in 2018. So who is the person leading the American side in Paris? The one in charge of “changing this shit” and ending the 25-year drought in Europe? Why, it’s Jim Furyk!
The good news for American fans is that much has changed for the USA since Furyk couldn’t “put his finger on” that winning formula in 2014. It’s taken 25 years, but the USA should finally have a roster, and a process, to end this drought in Europe. Let’s look back on the American misery in Europe that pushed us to that breaking point in 2014, and what’s different this time around.
Tiger Woods is back! And he cares more than ever!
Tiger’s Ryder Cup debut came in Europe in 1997 in Spain, where the USA lost to start this long drought on European soil. He was No. 2 in the world and coming off a season in which he won that first green jacket. But he proceeded to go 1-3-1 in those matches, and finished with a blowout singles loss to Constantino Rocca as the US lost by a point on Sunday.
Since that debut, well, it’s been a rocky history with the Ryder Cup. Some of that is Tiger’s fault, and some of it is the detritus he’s been saddled with over the last 20 years.
In 1999, his commitment to the event was challenged when he joined a faction of younger American players questioning where all the money this party generated was going. The players received no cash from an event that, at the time, was generating $63 million for the PGA of America. David Duval called the Ryder Cup a “large corporate outing” and Woods, along with Mark O’Meara, also took up the cause of looking for some of those profits to be re-directed to the players, who argued they should be able to give some of it away to their charities of choice.
”I would like to see us receive whatever the amount is, whether it’s $200,000, $300,000, $400,000, $500,000, whatever it is, and I think we should be able to keep the money and do whatever we see fit,” Tiger said.
The act of simply raising this matter incensed the older generation. Some laughably invoked that they would “die for their country” so playing the Ryder Cup for free was no big deal. The Captain, Ben Crenshaw, said, “It burns the hell out of me to listen to some of their viewpoints.” Another veteran, Tom Lehman, added, “I’m so sick of it I could just barf.”
Tiger, uh, was less intense about it, saying, “It’s an exhibition. It always has been.”
The 1999 infighting was set aside momentarily and the result was arguably the greatest US Ryder Cup win ever. Tiger seemed into it at times, as this legendary leaping photo illustrates, but he still had to be dragged out of bed by Payne Stewart to celebrate with the rest of the team late at night.
In 2002, his second trip to Europe, Tiger ignited another pay-for-play controversy when he said his win at the American Express Championship the week before the Ryder Cup was more important than the team competition for “‘a million reasons.” Tiger tried to walk it back and say he was joking, but the avalanche of searing criticism followed.
By 2006, Tiger was firmly entrenched as a “team leader.” But he, along with a few other famous Americans, were not on the team flight over to Dublin, meeting up with the squad separately. Tiger was already over in Europe, sandwiching an underwhelming Ryder Cup between a World Match Play event and a WGC. After losing in the Match Play event, Tiger opted to stay in London and go to a Chelsea-Liverpool game while Jim Furyk, who also lost in the Match Play, went over the host venue in Ireland to practice.
Not even Tiger Woods at the peak of his powers could have dragged that 2006 roster to a win. Years later, the team photo, which included the likes of Brett Wetterich, JJ Henry, and Vaughn Taylor, just to name a few, would become one of those pieces of nostalgia recognized most for its infamy.
Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images
His team stunk, but the appearance of Tiger showing up a day later than Furyk added more fuel to the criticisms that he didn’t really prioritize this event. A week after Europe smoked his US team 18.5 to 9.5, matching the record Euro margin set just two years earlier, Tiger dominated the WGC for his sixth straight individual PGA Tour win to finish out the season.
Tiger can’t win matches by himself and he could never find a consistent partner while the US kept getting its ass kicked. The 2006 blowout came after Tiger had gone 0-6 on the critical first day of the previous three Ryder Cups. Overall, his record is 13-17-3 and he’s not played on a winning team since that 1999 comeback. So is it because he doesn’t care about this thing?
Of course not. In the past, he’s said every Ryder Cup match feels like a major championship. But the teams he’s played on, especially in Europe, have not been competitive. And when you’re the best player in the world by a margin the sport had never seen and seem well on your way to being the greatest of all time, you’re going to catch the heat when your team keeps getting crushed. It’s not an individual event, but Tiger’s underwhelming record, the string of US losses, and a few comments and scheduling decisions have given the haters enough to feast on and say he’s not committed to the Ryder Cup.
Now? In the year 2018? No hater could possibly mount any argument that Tiger does not care about these team events. Whether it’s the injuries that have put him on the sidelines to watch or some late-career change of perspective, there’s arguably no one in American golf more invested in these teams.
He has demanded to be a part of the team as an assistant captain for both the last Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup. From accounts behind the scenes, he dove in deep and served as a leader on the USA “task force” charged with diagnosing and overhauling the American approach following that 2014 embarrassment. He then served as the de facto captain in that 2016 win at Hazeltine, getting into every nitty gritty detail for an entire year preceding the three-day matches. Davis Love III called him the “tactician” of that 2016 team. He was showered with the same praise at the 2017 Presidents Cup. The American players have expressed something close to shock at how hands-on he’s been in a leadership role and how much study he’s put into every aspect of it. This is not someone sitting at home on the couch injured who doesn’t care about an “exhibition.”
After a couple years of that leadership perspective, he now returns as a player following a comeback season that he’s called a “gift.” Making the Ryder Cup team was a season-long goal, and he’s not some ceremonial pick. He made it on merit and comes into the event off his first win in five years.
So Tiger cares more than ever, but he’s shown an individual alone can’t win the Ryder Cup. The good news is, unlike so many prior trips across the pond, hell’s coming with him.
A new generation of American strength
Because the USA is the deepest pro golf nation in the world, there’s an assumption that the roster every two years is loaded. We tend to look back at these last 25 years simply as string of heavily favored US teams underperforming amid dysfunction. But many of these teams going to Europe during this drought have also been old and bad.
That has started to change in a significant way and this year’s team is the latest and most powerful indicator of the dramatic roster turnover and a new young core that’s taking the reins.
The average age of this year’s American team is 32, and that comes with the 42-year-old Tiger and 48-year-old Phil in the captain’s pick spots. Their average world ranking of the eight points qualifiers is 9. Again, for the eight auto-qualifiers, their average world ranking is 9! Let’s compare that to the abomination that was the 2006 roster. The average age of that team was 34.17 and their average world ranking was almost 30.
On the three losing rosters going to Europe in 2002, 2006, and 2010, there were six players in their 20s combined. This 2018 team alone has seven.
And it’s not like this young core is unproven and unaccomplished. Those players in their 20s? They have eight major championships among them. The untested rookies? Well, they happen to be Justin Thomas, the No. 4 player in the world, Bryson DeChambeau, the No. 7 player in the world who just dominated in the FedExCup, and Tony Finau, who finished in the top 10 at the first three majors of the year, nukes the ball off the tee, and is 17th in the world.
Here are the average ages and average world rankings of the last five losing teams on European soil, and 2018.
- 1997 — average age: 32.58 / average WR: 14.58
- 2002 — average age: 36.17 / average WR: 31.08
- 2006 — average age: 34.17 / average WR: 29.42
- 2010 — average age: 32.75 / average WR: 17.33
- 2014 — average age: 32.58 / average WR: 16.33
- 2018 — average age: 32 / average WR: 11.17
It’s the youngest, strongest team the USA has taken to Europe since this drought started.
Match play golf is a different animal than stroke play. The Ryder Cup is an entirely different pressure-cooker. That major count and those world rankings don’t win matches, but the point is, these guys are extremely good at golf and it can’t hurt that we’ve turned over the roster with young studs. Europe is full of world-class players, too. Winning majors doesn’t automatically mean you’re a match play ace, but it’s better to be taking Brooks Koepka to Europe than Brett Wetterich.
The youth movement really started to take hold in 2014, when the roster featured five players in their 20s and the rookie duo of Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth became the breakout stars. Of course, you can have an infusion of youth and talent but still need to be put in a position to succeed. The US management of that 2014 roster and those three days in Scotland were a disaster. Those management missteps are a theme of this 25-year drought in Europe. This year, that should change.
Trust the Process
You may think Furyk — the exasperated one who said he couldn’t figure this shit out at the last Ryder Cup in Europe — is a bad choice to lead the team in 2018. But the American approach has changed so much since that 2014 mess. The new process took away an amount of power from the captain, and PGA of America, and put it into the players’ hands. Furyk was a part of that overhaul. So instead of a new voice coming in every two years and completely changing everything that was done the last time around, there’s more consistency, communication, and a new reliable set of expectations that the players have.
During this 25-year drought? No one knew what kind of captain or partner or approach they were getting from cup to cup. You could have Hal Sutton telling Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods they were playing together with almost no notice or no understanding of how their games and equipment mismatched. You could have Tom Watson abruptly abandoning a predetermined strategy or lineup that the team had relied on coming into the week.
In 2008, the US ended an embarrassing 3-cup losing streak when Paul Azinger put the famous “pod system” into play. The team of 12 was broken into three pods of four. Your partner was, essentially, limited to a four-man pod. The sub-groups were paired up based on complimentary and compatible styles of golf and Azinger even got into studying personality types that he thought should slot into each pod. He also let the first three auto-qualifiers he put into a pod pick the fourth player they wanted to round out their pod. The players knew who they were playing with months in advance and didn’t show up that week trying to figure it out in a couple days of practice.
So what happened after that smashing success of 2008? Corey Pavin came in, took the team to Europe, and scrapped the entire pod concept, using his own ideas for how to captain the group in 2010. The pod system isn’t a magic formula to winning the Ryder Cup. There are many ways to win it. But Azinger’s approach was hailed by the players and had just worked for them. Pavin, however, wanted nothing to do with it and went his own way, flipping the script for the people actually hitting the shots. The U.S. lost in Wales and there was, once again, a general resentment about how America’s best golfers were being managed.
The European success of the last 25 years has largely been built on a system with minimal surprises that the players can rely on year-over-year. The captains come out of the assistant captain ranks and get to know the role in at least one, and usually more, Ryder Cups before they take the head chair. There’s also always been player-empowerment, but not without study and research. When Sergio Garcia and Rory McIlroy pleaded with captain Paul McGinley to play together in 2014, McGinley spent the summer studying the feasibility and compatibility of such a pairing and then put them together. They knew weeks in advance that it was happening. McGinley also had veteran Graeme McDowell spend the year taking the mercurial and reclusive Frenchman Victor Dubuisson under his wing, setting up the partnership for success come September.
On the American side, the constant see-saw from captain to captain finally came to a boiling point with the autocratic whims of Watson. The last captain to win on European soil was simply lost in his return to the role in 2014. He benched his hottest players when he said he wouldn’t, he changed up pairings, inexplicably altered lineups, and kept most of the team in the dark with minimal communication.
So Mickelson let it rip in that 2014 press conference and since then, we’ve had something resembling a predictable process. The PGA of America, which operates the Ryder Cup on the US side, has less power in choosing the captain. The players, especially Phil and Tiger, have more power, insight, and control. The captain is coming from the group that’s largely been in charge of implementing those “task force” changes. The captain is also coming from the assistant captain ranks. Furyk served as an assistant in 2016 and at the Presidents cup in 2017. There’s an adherence, although not as strict as Azinger, to the pod system, which has also worked so well in the USA’s dominance of the Presidents Cup. Each pod gets an assistant captain assigned to it. The setup, and most of the voices leading it, are consistent, year-over-year.
This new group controlling the operations and the new approach does not guarantee a win. It could go horribly wrong on the course. But what the US was doing before was not working. Changes needed to be made and anything else would have been better. The unpredictability, lack of communication, and sometimes casual approach to prep work in the months leading into the matches are no more.
There’s also some actual consistency in how they look, too.
Look good, play good
As the sage Deion Sanders once said, “If you look good, you feel good. If you feel good, you play good.”
The Ryder Cup is the rare golf event where the players actually have a uniform. And, well, this 25-year drought in Europe has featured some of the worst American outfit atrocities in the event’s history. The looks have been commensurate with the play on the course.
There was that deeeeeeep V sweater vest thing over the baggy mock turtle neck in 2002. That 2002 team seemed to love the V-sweater vest. And pleats. Deep pleats. Big pleats. Wide pleats. Lots and lots of pleats.
And 2006 was pretty much a mess from the start when the team showed up looking like the toilet on the plane had erupted all over the cabin. Arguably the worst American roster in the event’s history wore arguably the worst team photo ensemble in the history of team photos. The vests now came with front-to-back argyle. And there were pleats, still lots of pleats. Man, 2006 was bad in so many ways.
But the worst uniform rotation in this winless streak in Europe probably came in 2010, which was both a disaster in form AND function. There was that garish purple cardigan, which also came in baggy vest form. And that weird crest thing they had going on all week, which no one had ever seen before or since.
But the coup de grace, the one Ryder Cup absurdity perhaps most emblematic of the US dysfunction and bumbling of the most simple things, came via the infamous 2010 rainsuit. In what became one of the nastiest weather Ryder Cups ever, one that was shortened a day because of all the rain, the U.S. showed up with defective rain suits. The suits were these basketball-style warm-ups with stripes on the sides and a nameplate on the back. They were, reportedly, designed at the request of captain Corey Pavin’s wife, who insisted on the names and stripes through 20-some meetings with the manufacturer. The problem, however, was the stitching to add these designs would punch a bunch of holes into the fabric, which the manufacturer warned against in advance. But the US operation proceeded, and the result was a weekend of player whispers to the press and complaints that the suits were not working, they were soaked, and having trouble playing golf because of it.
But, as with the captain’s role, a much better system has been put in place for greater consistency and control with the uniforms. The captains, and any associates, do not have so much power over the uni lineup. There’s now an official partner to the process making the uniforms and related weather gear every two years. They keep it consistent, sticking to designs with variations of the red, white, and blue. It’s simple and makes sense and looks good, relatively. It also avoids the catastrophic overreach by some daring captain. And they also functionally work, which, well, that’s important!
The finish in 2014 and the very public press conference fight was the breaking point of US failures in Europe. It came on the heels of couple decades of apathy, weak teams, old teams, hideous uniforms, and volatile captaincies.
While Phil Mickelson’s blasting of Tom Watson consumed the post-mortem, the oft-forgotten fact of that 2014 Cup is that the U.S. were underdogs. Tiger was hurt. Dustin Johnson was on “leave.” The roster was juuuuust starting to turn over and the captain was from a different era. Europe was expected to win and they did.
The US arrive in 2018 as the favorites. The roster is loaded with accomplished and highly-ranked players. They’re younger. They’re more talented. They’re coming off a dominant home win. Management has changed. Tiger Woods is back. The US team may not win in Europe, but since 1993, they’ve never been set up better to do so.