A week of wound-licking hasn’t tempered the sting from the U.S. collapse in the Ryder Cup. In fact, now that the shock has worn off, the historic Meltdown at Medinah has driven golf fans to maddening and depressing depths.
The reason is simple. Like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football, American fans have, once again, seen hope snatched out from under them. A generation has grown up watching the U.S. lose seven of the last nine Ryder Cups going all the way back to Bill Clinton’s first term.
Mathematicians would call that a pattern. And U.S. golf fans want to know why.
How can the U.S. field the top players in the world, reigning major champions, leading money winners, FedEx Cup titleholders and leaders in every statistical category and continue to lose?
Why can players change, captains change, venues change, qualification procedures change, captain’s picks change, the weather, the conditions, and the uniforms all change, but the one thing that remains constant is that Europe wins and the U.S. loses?
The old explanations don’t work. The Europeans aren’t closer because they ride trains together from Zurich to Istanbul. Luke Donald lives 25 minutes from Medinah and most of his teammates spend a good chunk of the year in Florida.
Captain Davis Love III offered a standard line. “In the end, I think Dustin Johnson said it best,” Love said in Las Vegas. “Everybody is feeling sorry for themselves and he says, ‘Man, it’s just golf. They knocked in a bunch of putts and ours lipped out. There’s nothing we can do about it.’ You know, that really did sum it up.”
But that doesn’t get to the heart of the problem. Saying the Europeans holed more putts is like saying the Washington Nationals won baseball games because they scored more runs. Stating the obvious does not pass as an explanation.
It is statistically impossible that different players from one side would consistently hole putts on different courses in different conditions during one week every other year for two decades while players from the other team had putts “lip out.”
No, to find the real reason for the U.S. failures requires discarding old clichés and examining history with an unflinching eye. Because history does offer an explanation, an uncomfortable and controversial one, but one that should be explored nonetheless.
The players who lost this year for Captain Love will get another shot for flag and country next year for Presidents Cup Captain Couples. No big deal. It's just golf.
From 1979, the first year players from Continental Europe were included in the Ryder Cup, through 1994, the matches were pretty evenly split. The U.S. won five Ryder Cups, three at home and two on the road. Europe won three, once at home at The Belfry, once in the U.S., at Muirfield Village, and they retained the Cup with a tie at home in 1989. Some of the matches were close, some were blowouts, but all were dramatic and competitive.
Since 1994, Europe has browbeaten the United States at home and abroad. In almost all of those matches, Team USA entered as the favorite, and in all but two instances – once when they mounted a record-setting final-day comeback, and once when they were considered underdogs because of the absence of Tiger Woods – they lost.
So what changed after 1994? What one variable has remained constant since that time that could possibly affect the U.S, but not the Europeans?
Simple: the PGA Tour added The Presidents Cup to the schedule. Every year since 1994 American players have put on uniforms, marched through an opening ceremony, played with a partner in fourball and foursomes, and shared a team room and a captain. Every year they have put their hands over their hearts and sang the National Anthem, and every year they have heard their names announced on the first tee as “Representing the United States of America.”
Frequency dilutes value. It always has. Coors beer was only special in Virginia and Florida and the Carolinas back when you couldn’t buy it east of the Mississippi. Air travel was only sexy when a select few could do it. The Olympics carry more weight than the championships because the Games come once every four years, just as the World Cup is far more precious to soccer fans than year-in-and-year-out playoffs.
For Europeans, the Ryder Cup is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play for a team in front of a raucous crowd. For Americans, it’s another week of golf. The players who lost this year for Captain Love will get another shot for flag and country next year for Captain Couples. No big deal. It’s just golf.
Players will deny it. Those who have played both will tell you that winning the Ryder Cup is just as important to them as it is to the Europeans.
They will insist that their focus is not divided and that they can certainly play matches every year without it diluting their desire.
But as Arthur Conan Doyle wrote, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
And the truth is, since 1994 the Ryder Cup has been a one-sided show. The Presidents Cup might not be the sole cause.
But the data would suggest it is certainly a contributing factor.
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