Team USA looks ready to reverse its Ryder Cup fortunes of recent years with a bright young line-up of stars preparing to do battle in Wisconsin
When the Ryder Cup was last held in September of 2018 near Paris, the world was a different place.
In much the same way as other significant moments in history have served as markers of time, so too has the Covid pandemic. There was before, and there was after.
The same could be said of the biennial contest between the United States and Europe, which now returns to odd-numbered years (as it was prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001) at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin.
So, just how different is the golfing landscape compared to the last time the two foes met?
Well, consider this.
Tiger Woods was still playing and was a few months shy of capturing his 15th career Major at the following year’s Masters.
Collin Morikawa, meanwhile, was still an amateur and in the early stages of his senior year at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was busy putting the final touches to a degree in business economics.
Now, Woods’ playing future remains uncertain as he continues to recover from a near-fatal car crash earlier this year.
And Morikawa is already a five-time PGA Tour winner and two-time Major Champion, having captured the 2020 PGA Championship and this year’s Open at Royal St George’s.
So much for the prerequisite of experience!
In taking home the Claret Jug, Morikawa became just the seventh man since 1900 to win the Open on his debut and the first since Ben Curtis in 2003, also at Royal St George’s, though Morikawa’s career looks set to burn a lot brighter and longer.
Morikawa put on a ball-striking clinic on the Kent coast, playing his last 31 holes with nary a bogey.
With that victory, he joined Gene Sarazen, Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Woods, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth as the only players in the last century with multiple Major wins before the age of 25, which Morikawa won’t turn until February 2022.
Already, the young Californian has proved to not only be the fastest learner in the game but also its best iron player.
In college, the dispersion pattern of his 6-iron was the equivalent of the average pitching wedge on the PGA Tour!
“You try not to listen to everything when it’s your rookie year or it’s your debut,” Morikawa said of his victory at Royal St George’s.
“Sometimes that gets to people. I heard Brooks [Koepka] say at the Travelers Championship, which was my third PGA Tour event as a pro, that he was there to win.
“When he first turned pro he was there to make cuts. Then he went to top 30s and top 20s and top tens. From that day I just switched to, ‘Let’s go out and win’.”
Youth on their side
Why would the Ryder Cup be any different, then?
At least that’s the hope for the Americans.
There’s reason for hope, too.
At just 24, Morikawa is not only America’s youngest player but headlines an infusion of youth.
The average age of the Americans is just 29, a number that would be even lower if not for Dustin Johnson having turned 37 this year.
The only other players not in their 20s among the group are Brooks Koepka at 31 and Harris English and Tony Finau at 32.
There’s plenty of Ryder Cup experience to go round, with Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Koepka, Justin Thomas, Xander Schauffele, Finau and Jordan Spieth all having played previously.
This injection of youthful talent couldn’t come at a better time, either.
The US has lost four of the last five and seven of the last nine Ryder Cups, including in 2018 when Europe romped to a 17.5-10.5 victory at Le Golf National.
The chants of “Tommy, Tommy!” practically reverberated all the way to the Palace of Versailles a few kilometres away following one of the biggest blowouts in the 42 stagings of the event.
Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood led the home team, going 4-0 in their pairs matches, with Molinari becoming the first European to go 5-0 for the week following a 4&2 victory over Phil Mickelson in the Sunday singles.
On a brighter note for America, its two wins over that time span in 2016 and 2008 both came on American soil, at Hazeltine National and Valhalla respectively.
While Whistling Straits is more similar to a European venue than either of those, it is sure to be set up to favour the bomb-and-gouge game of the brawny American squad.
Not that American captain, Steve Stricker, was offering any hints. “It’s none of your business,” the Wisconsin native joked when asked how the course will play as a match play venue.
“We’ve made some tweaks, and I’m sure everybody knows what they are going to be. I’m not going to get into that part of it.
“Yeah, we did some things to kind of enhance the benefit towards our side just like they do when we go over to Europe and play their side. So it’s minor little things. It’s not going to change the way the course plays dramatically.”
Time to come together
But the Americans and Stricker aren’t without their concerns.
Three years ago, it was the distraction of Patrick Reed, who publicly bemoaned not having been paired with Jordan Spieth despite the duo having proved formidable with an 8-1-3 win-loss-half record in two Ryder Cups and two Presidents Cups.
Instead, Spieth teamed up with good friend Justin Thomas, and they won three of four matches together.
Reed, on the other hand, ended up with Tiger Woods, with the pair drawing a blank in two fourball sessions.
This time, it’s American teammates DeChambeau and Koepka who find themselves at odds.
Their beef traces back to 2019 when Koepka mentioned DeChambeau while talking about slow play.
They appeared to have settled the matter at Liberty National during the 2019 Northern Trust, but Koepka said that DeChambeau went back on his word after their conversation. Things escalated from there.
“He didn’t like that I had mentioned his name in slow play, so we had a conversation in the locker room, and then I guess I said something else in the press conference but didn’t mention his name in it,” Koepka said.
“He walked up to [my caddie] Ricky [Elliott] and said something. It was, ‘You tell your man if he’s got something to say, say it to myself’,” Koepka continued.
“I thought that was ironic because he went straight to Ricky. Ricky told me when I came out, I hit a few putts, and then just walked right over to him. We had a conversation. We both agreed we’d leave each other out of it and wouldn’t mention each other, just kind of let it die off.
“Then he decided, playing video games online or whatever, to bring my name up and said a few things, so now it’s fair game.”
Things appeared to reach boiling point at this year’s PGA Championship, with Koepka rolling his eyes in a TV interview as DeChambeau walked by and said something in the background.
So, how will the two manage being on the same team in the same team room?
“You realise it’s only a week, right?” Koepka said.
“Look, I can put it aside for business. If we’re going to be on the same team, I can deal with anybody in the world for a week.
“I’m not playing with him. I’m pretty sure we’re not going to be paired together, put it that way. We’re not going to be high-fiving and having late-night conversations. I do my thing; he does his thing.
“It’s not an issue at all. I don’t view it as an issue. I don’t think he does. Like I said, I can put anything aside for a team, business, whatever, just to get the job done. No problem with that.”
For his part, DeChambeau said he doesn’t recall the specifics of the original conversation with Koepka but agreed the two can co-exist.
“I don’t know what he’s talking about in that regard. Maybe that’s on me. Maybe I didn’t [keep my word],” DeChambeau said.
“I really don’t remember anything about that. We just had a conversation that I really don’t know what happened, because we haven’t really bantered back and forth until now.
“I think it would be kind of funny [to be paired together] actually. I think we’d do well, to be honest. It would create a little interesting vibe for the team or the guys we’re playing against.”
And what of Team Europe?
If all the potential noise has given any hope to European captain, Padraig Harrington, he isn’t letting on.
“I can only look after my own team,” Harrington said.
“When you hear the stories and things going on, it’s of interest, but it doesn’t really make a difference to how the players play the week of the Ryder Cup. I certainly wouldn’t be relying on that. I’d be relying more on getting the most out of my team. I think that’s what we do in the Ryder Cup now.
“You’re not there to rely on the opposition playing badly. You’re trying to make sure that your team plays as well as it can and believes that if all they have to do is play their own game and play as well as they can, that’s good enough.
“Anybody who has ever played match play, the worst possible thought you can have going out to play is hoping that your opposition isn’t at its best.”
In that regard, Harrington has enough to concern himself with when it comes to his own roster.
Fleetwood and Molinari were unbeatable three years ago, but Molinari’s game has plummeted and he’s not part of the picture this time around.
Meanwhile, heroes of Ryder Cups past – Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood – all have their best days behind them, while another European stalwart in Justin Rose has missed out completely.
Of course, there’s still plenty of talent in the European cupboard, with Jon Rahm, Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Rory McIlroy and Viktor Hovland figuring to be regulars for the foreseeable future.
So what will happen when the two teams finally meet in Wisconsin?
For all Tom Watson’s failings as the 2014 captain, his words over six years removed from that calamity perhaps ring truest.
“What I love about the Europeans is that their team lifts itself up,” he said.
“Together, they keep it light and they keep the pressure from really grabbing hold of them. I think they do it better than the American team does.
“What I suggest to the American team is that you’ve got to lift yourself up. You’ve got to be strong supporters of each other going forward to be successful. You need to have that back-up from your fellow players.”
And playing up to their capabilities might not be such a bad idea, either.