CHASKA, Minn. – A U.S. Ryder Cup team that has spent the better part of two decades finding new and interesting ways to produce the same demoralizing result now owns a system, a blueprint and, most importantly, a dominant victory.
In task-force meetings, conference calls and late-night group chats, they envisioned what this glorious day would look like.
And so it looked like Tiger Woods, striding onto the range, hands stuffed into the pockets of his USA team windbreaker, to give Jordan Spieth a knowing nod and Patrick Reed a final fist bump. It wasn’t so much the words that were exchanged; it was the belief instilled in the players from knowing that Woods – THE Tiger Woods, the legend these 20-somethings grew up idolizing – expressed supreme confidence in their games. They couldn’t help but puff out their chests.
It looked like Phil Mickelson, the de facto playing captain, a veteran of 11 consecutive cups, giving dog tags to the team with the words “2016 Hazeltine” and “The Beginning” engraved on each side. Less than 24 hours later, he was skying six inches off the ground, celebrating his 10th and final birdie of the day.
It looked like Ryan Moore, the controversial 11th-hour pick, earning the deciding point of this 17-11 blowout and collapsing into his captain’s arms.
And it looked like this: a news conference with 12 players, five assistants and one captain, popping champagne bottles and giggling at inside jokes.
“This team has been questioned and beat up for a long time,” Love said, “and I’m proud of the way they came together and the way they played and the way they represented their country.”
Unlike two years ago, there was no animosity, no agenda at the presser. At Gleneagles, Mickelson torpedoed the captaincy of Tom Watson and set in motion the process of revamping the U.S. Ryder Cup efforts. What has transpired since then has either been ingenious or overkill, depending on whom you ask, but it created a tense week in which only a victory would be deemed a success.
“The pressure started,” Mickelson said with a smirk, “when some dumbass opened his big mouth two years ago in the media center.”
But Mickelson’s intention was to create a more inclusive approach to the Ryder Cup, and in that respect he was wildly successful. Here at Hazeltine, it was all hands on deck. Everyone had a say – after all, it was Woods’ overriding decision to send Reed and Spieth out together for a fourth session that gave the Americans a three-point cushion heading into the final day.
Still, there was a level of uneasiness about the lead.
Buoying the European team was what happened just four years ago at Medinah. With Love at the helm, the Americans squandered a 10-6 lead on the final day, only adding to the Americans’ woes in this event since 1999.
But there would be no repeat on Sunday. Not even close. Because even with a roster that included the Masters champion, Open winner, Olympic gold medalist and FedEx Cup champion, this was clearly a rebuilding year for the Europeans. Captain Darren Clarke had little choice but to frontload his singles lineup with his five stars, hoping an early barrage of blue flags would inspire the inexperienced back-end.
Off first were both teams’ most pugnacious talents, Reed and Rory McIlroy, and they put on an electric performance in front of crowds 20 deep in spots. The duo combined for eight birdies and an eagle on the front nine before fading on the back nine, unable to sustain the same type of energy, like two heavyweight champions battling into the 12th round. But leave it to Reed, hoarse from screaming, “Come on!” and “Let’s go!” for the past three days, to summon one last outburst, rolling in a 10-footer on the last to knock out McIlroy, 1 up. They exchanged pleasantries, but McIlroy was ticked after what had become a contentious week of trash-talking with fans. Walking off the green, he chucked his putter at his bag.
“Getting that big point at the beginning,” vice captain Steve Stricker said, “that settled a lot of guys down. They see the red on the board and they feel comfortable and they start to roll.”
The Americans needed only 5 ½ points to reclaim the cup, and the celebration began with three matches still on the course.
One of the many reasons for the Americans’ repeated failures in this event was the disappearing acts by their top players, but that didn’t happen this year. For the second consecutive cup, Reed starred for the U.S., going 4-1. Mickelson, often blamed for the past two decades of futility, posted a 2-1-1 record and matched Sergio Garcia with 10 birdies to halve his match. Rickie Fowler handed Rose his first singles loss. Fittingly, the decisive point was secured by Moore, who was only added to the team last Sunday in one of the biggest changes implemented by the task force.
Every U.S. player earned at least one point – the first time that’s happened since 1975.
“This was a team effort,” Love said.
And the 13th man was the home crowd, as an estimated 50,000 fans turned through the gates Sunday. Cheering the action on video boards, they created an incredible arena – “That’s what fueled us,” Zach Johnson said – but also turned Hazeltine into an Oakland Raiders game, with the occasional over-served heckler. Fearful of an incident that could overshadow the matches, the PGA issued several announcements Sunday, reminding fans to show more decorum. This put the Americans in a tricky spot – they desperately needed the home-course advantage, but they clearly were uncomfortable with the treatment of the beleaguered Europeans. Although McIlroy thrived off the antagonistic crowd – he admittedly expended too much energy and wore down Sunday – the hostile environment overwhelmed a few of Europe’s inexperienced players. Four team members ended the week without a point.
Add it all up, and it was the Americans’ largest margin of victory since 1981.
“The American Ryder Cup team deserved to win this Ryder Cup,” Clarke said.
All week, Clarke and Co. said they were humbled by the American approach, which had seemingly copied their ideas of legacy and cohesion. The U.S. invited past captains into the team room, underscoring the “Ryder Cup family” theme that was so prevalent at Hazeltine.
“The environment that we were put in today, and this week, brought out some of their best golf that I’ve ever seen from them,” Mickelson said. “It was truly a remarkable thing to watch, and it’s a fun thing to be a part of.”
And so there was one final scene from the glorious day that was just like they all envisioned. It took place on the elevated walkway, where Brandt Snedeker and Johnson led a lively rendition of the trendy soccer chant – “I believe that we won!” – and Jimmy Walker, with a plastic cup in his right hand, poured champagne onto the delirious fans below, and a caddie screamed, “The best team maybe ever assembled!”
Spieth and Fowler started cheers of “Pat-rick Reed! Pat-rick Reed!”, and Reed danced to the beat, thrusting his arms like he’d done so many times this week. A few moments later, Mickelson emerged and pretended to pour out the champagne, only to pull back the bottle and take a swig himself.
Finally, the captain appeared. After two years of hype and unrelenting pressure, Love extended his left fist in triumph, and the crowd roared. It was, perhaps, a new beginning.