Since the guy who built my house forgot to put in a full-court gymnasium or a high-ceiling spa like the one at Doral, the only place I can swing a golf club indoors is the master bedroom. This is where the carpet bears the effects of my obsession with the perfect move. This is where I solve all my ball-striking problems, at least until I add a ball to the equation and substitute the rug for grass.
And since the people who clean my house have been instructed not to remove the set of Ben Hogan irons leaning against the wall next to that roughed-up carpet, I swing a club quite frequently. Like six times every eight minutes during Ryder Cup week, when my passion for the game suddenly regains its own high ceiling – and I can behave like a little boy who thinks he might actually get better.
You see, I can’t get to my office without walking through the master bedroom. So maybe the guy who built my house knew exactly what he was doing ...
WE CAN TALK into next week about how the United States blew a four-point lead at home and lost to Europe in the 39th Ryder Cup. We can question various elements of U.S. captain Davis Love III’s strategy – every collapse provides acres of opportunity for the second-guessers and shameless peddlers of 20/20 hindsight.
You can fire bottle-rockets of blame in just about any direction and not hit an innocent bystander – 10-6 advantage heading into singles is akin to a three-touchdown lead at the start of the fourth quarter. To give away such a large margin on home soil and lose before the final match even reaches the 18th green? Pretty astonishing.
No question, it was the darkest day in U.S. Ryder Cup history. From there, emotion governs opinion. Disillusion distorts reality. Logic gets lost in a rubble of shock and disappointment, but at some point, you try to get a clear sense of what happened and why. This is where I start.
• Not only did Europe win the first five singles matches, it beat five of America’s most dependable players: guys who had combined to win six of eight partnered matches by a whopping margin of 22 holes. It’s certainly not Love’s fault that all five woke up on the wrong side of the bed Sunday morning.
• To no one’s surprise, Euro captain Jose Maria Olazabal front-loaded his lineup. To everyone’s surprise, it turned out to be fully loaded – the Yanks managed just one victory in the last five singles bouts. Three crucial losses on that back end came from veterans who had been put there to serve as a safety net, but Jim Furyk, Matt Kuchar and Steve Stricker played the final six holes in a combined 3 over par.
As much as it hurt America’s cause to lose each of the first five singles games, it could be reconciled by acknowledging Olazabal’s top-heavy batting order. The last five? That’s where the 2012 Ryder Cup was lost, which begs the question: Did Love have too many holes in his net?
• Everyone points to Medinah’s 17th and 18th as the site of America’s undoing, and indeed, you can’t go 2-9-4 on the final two holes of any course and expect good things to happen. The drivable par-4 15th, however, offered a great opportunity to reverse the mojo, and just three Americans birdied it Sunday. Two of the three (Dustin Johnson and Jason Dufner) won their matches. The nine who didn’t went 1-7-1.
And so goes the autopsy, an examination that isn’t complete unless we diagnose what I consider the biggest decision to contribute to America’s stunning loss.
IN WHAT AMOUNTS to almost 30 years in the sports-journalism business, I can’t ever recall quoting myself. But at 12:53 Saturday afternoon – about halfway through my portion of that day’s live chat – I posted the following response in agreement with those who disapproved of Love’s benching of Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley in the afternoon fourballs.
“If you lead by six going into Sunday, doesn’t matter how tired anyone is. You can take your blankie and pillow out there if you must…”
I’m regurgitating the post only because sitting Mick/Keegs looked like a mistake long before the big picture played itself out. Love had said he wouldn’t play anyone in all five sessions because he didn’t want fatigue to factor into Sunday, but DL3 was either dealing with faulty historical data or no research at all.
I turn to Golf Digest executive editor Mike O’Malley, a longtime teammate and one of the best in the business. O’Malley dug up this beauty: Since 1979, Europeans playing in all five Ryder Cup matches were 21-29-9 in singles. Americans who played in all five were 17-11-7. So Love’s rest-'em-and-they-will-win premise, however well-intentioned, was a misguided hunch.
Beyond that, however, is the simplest here-and-now perspective. Mickelson/Bradley had just demolished Luke Donald/Lee Westwood, 7 and 6, their third consecutive victory together. You don’t bench a duo that just won a match on the 12th green. You don’t rest a pair that needed just 44 holes to win those three points – a full nine of downtime and then some.
The two had just earned the longest lunch break in Ryder Cup history, and besides, we’re not playing tackle football. You send your best team back out and collect as many points as you can. You try to turn 8-4 into 12-4, at which point Sunday is nothing more than a victory parade. You step on the neck until the body is no longer moving, then you step on the neck again.
Ever the good leader, Mickelson offered a full-blooded defense of his captain Sunday evening. “You can’t put that on [Love],” Mickelson said. “If anything, you put that on me. I told him [he couldn’t go back out] on the 10th tee [Saturday morning].”
Doesn’t matter. A hands-on captain goes in at lunch and tells his Dynamic Duo that he needs them. He tells them 11-5 is much better than 10-6, that nobody on earth is more likely to win another point than Lefty and his pet piranha. You stroke and coddle and plead for full throttle.
Knowing Mickelson as I do, for as long as I have, there’s no question in my mind: He goes back out. He’s stubborn, but he’s totally about the team, about what’s best for the big picture. A similar situation occurred at the 2004 Ryder Cup with Chris Riley, who had partnered with Tiger Woods to claim a must-have point Saturday morning.
Riley didn’t want to go back out that afternoon. Woods picked up Love as a fourball partner and got paddled, 4 and 3. Riley’s reticence didn’t really affect the final outcome eight years ago, but you’d have a hard time convincing me that sitting Mickelson and Bradley didn’t mean something this time.
WHEN YOU DO 14 hours of live chat during the Ryder Cup, you begin to notice a few trends. Somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the crowd basically hates everything. Another 20 percent really doesn’t get it. And among the rest, the urge to look into the future – be it six hours or two years – is difficult to resist.
There we were in the final stages of the Saturday foursomes matches, some big points in the balance, and my people wanted to talk about the next U.S. captain. The timing made no sense to me, but I told them it would be David Toms, the 2001 PGA champion and perhaps the most productive player on the American side during losses in 2002 and '04.
Toms is one of the best-liked guys on the PGA Tour, a former policy-board member who is enormously respected by his peers, all of which makes his pending captaincy a no-brainer, in my opinion. I’ve had two veteran players tell me the same thing, but that doesn’t sit well with the Fred Couples Fan Club, of which I will admit to being a member in a weak journalistic moment.
Anyway, I don’t see Couples getting the job, which isn’t to say I don’t think he’d be a terrific choice. His success as skipper of two victorious Presidents Cup teams probably should be a huge plus in the grand scheme, but that’s not how golf’s governing bodies work. Nobody has crossed over to captain in both events since the Prez Cup was conceived in 1994, and I don’t think it will happen now.
The Tour was smart to jump on Couples, who doesn’t really fit the PGA of America’s mold: a past champ with a strong Ryder Cup history. Toms clearly does, as does Justin Leonard, whom I see as a heavy favorite to get the job in 2016. Heck, Leonard gets Hazeltine on The Putt alone – the 40-footer on Brookline’s 17th in 1999, which capped the rally and triggered the post-celebration outrage.
So there you have it. Toms and Leonard. If Couples overcomes conventional wisdom and proves me wrong, I’d be just fine with that. Either Toms or Leonard would make an excellent choice two years later.
AMERICA MIGHT HAVE played worse than Afghanistan in singles, but this was still one hell of a Ryder Cup. Perfect weather, enormous crowds providing an ideal competitive atmosphere, some incredible play for long stretches every day, which takes us to my shout-outs for those who went above and beyond … and too far below.
Man of the match: Ian Poulter turns golf into an emotional contact sport, and he’s the only one wearing pads. Undefeated in four matches, the unbelievable Saturday evening finish … I don’t care that Poulter sat out a session. This might be the most significant Ryder Cup performance ever.
Sharpest dagger: Justin Rose’s 35-foot birdie putt Sunday at the 17th. After Mickelson almost holed his chip from behind the green, Rose buried the bomb to square the match, which he won on the 18th. It was the only birdie on the 17th all day. And only the biggest momentum-shifter on an afternoon that turned into a six-hour seesaw ride.
Best Yank: With his long putter propping as a microphone – and his medley of histrionics after winning a hole – Bradley carried himself like a rock star. Authentic and unbridled, he’s American golf’s new darling, regardless of the singles loss or the overall result.
Biggest disappointment: Steve Stricker finished 0-4 and struggled to help Woods in all three of their matches together. Tiger pulled the pair out of trouble in both of their fourball tilts, but when Stricker had perhaps a half-dozen chances to make a positive difference, he didn’t. Good guy, bad week.
Weirdest stat: Woods’ meaningless halve vs. Francesco Molinari in the final game of the week was the only match played to a draw. By comparison, there were five halves in 2010, six in 2008 and seven in 2006. It should be pointed out that in ’06, a halve actually felt like a victory for the U.S.
Most unlikely to succeed (but did): Hey, give Martin Kaymer credit. Olazabal tried to hide him in the 11th slot of the Euro singles lineup, where he was lucky to draw Stricker, but Kaymer shot 2 under and clinched the cup with a 6-footer for par at the 18th.
Most likely to succeed (but didn’t): Love was, in my estimation, the perfect captain for this U.S. squad. A great listener who seeks out consultation, a gentle voice who wouldn’t over-manage a squad with four decorated veterans. In a hero-or-goat world, his decision to rest his best tandem Saturday afternoon was a costly one, but in final analysis, his legacy as skipper was ultimately undermined by a team that pulled up lame on the day when 43 percent of the total points were at stake.