CHASKA, Minn. – It would be easy to confuse Sunday’s celebration for a coronation, an exhale moment after two years of vague promises and lofty expectations.
If the U.S. team wanted to gloat they’d come by it honestly, they’d just rolled over the Europeans, 17-11, for America’s first victory in the biennial event since 2008.
The changes had worked. The curse was over.
But those involved with the Ryder Cup task force-turned-committee never, not once, mentioned winning the 2016 matches and ending the drought. Those involved talked of continuity and legacies, not quick fixes and Band-Aids.
From the captain all the way down to the cart drivers – that would be Bubba Watson – this was about preparing for the future. If anything, Hazetline National was a test case, not the final exam.
“We had a long-term plan and a goal for the next five to 10 Ryder Cups. I’ve said all along, personally, if we won this week that’s great, but let’s not raise the flag and say, ‘This is the greatest thing ever,’” said Jim Furyk, one of Davis Love III’s vice captains. “And if we lose let’s not say, ‘Oh s***, this doesn’t work.’ It’s a long-term plan.”
As devastating as a loss would have been to the cause of building a winning foundation, a victory could be just as debilitating if it leads to a loss of focus.
That is, after all, what many believe happened following the 2008 Ryder Cup. It’s what prompted Phil Mickelson to challenge the U.S. leadership two years ago in Scotland following the team’s third consecutive loss, which in turn led to last year’s task force.
“The pressure started when some dumbass opened his mouth two years ago in the media center,” Mickelson said on Sunday at Hazeltine with just a dollop of self-deprecation.
Mickelson was on the task force and by many accounts a de facto vice captain last week. For all those who have criticized Lefty over the years for his relatively pedestrian Ryder Cup record, know that this process has taken a toll on the veteran. And when he spoke on Sunday it wasn’t in terms of wins and losses as much as it was a testament to the legacy that he and the other American leaders hope to create.
“We need to build on this. Otherwise, it's all for naught,” Mickelson said. “We created a very solid foundation this year. With the input that Davis Love had and each vice captain, with Tom Lehman and Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker and Tiger Woods and Bubba Watson, all brought integral parts to the success of this foundation, and it's important that we build on that.”
That foundation started with Love, who has been billed as the captain’s captain. From the first task force meetings, the challenge was to appoint a front man with the ability to incorporate vastly different ideas into their own leadership model.
Someone willing to share the room with other voices and keep their ego tucked away. If, as the story goes, the Europeans have perfected the art of continuity in their captains, the U.S. team’s first leader in this new era had to be a pragmatist and consensus builder.
“We tried to identify the qualities of the next person who would become a Ryder Cup captain,” Furyk said. “Davis Love fit all those qualities perfectly. He was the right guy. He had experience, he had the media’s respect, he had the player’s respect. We couldn’t identify a better person.”
Love’s leadership-by-committee style turned out to be a perfect fit for this U.S. team. He engaged his side’s best players, challenged them for ideas and, this is most telling, he listened.
Late in Saturday’s foursomes session, Love was struggling to find the right lineup for the afternoon four-ball matches. Everybody had an idea, even his son, Dru, but ultimately it was Woods who convinced the captain to send Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth back out.
“I finally just said to Tiger, ‘Are we playing them or are we sitting them?’” Love recalled. “He said, ‘No, you have to send them back out there, they are playing so well.’”
It wasn’t so much leadership by example as much as it was leadership by design. If the 2016 Ryder Cup is a template for future matches, Love is the prototype of future U.S. captains.
The legacy concept holds that each team will have a mix of former and potential future captains that connects each group in a way that hadn’t happened in the past.
For this year’s squad, that specifically applies to Furyk and Stricker in the immediate future and Woods a little further down the road.
“A vice captain under [Tom] Watson, a vice captain under Jay Haas last year [Presidents Cup] and a vice captain under Davis here, I’ve really learned a lot in three years,” Stricker said. “If I get the opportunity to be a captain, I’ll have a lot of knowledge behind me.”
Furyk, who would be a popular choice to lead the U.S. team in 2018 in France, has taken a particularly long view when it comes to the U.S. team changes and paused when asked how his experience at Hazeltine might impact a potential future captaincy.
“It really helped to be an assistant for Davis, who has done it twice, the best leader,” Furyk said. “Any time you can do this, you’re learning. You’re going to make some mistakes, you’re going to do some things right. We did a lot of good things this week. We made some mistakes, and we’ll learn from this week and keep building on the system.”
Moments later Furyk rushed into the night toward the team room to join the victory party. Sunday night he and the other members of the U.S. leadership would celebrate, but on Monday the work would continue.