GLENEAGLES, Scotland – Nothing went right for the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
Not the captain’s picks, who went 2-5-2 at Gleneagles. Not the disabled list, which relegated Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson and Jason Dufner to the role of distant cheerleaders. Not even a golf course that was distinctly American - it was after all designed by Jack Nicklaus.
And most certainly not the biennial guessing game that is what separates good Ryder Cup captains from the losers.
In 1993 then-captain Tom Watson made all the right moves to lead the last U.S. team to an away-game victory. This week in the Scottish hills the legend was outcoached.
“They played better golf than we did, and the bottom line is that the results spoke of that. The disappointment is going to sit for a long time,” Watson figured, looking every minute of his 65 years late Sunday following his team’s 16 1/2-to-11 1/2 loss.
Historians will fixate on the U.S. team’s failed rally on Sunday, no matter how unrealistic it may have been, as the rock that sank the metaphorical ship, but these matches turned on Friday and Saturday afternoon when the Americans went 0-6-2 in foursomes play.
On Friday, Phil Mickelson, playing in his record 10th Ryder Cup, looked tired and America’s alternate-shot core of Zach Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Jim Furyk and Hunter Mahan was outmatched and failed to earn even a half-point.
“They took us down in the alternate shot,” Watson said. “That's where the matches really turned. You look at how many under they were, and we were actually collectively over par in all our matches in the alternate shot in the wind, especially the first day.”
By the time rookies Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed stepped to the first tee on Sunday to lead off the session the U.S. was trailing 10-6 with an entire continent, not to mention history, vying against them.
The U.S. team’s Sunday blueprint was well established. In 1999 when the U.S. team rallied from a similar 10-6 hole they won six of the first 12 singles matches to complete the comeback and in ’12 the Europeans claimed the day’s first five flags to pull off the same rally.
The U.S. team responded, at least initially, with American flags flying in eight matches by mid-afternoon, but slowly, methodically, the Europeans chipped away at the idea of glory at Gleneagles.
Give Northern Ireland the assist for circumventing the rally with the team’s two Ulsterman singlehandedly taking the fight out of the U.S. early.
First, Rory McIlroy played his first three holes in 4 under par and closed out Rickie Fowler, 5 and 4, and then Graeme McDowell did what Graeme McDowell does.
Down three holes at the turn, McDowell won the next four to mar an otherwise stunning singles debut for Spieth, who played his last eight holes in 3 over.
Add the decision to give McDowell the lead-off spot on Sunday, a notion that dates back nearly two years, to the litany of flawless chess moves McGinley made at Gleneagles. If Paul Azinger cracked the code for the U.S. team in 2008, the Irishman perfected the template. Not that the self-deprecating leader had any interest in the credit.
“I didn’t execute the plan, all these guys did,” McGinley said. “I know how difficult it is to play in a Ryder Cup, but we relish this challenge and did so with a smile on our face which is so important.”
Even without the wild-eyed brilliance of Ian Poulter, who was inexplicably quiet for much of the week, the European captain battled complacency with a poise and presence that belies the diminutive captain’s stature, both physically and metaphorically.
Instead it was Jamie Donaldson and Victor Dubuisson – with a good measure of help from Justin Rose – who delivered Europe’s eighth Ryder Cup victory in the last 10 matches. The little-known twosome were a combined 5-1-1 for Captain Paul. To put that in context, those two outscored America’s six major championship winners on this year’s team who combined to produce just five points.
“It was lucky it came down to my match and just happened to be that way,” said Donaldson, who clinched the victory with a walk-off pitching wedge to a foot at the 15th hole for a 4-and-3 victory over Keegan Bradley to end what had already become a forgone conclusion.
“The most important thing this week is that the team won. We had an inspirational captain this week, and we all came together as a team to play well enough to win the Ryder Cup.”
If the Americans are going to make a game of future cups, they may want to consider mandating that Nick Faldo, who rankled the European team this week by saying Sergio Garcia was “useless” during the ’08 matches, be the all-time captain.
If the PGA of America learned anything from the Old Tom experiment, it is that a captain can make the difference, a point Mickelson made clear in a not-so-subtle indictment of his leader this week.
“There were two things that allowed us to play our best I think that Paul Azinger (the 2008 captain) did,” Mickelson said. “One was he got everybody invested in the process. ... The other thing that Paul did really well was he had a great game plan for us.
“We use that same process in the Presidents Cup and we do really well. Unfortunately, we have strayed from a winning formula in 2008 for the last three Ryder Cups, and we need to consider maybe getting back to that formula.”
Watson fired back moments later in an awkward exchange during the U.S. news conference, which included all 12 players and their captain, “You know, it takes 12 players to win. It's not pods. It's 12 players.”
It seems Watson lost the team room long before the Ryder Cup.
If there was a silver lining amid the gloom that hung low over Gleneagles for the U.S. side it was the play of its three rookies. Patrick Reed, Jordan Spieth and Jimmy Walker combined to contribute 8 1/2 points, more than half of the American team total.
Reed, the first American rookie to go 3-0-0 in his debut since Mickelson in ’95, closed the week in emotional style with a gritty 1-up victory over Henrik Stenson. The sometimes-abrasive Reed fist-pumped and prodded his way to an undefeated 3-0-1 record and has the look of being America’s answer to Poulter’s enthusiasm.
But all that was little solace for another defeated American team.
“If I could put my finger on it, I would have changed this s--- a long time ago but we haven't and we are going to keep searching,” Furyk said.
As the European team celebrated yet another victory, the U.S. side set out into a cold Scottish night in search of those elusive answers.