A quarter century ago, Tom Watson guided an American Ryder Cup victory on foreign soil.
Since then, Team USA has experienced a pair of one-point losses and an average defeat deficit of almost four points in overseas Ryder Cups. The winless streak stretches to 1993, Year 1 of the Clinton administration.
“I think it’s a mixture of a number of different things,” said U.S. captain Jim Furyk of the question every 21st-century boss has been asked and cannot definitively answer.
How far have Americans been willing to go in the effort to bring the Ryder Cup home on a transatlantic flight?
Naming Watson to again captain the 2014 team certainly ranks high on the list of well-intentioned and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to break what is veering to curse status. His appointment came after Paul Azinger installed a successful pod system and other team-enhancing elements to take back the cup in 2008 on U.S. soil.
To insiders, Azinger laid the groundwork for a repeat effort at Gleneagles. In a perverse twist, the manner of the 2014 defeat paved the way for task forces, more concerted focus on certain intangibles in shaping the team and sets up what should be America’s best chance to finally win this year in Europe.
Yet given the number of peculiar streaks over the course of 41 Ryder Cups, cooler heads should chalk Team USA’s recent road-game mediocrity to nothing more than a reflection of the times. Better days should be ahead given the depth of American talent inching back to early 1980s levels.
After all, the matches survived just fine even though Britain didn’t win between 1933 and 1955 before finally claiming a Ryder Cup on home soil at Lindrick Golf Club in 1957.
But during the recent run of futility, where only one win occurred in Europe since the vaunted 1981 team brought back the Ryder Cup, annoyed Americans recognize Europe’s home-soil dominance has been built on the back of American-style venues.
Matches once contested on links such as Birkdale, Lytham, Muirfield and Southport shifted to inland, aerial and decidedly American-style designs such as The Belfry, Valderrama, The K Club, Gleneagles and Celtic Manor. And they still lost. Sometimes badly.
On paper, the style of golf should have suited Americans reared on softer inland golf and less able to quickly acclimate to the links or heathland courses used in the past. Of three U.S. wins in Europe since 1977, one came at Lytham (1977) and the other at Walton Heath in 1981. However, Europe often excels not because of architecture or style of play. Instead, the Americans have concluded the advantage comes from tournament golf familiarity, another major looming issue in 2018 given the annual European Tour event at Le Golf National.
“Surely, one of Ryder Cup Europe’s strengths, one of the things they’ve done very, very well is picking venues where they play golf tournaments at,” Furyk said. “I think it’s been very wise. The players have a very genuine knowledge of the golf course, a history of the way putts break, a history of the golf course and how it’s set up and what to expect going in.”
Furyk has seen this movie before. That’s why he scheduled a practice session at Le Golf National and will continue to proclaim Europe dangerous even as several players have had mediocre years.
“A lot of times in the past, we’ve gone in there the first couple days, we’re trying to get our bearings, what club we’re hitting off the tee, par 4, par 5, how we’re trying to attack the golf course, and we’ve been behind the eight ball to start,” he said. “Intimate knowledge of the golf course and its setup and what to expect going in has been very key for them, and I think it’s helped them play better golf than we have.”
Logic also should chalk up the recent run of futility on the balancing-out of the teams with the inclusion of some Hall of Fame Spaniards, Germans and Swedes. The United States has 26 Ryder Cup wins to the Europeans’ 13, and the event has witnessed two ties. Since 1979’s addition of players from all of continental Europe, the Americans have captured seven Ryder Cups to Europe’s 10. One tie resulted in Europe retaining the cup.
Furyk said the road woes have been two-pronged. There was the inability to win, but now that the U.S. has reasserted itself on home soil in 1999, 2012 and 2016, it’s the response he’s focused on as heir to a resounding victory by captain Davis Love’s team at Hazeltine.
“We had an issue with winning there for a little while,” Furyk said. “We have got 2016 under our belt, but what we haven’t been able to do in ‘99, and then again in ‘08, was turn around and go in on European soil. I know Jason from Scouts has got a couple of ideas about that we’ve talked about. He’s sent me a couple e-mails regarding that and what he’s seen.”
That would be Jason Aquino, president of Scouts Consulting Group, who helped Davis Love prepare for the 2016 matches at Hazeltine and who Furyk said is helping the 2018 preparations go to “the next level.”
Aquino has been in the “strategy profession” for 10 years and is billed as “an expert in research design, war-gaming, scenario building and alternative futures analysis.” A former military analyst for the Department of Defense, Aquino apparently has seen something in the analytics and approach causing some of the American futility. What that is, only Furyk and his army of assistant captains will know.
The PGA of America said Aquino is not doing interviews regarding his work as head of the “research division” for the USA Ryder Cup effort.
“Their role is to supply captain Furyk and his vice-captains with analysis that informs the decisions they have to make in the months preceding the Ryder Cup, and during the matches themselves,” a PGA spokesman said.
“While many of their research initiatives for the U.S. Ryder Cup team are considered ‘analytics’ based, they actually employ a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods in their work.”
One thing the numbers will never quantify: home-field advantage.
Furyk has not been shy in stating the importance of players who can handle whatever the opposing fans and their noise throw at Team USA. How he’s identifying those players, only he knows.
“With the crowd, with what goes on at a Ryder Cup, basically a football game breaks out in the middle of a golf tournament,” Furyk said. “You definitely want to identify people that you think will really enjoy that type of atmosphere. It was very clear early on, I think to everyone, that Patrick Reed really enjoyed that atmosphere at Gleneagles. You want guys that have that fire and have that passion and that you believe will thrive in that type of atmosphere.”
Furyk may lean on his vice-captains for a sense of who, particularly amongst rookies, can thrive in a hostile environment. Even with no Frenchmen on the European squad, fans from all over Europe are expected in France to root on their team.
“They are loud, they are boisterous and we’ve been outplayed, right,” Furyk said. “They are going to set the golf course up to their liking to where they think they have an advantage. Those are all obstacles that we’ll have to face.
“And what I’m looking for is 12 guys that relish that; that enjoy going over there and knowing that it’s going to be difficult, knowing that their fans are going to make a lot of noise, and they are going to enjoy that and want to show off for the world.” Gwk
(Note: This story appears in the September 2018 issue of Golfweek)