Sheboygan, Wis. — The Americans bring the type of credentials that make them favorites in just about every Ryder Cup, and this year is no different.
All but one of their players is among the top 20 in the world — the lone exception is Ryder Cup rookie Scottie Scheffler at No. 21. Six of them are major champions. They have the FedEx Cup champion and the Olympic gold medalist on their side.
It just rarely translates into winning the Ryder Cup, and only Europe seems to have the answer.
A few Americans at least tried to find an explanation.
“They just play better. It’s really simple,” Dustin Johnson said Wednesday. “Whoever plays better is going to win. I mean, it’s not rocket science.”
Patrick Cantlay, whose thoughts tend to run a little deeper, took a longer view when searching for reasons why Europe has won nine of the last 12 times in the Ryder Cup.
Cantlay has been playing gin rummy since he was a teenager and referred to a few books he has read on the game, throwing in some analogies to the roulette wheel and flipping coins for good measure.
This wasn’t rocket science, either, but it was far more entertaining.
“If you play enough gin hands, a 1 or 2% difference in skill translates to almost an assured win over many, many, many hands of gin,” he said. “But you could have a big difference — maybe a 60 to 40% skill level difference — and gin is still chancy enough to where you could play 10 hands and lose six or seven of the hands than someone much worse than you skill-wise.”
Golf is “chancy” in any format, and the Ryder Cup is played once every two years, at least when it’s not postponed by a pandemic.
“So would it surprise you if the U.S. went on a similar run to what Europe has been on for the next 20 years? Wouldn’t surprise me,” Cantlay said.
He then switched to roulette, with a mostly 50-50 chance of winning, skewed ever so slightly to the house. It could hit red six times in a row and no one would blink. But take another 50-50 gamble, such as flipping a coin.
“If the quarter flips tails, heads, tails, heads, tails, heads, then you would think something trippy was going on,” he said.
Back to the Ryder Cup.
Cantlay pointed out variables such as the captains, players, golf courses and even the weather changing from one Ryder Cup to the next one. And then he reached his conclusion.
“You’re really going to ask a question like that and think you’re going to get the right answer?” he said with a smile. “I don’t have the answers to that. This is my first one.”
Maybe that counts as a slight edge for the Americans. This is their youngest team ever, with an average age of 29. Only three of their 12 players have competed in more than one Ryder Cup.
“It is puzzling how I think we’ve lost a lot in the handful of years looking back,” British Open champion Collin Morikawa said. “But that’s the past. We’re here, and we’re about the present, or hopefully what the future is going to be like. It’s about this week, and hopefully we can turn that round and turn that tide in our favor for however many years I’m able to play this.”
Europe is all about team and its rich history. Captain Padraig Harrington began the week by giving each player a number that represents their chronological place among the 164 players from Europe who have competed in the matches.
And then he set out to win over a crowd that, because of the pandemic and travel restrictions, will be overwhelming cheering for the Stars and Stripes. The team colors Wednesday were green and gold, just like the Green Bay Packers, and he had his players wear foam Cheesehead hats when they walked onto the practice range.
They received a standing ovation and more cheers when they flung them into the gallery.
It was reminiscent of 2004 at Oakland Hills, where there was an agreement not to sign autographs during practice. But the Europeans signed everything, endearing themselves to the crowd, or maybe just taking away some of the sting in a record margin of victory.
“A bit of fun and we got a nice reception with it,” Harrington said. “That’s kind of what you want on the practice days. Obviously, business starts on Friday. But at the moment, the players are enjoying it and having a good time with it.”
Europe has the experience of Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia — 21 Ryder Cup appearances between them — and only three rookies. They all talk about inspiration from seeing European greats before them, in the room as players and assistant captains, or in photos on the wall. They talk about winning and nothing more.
The Americans are on home soil, and while recent dominance belongs to Europe, the home team has won six of the last seven.
Johnson is the most veteran member — and the oldest at 37 — of the U.S. team. His role hasn’t changed in his view (“Win as many matches as I can,” he said). The hope is that such a young team could signal a fresh start.
“The teams I’ve been on the past, I feel like we’ve had tons of experience and it hasn’t worked out so well,” Johnson said. “We’ve got some really talented players, young guys that maybe don’t have all the memories of losing all these Ryder Cups. Maybe this is the recipe.”
If not, they’ll have to keep searching for what Ian Poulter described as the “magic sauce” Europe has managed to cook up.