Sports

Golf’s Weirdest Tournament Is Back. Why Does Team USA Almost Always Lose It?

America has most of the best golfers. Since 1999, Europe has had its number.

Fleetwood jumping onto Poulter's back with a big open-mouthed grin, Poulter smiling and pumping his fists in celebration
Ian Poulter and Tommy Fleetwood celebrate victory after the singles matches of the 2018 Ryder Cup at Le Golf National on Sept. 30, 2018, in Paris. Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

The 2021 Ryder Cup runs Friday to Sunday at Whistling Straits near Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Typically a biennial event but in this case being put on for the first time since 2018, the Ryder Cup is an unusual golf extravaganza: For starters, it’s a team competition, a rarity in the pro game. Even odder is that one team represents a nation while the other represents a continent. And perhaps strangest of all are the perceived psychological and environmental factors that may or may not swing the outcome.

Advertisement

The format, quickly, is like this: The competition is between two teams—the United States versus Europe. This Friday and Saturday will be split between foursomes in the morning and four-ball sessions in the afternoon—two different types of play. In four-ball, two players from the U.S. and two from Europe play their own ball all the way up the hole. With four balls in play, the team with the lowest-scoring player wins the hole, or the teams halve it, meaning no one wins the hole and the 18-hole match continues apace. In the morning foursomes, two players per side play the same ball in an alternating-shot format.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

There are eight four-ball and eight foursome matches between Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, all 12 players on each team play a singles match—head-to-head faceoffs over 18 holes of golf, each between one American and one European. (Team captains submit their lineups in order, not knowing for sure whom their players will face.) Every match is worth a point to the winning team, or a half point in the event of a tie. There are 28 points on the table, and the U.S. wins by getting 14.5 of them. Europe retains the Cup, which it won in 2018, in the event of a 14-all tie.

Advertisement

That’s the quick and dirty explanation of Ryder Cup logistics. But this event is much deeper and weirder than its unique scoring format. Let’s talk about it.

Is Team USA going to win?

Probably. Oddsmakers have the U.S. around -210, meaning you’d have to wager $210 to win $100 betting on an American win. That implies about a 68 percent chance of the stars and stripes bringing this thing home. In a vacuum, we have much better players than Europe. The current world No. 1, Spaniard Jon Rahm, is on the other side. But nine of the top 11 in the Official World Golf Ranking are on the American team. Even if you think (as I do) that Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy is much better than his current No. 15 ranking, we have the talent edge. This ranking by CBS Sports’ Kyle Porter is a useful breakdown of how virtually all of the weakest links playing in this Ryder Cup are suiting up for the Europeans.

Advertisement
Advertisement

America is big and rich. Don’t we always have better players?

Yeah, pretty much. But weirdly, the U.S. doesn’t win the Ryder Cup that often. In fact, we’ve only won it twice since 1999 (in 2008 and 2016). There have been years in which the teams have been closer in caliber, but the bulk of the world’s best players have been mostly American for a long time.

Advertisement

What gives, then? Why does Europe beat us all the time?

One possibility is some nebulous psychological stuff that media observers and even players have pointed to in the past. Sometimes the U.S. team doesn’t look ready to play, and the Americans have had occasional discord in their ranks that we just don’t hear about on the Euro side. Americans are not necessarily known for caring a lot about other people or for working together for the good of the group. Go figure that we’d struggle in a team competition in one of our most individualized, specifically-tailored-to-rich-people sports. Foursomes in particular require some coordination. Players prefer to hit their shots from particular angles or spots on the course, and even a well-executed shot by a teammate to another area could ruin that.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Fun as it’d be to assume these socialist-leaning Euros are just better team players, that probably doesn’t explain the whole thing. The Europeans have a few guys who are known as Ryder Cup killers who specifically raise their game in this competition. Englishman Ian Poulter is the current classic of this genre, with a 14–6–2 career Ryder Cup record and a history as part of five winning teams. But he’s 45 now.

That’s a lot of “narrative” and “intangibles” nonsense. What kinds of psychological issues are we talking about?

I’ll admit this is all really cloudy. The golf media doesn’t tend to get too specific about why the U.S. is not built for Ryder Cups while the European team consistently seems to relish this event, and it is a bit of a mystery. But the best explanation I’ve heard came around the 50-minute mark of this episode of a recent No Laying Up podcast. The idea that host Chris Solomon presents is that the Europeans build each other up and throw a lot more emotion into rooting for each other and giving each other advice than the Americans do: that they care more and support each other better. There has never been any empirical proof that this is the driving factor, and your mileage may vary on how much you can buy into intangible factors weighing on American performance. The Europeans are more boisterous, though. You’ll typically pick that up if you watch enough of the broadcast.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

This seems a bit silly. I mean, this is a three-day event that happens every two years. Couldn’t it just be the randomness of a small sample size, rather than the U.S. lacking some secret sauce?

Yeah. In both 2010 and 2012, the U.S. lost by scores of 14.5 points to 13.5. We’re talking about a tiny handful of putts falling or not falling and the Americans having won three of the past five of these things, rather than the actual one of five (claimed in 2016 at Hazeltine, in Minnesota).

Have the American bigwigs taken the “small sample size” position or the “something is very very wrong and we must form a committee!” position?

Advertisement

You know it’s the latter, baby. After the U.S. lost in 2014, various tour pros and the PGA of America convened a Ryder Cup task force. It’s not that clear what the task force accomplished, but it deliberated and discussed things, and tried to get a handle on the elements of the Ryder Cup that go beyond just playing golf. The task force members swear that such elements exist. For what it’s worth, despite the small sample size, I believe in the elements too, even if mostly because the universe is less scary when it appears governed by reasons, not flukes.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The task force is gone, and now there’s a PGA of America Ryder Cup Committee. I don’t know.

Advertisement

What silly thing is going to either get the American team in trouble this year or at least will be the widely speculated reason the U.S. had problems?

Well, it’s worth remembering that it really could be nothing, and that the U.S. has a good chance of winning. To reiterate, we have the better players. The main worry is that the team will fall into disarray because the players won’t get along. The European team also has a lot more Ryder Cup experience, which is the kind of thing that may not matter at all but will get a lot of publicity if the Americans fall flat again.

Advertisement

If the U.S. team does in fact collapse in on itself like a star due to some sort of team cohesion issue, who will be involved?

Advertisement

Brooks Koepka for sure. Definitely Brooks Koepka.

Why Brooks Koepka?

Koepka is playing after injuring his left wrist earlier this month, which might be an issue. But the main thing is that he doesn’t seem to vibe with the team dynamic. Most golfers are creatures of routine, and Koepka has been open about how the Ryder Cup messes with his ability to own his time, prepare for, and decompress from rounds in the way he’s accustomed. He’s also the primary driver of a childish feud with teammate Bryson DeChambeau. While DeChambeau very much doesn’t deserve your sympathy, it would be bad for the Americans’ chances if DeChambeau had a bad match and then Koepka said something that made him spiral.

Advertisement
Advertisement

American team captain Steve Stricker insists the Brooks-Bryson thing won’t be an issue. There’s a video of Koepka and DeChambeau talking to each other on the driving range without fighting. Also, DeChambeau hinted at “something fun” coming involving him and Koepka.

Koepka and DeChambeau wouldn’t be paired together, would they?

I would guess not. DeChambeau is probably teasing some kind of brand activation in which both players will make money off Koepka not liking DeChambeau. But it would be fun if Stricker paired them up, if only because of how uncomfortable it’d be for everyone involved, including their opponents.

That aside, how much do pairings actually matter?

In theory, quite a bit. Captains want to pair up players who are complementary in some way, whether that’s a high-energy personality with someone who can handle that or a long hitter off the tee with someone who can stick iron shots six feet from the pin. Sometimes, players don’t fit together, and that’s been a problem for U.S. teams before. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson just didn’t mesh at all in 2004, and their two losses together paved the way for a Euro victory.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The conventional wisdom is that DeChambeau won’t participate in the alternate-shot foursomes at all, because he’d be difficult to play with. It’s not clear if that’s because of his personality (which would make sense!) or because he hits the ball so far off the tee that he’d bring up awkward second shots for his partner (which doesn’t make as much sense to me).

At least we’re on home soil. That helps, right?

A lot. The U.S. hasn’t won in Europe since 1993 but has won three times at home since then.

Why is that?

Home-field advantage is somewhat inscrutable, but it’s clearly a real thing in every sport where there are regular home and away teams. It’s not a surprise that it exists in Ryder Cups, too. The crowds are probably part of it. They’re much louder and more hostile than in typical golf environments. If you enjoy a light sprinkling of jingoism with your golf, you’ll love watching the American fans at Whistling Straits. Stricker’s already asking them to please be chill. Transatlantic jetlag might play some minor role, but probably not a big one, given that both teams’ players spend much of their seasons in North America and are used to the travel grind.

Advertisement

Another factor is that the home team gets to dictate the setup of the golf course in a way that’s advantageous to its own players. That’s one of my favorite Ryder Cup traditions.

Can the U.S. do anything to make Whistling Straits some kind of house of horrors for the European visitors?

The Americans have a natural edge on this course. Whistling Straits is long. It hosted the 2015 PGA Championship, where it played at 7,500 yards (that is a lot), and the U.S. has the preponderance of the world’s longest drivers. But it’s not certain the U.S. can do much to manipulate the course beyond that. “I don’t know what you can do with Whistling Straits to make it any different than what it is. The land and the topography, that’s what makes the golf course,” McIlroy says. The advantage for the U.S. will not be as stark as it was for the Europeans in Paris in 2018, when they shrank fairways in the areas where America’s long hitters were likely to land their tee shots. The rough at Le Golf National was cut long in those areas, worsening the Americans’ issues.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

So the Americans are just going to have to play good golf, essentially.

Yeah, that’s the size of it.

Great. Glad we spent all that time talking about stuff that might not matter. How can I watch?

Well, NBC owns the rights, so—

No. I’m not getting Peacock.

You don’t have to! At least not yet! It’s on regular TV. USA! USA!

This article has been updated to clarify the order of play this Friday and Saturday: foursomes in the morning and four-ball in the afternoon, not the other way around as it has been in previous years.

Advertisement