SAINT QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, FRANCE. How humiliating it mush have been when Phil Mickelson dunked his approach shot at the par-3 16th against European stalwart Francesco Molinari thereby bringing to an end the 2018 version of golf’s most stellar team event. Team Europe extended its home field superiority since 1993 with a 17 1/2 to 10 1/2 victory never in any real jeopardy save for the opening fourballs on Friday morning when the USA opened a 3-1 lead. Having Mickelson deliver the ending blow was the ultimate ignominy for Lefty who has not demonstrated the skills that have earned him five major championships and 43 PGA Tour wins. The loss may also have meant the final memory of Mickelson’s Ryder Cup days. No doubt a bitter pill for Lefty to swallow although he vowed to be a member of the next American team in Wisconsin in ’20. Sometimes retirement comes hard for those deep in denial.
Topping Mickelson for the least contribution award goes to a golfer who is both the greatest player the game has ever seen — arguably save for Jack Nicklaus — and the one with an incongruous Ryder Cup record given his 14 majors and 80 PGA Tour wins. If one had ventured to a Las Vegas sports book prior to the event and wagered Tiger Woods would not win so much as a half a point the odds would have been hefty indeed. You’d also be collecting a substantial sum now. For those keeping overall score the Woods Ryder Cup record stands now at 37 matches played with a 13-21-3 tally. For Lefty his overall futility is seen with 47 matches played and a 18-22-7 total. In fact, Mickelson surpassed Captain Jim Furyk for the most losses by a player ever in the matches. Woods is now second on that sorry list. Interestingly, Mickelson started his Ryder Cup participation in 1995 and won all three matches played. How long ago must that seem to Phil.
Tiger’s body language at the post event press conference showed an exasperated golfer simply unable to show anything close to the winning form he gamely provided at The Tour Championship at East Lake. Woods had an outside shot in possibly overcoming Jon Rahm during their singles match. The Spaniard showed his nerves three-putting the par-3 16th and reducing his lead to 1-up. At the demanding long par-4 17th — it was essential Tiger find the fairway — thereby placing even more pressure on a shaking Rahm. Woods attempted to play a fade and the ball never came near the fairway ending up in a horrific lie in the left rough. Knowing full well Woods was now in trouble — Rahm went full bore ahead with a tremendous drive landing in the fairway and leaving him no more than gap wedge which he stiffed and ultimately birdied to closeout the match. Had Woods hit the fairway one can only speculate on what might have happened. For Woods, who became just the 4th player to go winless in the event, the thought that his presence provided zero, nada, goose egg — get the picture — to the American effort will burn in his saddle for a very long time and can only be redeemed should he make the ’20 event at Whistling Straits. It’s utterly incomprehensible a golfer of his standing continues with so much failure at the Ryder Cup.
When the American team lost badly in Scotland at Glen Eagles in ’14 a whole new approach was taken to assure better communications and with that better results. Clearly, the approach worked at Hazeltine in ’16 but the debacle at Le Golf National will need to focus squarely on what kind of results are ever going to come with Woods and Mickelson on board for future events. Younger players, who in previous situation would have been pushed aside, will need to be more rigorously examined as possible replacements. For the American side to realize consistent victories the wherewithal to see beyond any one player or players will be imperative. No one should be owed a spot.
One also needs to point that the pre-Ryder speculation that the Captain’s picks made by American squad leader Furyk would be a major contributor was a major dud with the exception of rookie Tony Finau. Woods, Mickelson, Finau and Bryson DeChambeau — the other rookie chosen by Furyk — played a total of ten (10) matches with only Finau winning twice — the worst collective total for any Captain’s picks in the history of the event.
At the post event news conference featuring the American squad the anguish on the face of Woods was obvious. Equally obvious was his desire to get out of France as soon as possible. Since The Open Championship Woods has played eight events — with only limited time off allotted through the schedule. His form has clearly exceeded expectations but the downer quite obviously was believing Woods would actually be a force this time around at Le Golf National. What’s interesting is that Tiger has been on only one American team that emerged victorious during his career– that happening in ’99 during the sensational comeback on the final day at The Country Club.
To be fair, the onus did not fall only on the shoulders of Woods and Mickelson. Going into the matches the overall American team looked — at least on paper — formidable. Eleven of the twelve were ranked in the top 20 world rankings — the strongest line-up since the world rankings were created in 1986. But, it became clear with the playing of the foursomes matches on Friday — which Europe swept — that nearly all the American players needed a compass to find the tight fairways at the L’Albatros layout and the deep dense rough that awaited such hapless play. Patrick Reed, dubbed Captain America for his inspired play at Hazeltine in ’16 when the USA won, but was clearly off form — losing twice in fourballs with Woods as his teammate to the solid effort brought forward by Tommy Fleetwood and Molinari. How good was Molinari during the three-day competition? Try undefeated at 5-0. Matching what has only been done by three others in the history of the event. The Italian, who won The Open this past July at Carnoustie, was in total control with all of his play. Keep in mind, this is the same golfer who had never won a match in previous Ryder Cup performances.
Much was made of what the combo of world number one Dustin Johnson and three-time major winner Brooks Koepka would do during the week. Johnson finished with a 1-3 record and at times looked listless. Koepka fared a bit better but his 1-2-1 effort was far from what many believed would happen given how Brooks won the US Open and PGA Championship earlier this year.
Even when trailing 10-6 going into the final 12 singles matches the American squad had its early moments when a huge turn around looked possible. Justin Thomas beat Rory McIlroy in the opening match and his overall record of 4-1 lead the USA effort. Thomas was paired with Jordan Spieth and only tasted defeat when beaten soundly by the Fleetwood / Molinari duo during the foursomes on Friday afternoon. Thomas consistently displayed a “fire in the belly” during his matches and one can only wonder how much of a benefit Thomas had in playing earlier this year at Le Golf National with the French Open Championship.
As the day wore on it became clear that whatever early momentum was present for Team USA the middle portion of the line-up simply failed to keep things going in a positive manner. The cumulative impact of missed fairways and crucial putts at key moments became the anchor that pulled the Americans to a defeat that will sting long after the grandstands at Le Golf National are disassembled.
What will Team USA do leading up to Whistling Straits in two years? Hard to say with certainty. Likely Steve Stricker, the Wisconsin native, will be selected Captain. Stricker has experience in the role serving as Captain during Team USA’s win in the ’17 President’s Cup Matches in New Jersey. But the inevitable pressures will certainly intensify as those matches draw near and make no mistake about it — the President’s Cup is the minor league show. The Ryder Cup is the Oscars. The European Team once again marshalled its uncanny will to win and the total unified effort was again on display. Hats off certainly to Captain Thomas Bjorn who was critically assailed for his Captain picks but, in the end, each of them showed more grit and results than their counterparts. Even if the Americans can win in Wisconsin the wherewithal to achieve some sort of edge can only be obtained when finally winning on foreign soil in Italy in ’24.
Until that happens — the Americans will be paper tigers — no pun intended.
Photo credit: Ryder Cup Team USA Facebook Page