What began on Friday morning as an opportunity for American redemption after recent Ryder Cup disappointments ended on Sunday afternoon with a record-breaking victory that doubles as an ominous statement of intent for the years ahead.
Even before Xander Schauffele smacked a ball into the overcast Wisconsin blue toward the shimmering waters of Lake Michigan to kick off Sunday’s dozen singles matches, the victory celebrations were already in full swing all over the horseshoe-shaped grandstand encircling the first tee, where rowdy spectators clad in red, white and blue sucked down tall cans of beer and sang the Star-Spangled Banner and God Bless America between resounding chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
It was a morning bursting with promise for an American team that since the turn of the century and even before has chronically underperformed at the Ryder Cup despite regularly coming in with the superior individual players. Not only did the US team wake up with one hand on the trophy, only 3½ points from the finish line, but the record margin of victory (18½-9½, achieved three times) was in very real danger of falling. After Daniel Berger won by one hole over Matt Fitzpatrick, it did.
The rollicking scenes all over the Straits Course were familiar enough: the American fans have always gone all out for golf’s biennial matchplay showcase. It is the players’ commitment to competing for team, country and captain that has too often been called into question during an alarming run of form that included defeats in seven of the previous nine competitions and 12 of 17 going back to 1985.
Paul Azinger, who made four appearances as a player before captaining the team to a memorable win over the Europeans at Valhalla in 2008, put a fine point on America’s self-defeating ambivalence as recently as Friday morning. “It means more to every European that’s ever played than to any American that’s ever played, honestly,” he said. “That’s too bad for us. It means the world to me, but I just don’t know how you match the energy, the passion and the meaning that Europe brings to these matches: it’s everything to them. It’s their whole life’s work, they think about being on the Ryder Cup team their whole life. Americans aren’t quite that way but it’s in our head. We want to win.
“I think this American team has a chip on its shoulder … you have six rookies here who are unscarred, the veterans are pretty engaged so it’s going to be a lot for Europe to overcome.”
Optimism prevailed in the run-up but not even Azinger could have foreseen the scale of the carnage that played out: that a US team including six Ryder Cup debutants would break from the gate with dominant showings in both Friday sessions, extend their lead once more in Saturday morning’s foursomes and never look back, giving their European rivals no quarter from wire to wire and reducing the entirety of Sunday’s singles matches to a formality.
From a distance it might not seem that extraordinary an outcome. Steve Stricker’s talent-stacked 12-man team includes six major champions, an Olympic gold medallist and 10 of the world’s top 13 players. They enjoyed the familiar advantage of being able to align the setup of the 7,500-yard course to their strengths and a magnified edge in crowd support due to Covid-19 travel restrictions on European-based spectators. The Americans simply lived up to expectations, lofty as they were.
It is entirely possible the US team will come hurtling back to earth in Rome in two years and the familiar questions will resurface, but the Whipping at Whistling Straits feels significant, if not an epochal sea change. The old guard of Woods, Mickelson, Furyk et al are gone, along with the malaise that came to define their era. The historic rout that unfolded over the weekend was handed down by the youngest team in the competition’s 94-year history – with an average age of 29 and only 12 previous appearances among them – many of whom are all but certain to be fixtures in the team for a decade or more to come.
The six first-time Ryder Cup participants who comprised half of the team – Schauffele (aged 27), Scottie Scheffler (25), Patrick Cantlay (29), Harris English (32), Collin Morikawa (24) and Daniel Berger (28) – didn’t simply hold their own but led from the front and contributed the majority of the points. And Stricker, the steady hand who used four of his six discretionary picks on rookies, did an excellent job of selecting players who were comfortable together and played within themselves as a result.
“The young guys on this team get along really well,” Cantlay said after his 4&2 win over Lowry. “We sent out rookies maybe four out of the first five matches. That’s unheard of and those guys are performing. Everybody gets along. The atmosphere is light but I know everyone has that killer instinct and we are going to bring that to future cups.”
Stricker’s team might not have the historical heft of the 1981 Ryder Cup team that has long been held up as the competition’s gold standard: a team including Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Raymond Floyd, Hale Irwin, Larry Nelson, Ben Crenshaw and Johnny Miller that rampaged to a 18½-9½ win over the Europeans at Walton Heath.
But that they’re even in the conversation after Sunday’s coronation is remarkable enough a testament to a generational shift that may well signal the birth of a dynasty.