By Mark Lamport-Stokes
CHASKA, Minnesota (Reuters) – Neutral observers are rare when it comes to the Ryder Cup, one of the most highly charged occasions in sport, but most would agree Sunday’s win by the United States gave the team competition a timely jolt.
Under considerable pressure to avoid a fourth successive loss to Europe, a much more team-oriented American lineup displayed brilliant golf over the three days at Hazeltine, with a fired-up Patrick Reed their very visible on-course heartbeat.
U.S. captain Davis Love III took a leaf or two out of triumphant 2008 skipper Paul Azinger’s play book with great success as the team also benefited from a complete overhaul, from top to bottom, of their entire Ryder Cup system.
Recommendations by an 11-man task force set up after the Americans’ heavy loss to Europe at Gleneagles in 2014 were implemented, and Love and his players also took advantage of a European team undergoing something of a transition.
“I see this European team similar in a way to the side that Nick Faldo captained at Valhalla (in 2008) and that team also went down,” former European Tour executive director Ken Schofield told Reuters.
“That was a transitional team, and so is the team Darren (Clarke) brought to Hazeltine. As we know, we have lost three recent great Ryder Cuppers in (Ian) Poulter, (Graeme) McDowell and (Luke) Donald, and those were big boots to fill.
“We can certainly say that young Thomas Pieters has stepped up and Rafa Cabrera-Bello also stepped up, and the experience of the other boys who were amongst the six who were new to the Ryder Cup will only be good for Europe’s future.”
European captain Darren Clarke had six Cup debutants in his 12-man lineup – Andy Sullivan, Danny Willett, Chris Wood, Matt Fitzpatrick, Pieters and Cabrera-Bello.
Long-hitting Belgian Pieters capped a brilliant week by setting a European rookie record with four points after playing in all five sessions while Spaniard Cabrera-Bello impressively registered 2-1/2 points from his three matches.
In stark contrast, Sullivan, Masters champion Willett, Wood and Fitzpatrick came away with a collective total of one point.
Clarke will also be criticized by many pundits for his questionable decision to select good friend Lee Westwood as one of his three wildcard picks at Hazeltine, instead of Scotland’s Russell Knox, a double winner on the PGA Tour this season.
Westwood is now a veteran of 10 Ryder Cups and, while his experience was certainly helpful to the six rookies on Clarke’s team, he struggled badly with his putting, particularly from short range, and ended the week with zero points.
As for the Americans, every single player on Love’s team contributed at least one point, a feat that had not been achieved since the 1975 Ryder Cup at Laurel Valley, when the late Arnold Palmer was captain.
Just like Azinger at Valhalla in 2008, Love ensured that his players were fully invested in every aspect of their team and practiced in ‘pods’ of four, while he also relied on the input of the automatic qualifiers for his four wildcard selections.
While Love was non-playing skipper at Hazeltine, Mickelson was the unofficial on-course captain, having been a key member of the task force after lambasting the tactics of 2014 captain Tom Watson immediately after the U.S. loss at Gleneagles.
“Mickelson had some very stinging public comments (at Gleneagles) and the positive out of that potential negative was the setting up of their internal review on all fronts,” said Schofield.
“And quite clearly what’s happened is that the players have been asked and have been authorized to give their views as a way forward … so they feel much more involved from start to finish.”
Schofield, who ended a 30-year run as European Tour executive director in 2005, believes the U.S. are now emulating the shift in Ryder Cup strategy implemented by Europe when Tony Jacklin was first appointed as captain for PGA National in 1983.
That year, Europe hinted at what was to come over the next three decades by chasing the Americans hard before going down by the wafer-thin margin of 14-1/2 points to 13-1/2.
“The younger players on the-then tournament committee decided they wanted Jacklin as a captain they could relate to as a major champion who was still playing, rather than an older person with a view to giving an award for past services,” said Schofield.
“From that moment in Europe, it has been very much a team, an effort by the players for the players. I sense the United States are on that same pathway. It bodes well for the future.”
(Editing by Frank Pingue)