Whether you look at the results on the course or the friction surrounding Tom Watson’s captaincy, it’s clear the American Ryder Cup system is in disarray. The 16.5 to 11.5 result at Gleneagles was Europe’s eighth win in the last 10 Ryder Cups—including the last three. Even if Watson had somehow managed to conjure the best out of his team in September, it’s arguable that it wouldn’t made enough of a difference to beat the Europeans—who had the World No. 1 in Rory McIlroy, the winners of the last two U.S. Opens in Martin Kaymer and Justin Rose and two of the greatest Ryder Cup players of all time in Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter.
— PGA.COM (@PGA_com) October 4, 2014
What does that mean for the Americans going forward, and how should they structure the search for the next captain—and, more importantly, an overall strategy that will let them be competitive?
I think it starts with acknowledging the realities of social structure.
The “pod” system Paul Azinger used so successfully in 2008 worked because it worked within these realities. European teams seem to bond well as a group—even if they’re playing for a less-than-popular captain—because the nature of a team event is an extension of what they do week in and week out during the regular season. American players, on the other hand, are much more solitary week-to-week, so the bonding experience is more complicated.
Creating bonds within groups isn’t rocket science. It’s a function of time and size. If you have a large group, like the cast of a Broadway show, it takes some time to create that bond, but after a long series of rehearsals, you have a group that can pull together. By the time the U.S. team is selected and it’s time to get serious, you’re talking about two weeks of bonding time. It isn’t enough for a group that size.
That’s why the pod system worked. You can get four like-minded people to get together and bond in a much shorter time—which is what the Americans did in 2008.
The other piece the next captain has to acknowledge is that playing professional golf at the tour level almost always demands a particular kind of independent personality. That doesn’t mean American players don’t want to be on a team, or that they don’t care about representing their country. It just means they aren’t as used to the team element as a basketball or football player would be.
American tour players are the ultimate “lone wolves” for most of their career. They’re the only ones ultimately responsible for the scores they shoot—and, in fact, that solitary responsibility is probably a significant part of why they gravitated toward golf in the first place.
When you take a collection of independent, self-directed players and bring them together as a team, you’re going to get friction if you don’t account for those personalities in an interactive way.
The friction between Phil Mickelson and Tom Watson looked like it was a result of a clash in communication styles. It was a tension you could feel through the television during that last interview session. Phil is a veteran and in a leadership position on the team. Watson is the captain—and is a legend as a player. If they aren’t together—even if it’s more unspoken—you get two messages. The team knows the vibe isn’t good.
That by itself isn’t why the Americans lost. Europe’s players had a lot to do with it. But if you’re the underdog, you can’t afford to give up any freebies.
The unity of the European squad has allowed it to take advantage of some of the “team drafting” effects that the most successful organizations in other sports have been able to employ. One of the interesting things I’ve seen in working with Tour de France riders is this phenomenon that they train better when they ride together. It’s not so much about the wind advantage of riding with a group. It’s about pulling each other along emotionally. When you’re with a group that has to tackle a tough hill, you have this connectivity—even if we don’t understand the exact mechanism of how it works. Even in situations where an individual on the team has a dominant performance—like Michael Phelps in the Olympics—he helps pull his teammates along. You didn’t hear about it because Phelps won so many medals, but the rest of the American team had dominant performances. They saw it could be done, and they did it, too.
To fix it, the Americans need to address the whole problem of cohesiveness, and perhaps give up some of the flexibility that previous captains have enjoyed. Instead of changing the qualification process and picking captains with lots of different styles and personalities, it’s probably better to build a “program” like Europe has—with a cycle of continuity. I’m sure that’s something the PGA of America’s new task force is considering. Picking a captain like Azinger for the next go-round might be popular—and a good short-term fix—but the overall strategy and and approach needs to change.
For any American captain to be successful, I think he’s going to need to fix that cohesiveness issue, but also build a sense of pride within the group long before the matches start. The European players know their roles and their potential partners long before they get to the event, and only have to focus on playing golf.
They also, as a group, put as much value on winning the Ryder Cup as a team as they do winning majors as individuals.
That basic fact will probably be the toughest one for the Americans to replicate. Having the two most decorated major championship winners in the game over the last decade hasn’t been enough for the U.S. to be successful. Until that mindset changes—or Rory McIlroy shows signs of slowing down—it might be a long time before the Americans go into a Ryder Cup as anything approaching a favorite.