Young, stacked U.S. team faces familiar battle in Ryder Cup

  • Associated Press Sergio Garcia kisses the trophy in 2018 after Europe won the Ryder Cup for the ninth time in 12 tries.

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – The Americans would seem to have a lot in their favor at the Ryder Cup.

They are on home soil at Whistling Straits along the Wisconsin shores of Lake Michigan. A full house is expected, along with louder than usual cheering for the Stars & Stripes because of COVID-19 travel restrictions for European-based fans.

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As for the players? Younger than ever, to be sure, but no less stacked. The Americans have eight of the top 10 in the world ranking — Europe only has Jon Rahm at No. 1 — on a team that has won twice as many majors.

This is nothing new, of course. With one exception, the Americans always bring a better collection of players to the Ryder Cup.

They just rarely leave with the precious gold trophy.

“We have the best players this year,” said Paul Azinger, the lead analyst for NBC Sports who still uses pronouns as if it were 2008 when he was the U.S. captain. “And obviously, they (Europe) roll in with the most confidence and maybe the best team.”

The trick is getting the American players to realize that. At the last Ryder Cup in France three years ago, the U.S. was just as loaded, with nine major champions on the 12-man squad who had combined to win 10 of the last 16 majors.

They got smoked again.

“I feel like on paper, from head to toe, the world ranking, I would say we’re a stronger team,” U.S. captain Steve Stricker said. “But I don’t think our guys feel we’re better. They know deep down how hard it is to beat them.”

All that matters on paper are the results. Europe has won nine of the last 12 times in the Ryder Cup. And while the U.S. still holds a 26-14-2 advantage dating to the start in 1927, that’s not the real measure. Continental Europeans did not join the fray until 1979, and since then they are 11-8-1.

Europe, with Padraig Harrington now at the helm of the juggernaut, tries to extend its dominance at the 43rd Ryder Cup, which was postponed one year because of the pandemic.

Players from both teams arrived Monday at Whistling Straits under a gray sky and occasional drizzle. Formal practice sessions start Tuesday ahead of the Friday start and three relentless days of matches on the cliffside course with 1,000 or so bunkers that has hosted the PGA Championship three times in the last 17 years. American players, it should be noted, have been runner-up in all three.

Why do the Europeans keep winning the Ryder Cup?

They relish the role as underdogs. They seem to play with a chip on their shoulders, perhaps because the Americans don’t — and probably should — have one on theirs.

“That’s our advantage, I guess, in a way, right?” Ian Poulter said in a SiriusXM PGA Tour Radio interview. “That we have delivered when perhaps we shouldn’t have delivered. And this is the magical question that gets asked all the time. That’s what has the American press scratching their head. That’s what has the American team scratching their heads at times. On paper — on paper — the U.S. team should have delivered.

“It’s for us to enjoy and for the American team to figure out,” he said. “There is a level of magic sauce which we’ve been able to create over the years.”

Europe is bringing winning experience to Wisconsin.

Lee Westwood ties a European record by playing in his 11th Ryder Cup at age 48. He joins Sergio Garcia, already with the highest points total in history, on a short list of those who have played in Ryder Cups over parts of four decades. Garcia has contributed 25 1/2 points, the same amount as this entire U.S. team combined.

Whatever experience the Americans bring are mostly bad memories. Their lone victory in the last decade was at Hazeltine in 2016 against a European team that had six rookies. Only one of them, Matt Fitzpatrick, made it back on another team.

The six rookies are the most for the Americans since 2008 when they won at Valhalla.

Those include Collin Morikawa, who was an amateur when the last Ryder Cup was played and since then has won two majors, a World Golf Championship and led the U.S. standings in his first year of eligibility. It includes FedEx Cup champion Patrick Cantlay and Olympic gold medalist Xander Schauffele, who were a formidable team at the Presidents Cup in Australia two years ago.

“I think it’s a good time for a younger influx of players,” Schauffele said, “and really excited to run with these guys.”

And while the veterans include Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth — the only Americans to have played at least three Ryder Cups — they also include Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau, who have made their dislike for each other abundantly clear over the last few months.

DeChambeau has stopped talking to the press after he was criticized for saying he wasn’t vaccinated because he’s young and healthy and would rather give it to people who need it (even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said there is no shortage).

He also has endured heckling, with fans calling him “Brooksy” to get under his skin.

Koepka, meanwhile, injured his wrist hitting a tree root beneath the turf at East Lake. Stricker said he has only spoken to Koepka and is confident he’s ready to go.

“He tells me everything is 100 percent and everything is ready and raring to go,” Stricker said Monday. “I haven’t run into him yet today. I’ve heard that he’s here, but I haven’t seen him yet. From what I understand, he’s fully healed and ready for everything.”

As for the public beef between Koepka and DeChambeau, Stricker repeated that he expects no issues, having received word from both players it won’t be a problem this week.

Stricker didn’t seem bothered by Koepka’s interview with Golf Digest published last week in which he said the Ryder Cup takes him out of his routine because he’s pulled in so many directions.

“The conversations that I have had with him and what I have personally seen in the team room does not jive up to what I was reading in those articles,” Stricker said.

That’s never been a problem for Europe, which has not been immune to personality conflicts over the years. It just never shows inside the ropes, in uniform, with a 17-inch trophy at stake.

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“You have your favorites, guys who get along with, some you get along with a little worse,” Garcia said. “I can’t speak for the Americans — I don’t know what happens there — but it feels like when we get in the team room, everyone takes their armor off and puts it aside. You can feel that. Everyone is happy to put their arm around everyone else and try to help. It’s just the way it is.”

Maybe it’s that European magic sauce. Whatever it is, it’s been working.

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