Before reading this article it is important to note one important fact. I am not a big golf fan. I enjoy playing casually and frustratedly but I would not call myself a golf fan. The only strokeplay tournament I usually watch is the Masters. Having sad that let me say this; the Ryder Cup is the greatest drama there is in team sports. Period. A bold statement perhaps, especially after a fairly pedestrian affair ended Sunday at Gleneagles but one I will stand by. There is only one thing that comes close, March Madness. The biennial golfing showcase wrapped up, with its typical tense, if slightly less seesaw than usual singles round with Europe coming out on top for a slightly underwhelming third consecutive victory.
The beauty of the modern era Ryder Cup lies in its formatting. It is the most perfect combination allowing both team and individual brilliance to shine. One day one and two, 8 points are available per day (1 per match for the winning team, ½ each if tied). There are 4 points available in four balls (in which both players play their own ball and the best represents the team. 4 further points are available in foursomes (in which players share a ball and play alternate strokes). Unlike traditional tournaments the tournament is played match play style in which the best score wins the hole and the first team or individual to an insurmountable total wins the match and in this case the point. Play concludes on Sunday with 12 singles matches, again played in the match play format which perennially decides to whom the cup belongs for the two years thereafter.
The format lends itself to high drama. Five of the last 10 Ryder Cups have been decided by a point (2014s tournament not withstanding). This includes Europe’s dramatic 2012 comeback from 10-6 down after the first two days of play, to win 14 ½ to 13 ½.
Since is origination in 1927 the Ryder Cup has undergone a number of important changes. In its early years, particularly after World War 2, the US dominated, its team of golfing legends like Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson leading them to regular destructions of the then GB and Ireland team.
Times have changed dramatically however. Since 1995, The USA has lost 8 of the last 10 cups a stretch only surpassed in Ryder Cup history when the US won outright or retained the trophy 13 straight times (including one tie) between 1959 and 1983.
If you are a fan of American golf then ironically enough its most famous son, Jack Nicklaus, has a lot to answer for. The 18 time major winner and arguably greatest player of all time helped transition the Ryder Cup from the USA VS GB & Ireland to the USA VS Europe after a conversation with the president of the PGA in 1977. While Nicklaus was attempting to push contests to a more competitive place he never could have foreseen Europe’s recent dominance. So what is the reason this run unprecedented in modern golfing history? Better players? Better form? Better captains?
Looking at the respective teams Europe boasts the world’s number 1, 3, 5, 6, 12 and 18 (just looking at the top 20, while the USA team included world number 4, 7, 9, 10, 11, 13, 15 and 19. Europe, according the ranking system at least, holds more elite players but it hardly seems like a great disparity. Traditional viewpoints have centered on Europe succeeding as a true collectivist team and the US as a team of individualists. Never has this been more apparent than in former world number 1 and generational talent Tiger Woods, who has a paltry Ryder Cup record of 13-14-2. While Woods was conspicuously missing this year the grit of the European team was not, twice coming from deficits in the morning fourballs to storm back with comprehensive victories in the afternoon foursomes, another example of the emphasis of each team (US thrives where every player has their own ball, Europe was significantly better in the shared ball format).
There is undoubtedly something intangible to this as well. The Ryder Cup simply seems to matter more to the Europeans. This was evidenced by their stirring comeback in 2012 on US soil at Medinah. The US could not come close to staging a similar miracle this time round back on European soil. One thing is certain, with a dearth of young top 10 players Europe may continue to ride their wave of dominance unless the US team can find the missing link in their Ryder Cup puzzle – the need to win.