Some ideas just have to be blurted out in a thoughtless torrent of courage and faith, so here goes nothing:
America will win the 2021 Ryder Cup with relative ease.
Writing those words comes with severe trepidation, and I do not make the claim lightly. It’s Thursday of Ryder Cup week, and opinions are shifting with every press conference, but barring any last-minute shockers – Bryson DeChambeau going full WWE heel and hitting Brooks Koepka in the back with a steel chair, for instance – this particular opinion is set in stone. It feels right. That doesn’t mean, though, that I’m not deeply, deeply afraid. Americans are guilty of ridiculous overconfidence every time a Ryder Cup is played, and there seems to be very little recognition of the fact that Europe is 9-3 in the past 12 instalments, and 12-5 since 1985. We all want to think we’re free of the biases of our tribe, but we’re not, and there’s every chance that I’m committing the same sin of delusion that American fans seem to commit every two years, a prisoner to my own national DNA.
With that fear in mind, I want to test the theory against the very good evidence pointing at the exact opposite conclusion. First, there’s that pesky historical record. Against teams of better-on-paper American players, Europe has reliably won due to superior captains, a system that is handed down across the years, and a psychological edge that stems from their perennial underdog status and an ability to channel their passion for the Ryder Cup into a functioning, supportive team in a way that mostly eludes Americans. Europe hasn’t lost at home since 1993, and they’ve won every other Ryder Cup in America since 1987.
Seriously, it’s like clockwork: win in ’87, lose in ’91, win in ’95, lose in ’99, win in ’04, lose in ’08, win in ’12, lose in ’16… finish that pattern, and it’s bad news in Whistling Straits. They’re also fielding a veteran-heavy team with loads of winning experience, while America comes in with a roster of six rookies (when Europe had that same number in ’16, they got blown out), and the experience they do have is average, with veteran team members boasting a collective 24-22-3 record, compared to 77-55-24 for the Euros. Finally, the US teams of the recent past have a way of imploding, and there’s a ready-made, combustible powder keg waiting to explode in the Bryson–Brooks feud.
Have I made my point? Have I inoculated myself against the unconscious drift into the fantasy land of American self-aggrandisement?
I hope so, because all those points aside, I still think America will win. To start, let’s look at recent history. Since 2008, when Paul Azinger forcefully yanked America from the miserable doldrums of the early 2000s blowout era, the USA has been excellent at home. This fact is often obscured by 2012 and the European comeback at Medinah. But as much as we look at history for patterns and trends, and as useful as that can be, we also have to understand when an anomaly is staring us in the face. Whatever quibbles you have with Davis Love III’s strategy, the Americans didn’t deserve to lose the 2012 Ryder Cup. It was a fluke, built on a pyramid of absurd longshots coming through one after another, and if any one of them failed, Europe would have lost. This is the kind of thing that happens when you have a tournament with such a small sample size, but it’s so outrageous and anomalous that it doesn’t happen more than once or twice in a generation.
Forget Sunday at Medinah – in the last three home Ryder Cups, American has come out of the pairs sessions with leads of 9-7, 10-6 and 9.5-6.5. It works the other way, too: in the past three Ryder Cups in Europe, the Europeans have held pre-singles leads of 9.5-6.5, 10-6 and 10-6. In pairs matches, the home team is 58-38 in the past six Ryder Cups. That’s a 60 percent winning mark, and though things can get unpredictable in singles, we can guess with great confidence that the US will head into the singles matches with a lead.
I bring this up because it proves what might be the most important point of the post-2010 Ryder Cup era: home course advantage is enormous. As in, it cannot be overstated how much it matters. To engage in a what-if, imagine the Americans had gone 6-all in Sunday singles in 2012 instead of blowing a huge lead. If that were the case, we’d be looking at six straight wins for the home team in the Ryder Cup, with five of them as blowouts. Home course advantage might, in the end, be such an important factor that it almost overrides everything else. If there are no other glaring red flags, it might even be decisive.
Why? There are factors like course setup that are important, and we saw how much that affected both the 2016 American win in the mown prairie paradise of Hazeltine and the 2018 European win in the narrow fairways and thick rough of Le Golf National. Both sides are now armed with companies that perform statistical analysis for them, and the combination of having control over the course setup and employing data geniuses to help them maximise every edge has been critical.
Even more important – probably by a lot – are the home crowds. They’re loud, they’re boisterous, and they occasionally (OK, sometimes more than occasionally) cross the line. It creates a stressful, defensive atmosphere for the visiting team, and provides endless waves of energy to the home side. To overcome that dynamic requires incredible fortitude and a lot of luck, and this year, because of COVID, Whistling Straits won’t even have the usual smattering of European fans mixed in. You could argue, not without evidence, that Europe’s one chance to win in Whistling Straits was if it had been held last September without fans.
Then there are the players. The US team is better than the European team on paper, and far better suited to the challenges of Whistling Straits, but that’s not incredibly relevant on its own. How many times have we seen a so-called “inferior” European team, by the measure of the world rankings, beat the Americans? The fact that one side is slightly higher in average world rankings, or has won more Majors, isn’t as important as some American fans want to believe. But it does matter, in the sense that we’re not dealing with an unusually weak US team in 2021. Yes, there are six rookies, but there’s a big difference between being a rookie at home versus on the road. This team’s rookies will be playing in front of as friendly a crowd as you can find in golf; they’ll be fine. There are also players like Collin Morikawa whose recent form has dipped, and others like Koepka with injury concerns, but those are matched on Europe’s side by players like Lee Westwood, Tyrrell Hatton and Matthew Fitzpatrick who have also struggled of late. As a whole, Stricker’s side shouldn’t collapse for lack of talent, or be out-gunned by the Europeans.
Finally, Stricker himself is giving off all the right signals in everything he says and does. He made his captain’s picks according to who best fit the course, in consultation with the aforementioned statheads at Scouts Consulting. His key word is “preparation”, he seems to live by it, and he mentioned in his press conference on Monday that the one outcome he’ll avoid is throwing any last-minute curveballs at his players. All of that should be music to your ears if you’re an American fan. And even though he may come off as timid, he pulled off a feat that many captains before him have failed to do, which is to get the team to the course a week early to play, hang out and bond. It might be worth mentioning, too, that there’s a long history of Ryder Cups where the captain who was less accomplished as a player out-prepared his opposite number, and was able to relate to his team more effectively… think Azinger vs Faldo or McGinley vs Watson.
None of this means Stricker will be a better captain than Padraig Harrington – a lot of what we end up knowing about captains comes out after the Ryder Cup – but it does mean he’s learned quite a bit from his extensive experience as captain and vice-captain of Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup teams, and he’s going to avoid the pitfalls of some of his predecessors. His mission is to create a relaxed, predictable atmosphere for his team, downplay any conflict in the media, and set them up for success.
Frankly, in the year 2021, with a very good team playing on home soil, that’s about all he needs to do. We’re in the Blowout Era, though it’s not easy to recognise, and when you take a team like the US with more depth and talent, throw in a captain that appears to be somewhere between “competent” and “very good” and is at the very least not afraid of statistics, and put that team in front of 40,000 rabid home fans every day, there’s only one sensible conclusion: America is going to win, and it probably won’t be close.
Gun to head, for posterity: USA 16, Europe 12