The Ryder Cup: Playing Like It’s Going to Happen

The European team beat a very tough U.S. team, 14 1/2 to 13 1/2 to retain the Ryder Cup…again.

If you read the American transcripts, it’s all about the other guy making a lot of crucial putts…or knocking in improbable chip shots…or the wind. It’s about not putting very well on Sunday compared to the other two days…it’s about the other guy doing a good job of getting back in the match…it’s about not quite having it on Sunday.

But it wasn’t any of that, although they were certainly contributing factors.

What it was about was that the Euros believed that what they were about to attempt on Sunday morning was possible.

They had already seen it done by the Americans in 1999 at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. Remember Justin Leonard’s 285-foot putt (it grows longer with each telling) that hit the back of the cup and plopped right in the middle of the bottom? And the final score there was the same 14 1/2 to 13 1/2.

What it was about was the ghost of their beloved Seve Ballesteros who had breathed life into the moribund, over matched Great Britain and Ireland teams of the past when they joined forces with the rest of Europe.

What it was about was the great Seve Ballesteros being the mastermind behind the Euros’ mindset that they were the unappreciated underdogs and perceived doormats of Ryder Cup competitions. He turned it into “us against the world.”

What it was about was Seve’s bi-annual teammate and partner, Jose Maria Olazabal, being appointed the European captain for this year’s matches. The emotional ties between those two men spurred them into the top-5 points winners for the European side.

What it was about was Olazabal tearing up every time he thought of his beloved mentor and friend who died a much too early death from brain cancer. Because Olazabal knew that there would be tributes to Seve at this year’s opening ceremonies, he excused himself from the stage. He knew that he would not be able to hold back the tears. And as we saw from backstage shots of him, he was right.

And what it was about was Olazabal assuring anyone who asked that the great Seve was looking down on the matches and he still believed. Even the media was completely enrolled in this one as this question and answer with Sergio Garcia indicates:

For you personally with the shadow of Seve guarding you and protecting you, what influence was that for you this week?

Oh, no, I have no doubt in my mind that he was with me today all day, because there’s no chance I would have won my match if he wasn’t there.  You know, it was amazing, and it feels so good to be able to win it for him and for our captain, José, it’s been amazing.  He’s an amazing guy, just unbelievable, and very happy.

So to these strong emotional undercurrents, add Olazabal’s assurances that he believed, that he believed in them and that they believed in each other.

There is a time-tested way to handle this in-a-deep-hole circumstance, the same one that Captain Ben Crenshaw used in Brookline: stack your top players at the beginning the singles matches. In this there-is-no-tomorrow strategy, the idea is for the best players to win their matches early to infuse the rest of the team with a sense that this is going to happen.

As Luke Donald and Ian Poulter and Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose, began to breathe life into the possibility that this would work out, players down the roster began to turn the tide in their matches. The Americans helped, of course, but every positive thing that happened in a match was construed as confirmation that what they deemed inevitable was in fact happening.

And once they began to lock up their matches, a veritable tidal wave washed down the rest of the leaderboard. Dustin Johnson, Zach Johnson and Jason Dufner were the only Americans to win one of the twelve matches. Tiger won a half-point for his halve in the last match with Francesco Molinari.

Belief is a powerful thing, especially when it’s imbued with spiritual buttresses, whether it be God himself or a close family member like Seve.

And when that momentum begins to gather in the face of all of these accompanying very public facts, it’s hard for anyone, in this case the American team, to deny that something is going on.

So to stave off that inevitability, players become overly cautious to insure their very best performance. Not to pick on them, but the two best examples of that were Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker, two of the best putters on the PGA Tour. As the closing holes of their late matches grew fewer, the time they took to read a putt grew exponentially.

For their part I’m sure they felt like they were being conscientious and responsible, but all of the tedious stalking and squatting and peering sucked the spontaneity right out of their extraordinary talent. It seemed the longer they looked, the fewer putts they made. Those long looks were all about indecision.

The key to great golf is freedom and there are few who would argue that indecision produces more freedom. Once freedom is lost, the rest is inevitable.

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3 Responses to The Ryder Cup: Playing Like It’s Going to Happen

  1. Lee Garcia says:

    From looking at Seve marked prominantly on their golf bags to Seve on their shirts, to watching as Ollie teared up at anyone mentioning Seve, the outcome seemed preordained very early on this weekend. When Ian made 5 birdies in a row on Saturday to win a point, I thought right then that the golfing Gods were lined up for a come back very early in this epic contest as the ultimate outcome. Phil and Bradley were very hot and Davis made a huge mistake when he let Phil talk him out of puting them back out on Saturday afternoon on the 10th hole of his match. Davis went out because the guys in the team room scheduled to play told Davis they would rather have Phil and Bradley continue to play in the afternoon segment. When the players make the coaching decisions, Houston, we have a problem. Davis is elegant and was too nice in this situation. I was thinking alot about Hunter Mahan as I watched two “older” players choke on both their club selections and their unbelievable over reading of their puts as their matches got to crunch time. Finally, while I understand the greens were wicked fast and undulating, I was surprised at how many of these great players consistently missed key puts on the “amateur” or low side. This memorable weekend clearly demonstrated that the greatest golfers in the Ryder Cup team format succumb to more pressure and their breaking point than most of them ever feel on the tour or even the majors.

  2. jeff glosser says:

    Pressure is a fact of life. If you can’t deal with it get out of the kitchen. I would not want most of the Americans on my Marine Corps squad.

  3. Ron Sanders says:

    Phil’s laughter and lack of concern about one of the biggest chokes in the history of golf is inexcusable . They lost because they didn’t care that much about winning. Life has been to easy on the American competitors, but then it’s no big deal, let’s just laugh it off.