[PHOTO: Jamie Squire]
On Sunday, the Ryder Cup pulled off a neat little sleight-of-hand trick: it made us believe that a U.S. victory was possible. And maybe it was, but only in the sense that a 1-in-5,000 chance sometimes comes through.
In reality, while the final score remained unclear until the late afternoon at Marco Simone thanks to a series of desperate survival acts by the American side, the outcome was never actually in doubt. In fact, for a full decade, the outcome has never been in doubt.
We come today to mourn the soul of the Ryder Cup, but make no mistake: this is not an obituary. The Ryder Cup will survive in its current state of atrophy. It will be held every two years barring global catastrophe, rotating between Europe and the United States, attended by thousands of fans and months of hype and heaps of salvation money. But this weekend, in the Eternal City, on land from which once rose a great empire, we bid solemn farewell to the institution as a competitive, or even interesting, event. To borrow a Zach Johnson-ism, we’ve lost the Ryder Cup.
I’ve seen enough, and only fools let themselves be deluded for more than a decade. The fact of the matter is that the Ryder Cup has evolved into a malfunctioning affair in which the script is pre-written. The home team reigns supreme and has done so for five straight Ryder Cups, winning by gaudy margins. This will continue into the future—and there appears to be no practical solution that doesn’t involve removing the Ryder Cup from its host nations—an obvious impossibility that wouldn’t be desirable even if it could be done without haemorrhaging money (which it could not). In modern sport, there is nothing as predictable as a Ryder Cup; the drama is dead.
The current circumstances have been evident since 2014, when the Europeans won by five points in Gleneagles. But in the wake of the Medinah fluke, we weren’t ready for the truth, and Tom Watson was a poor enough captain that you could plausibly blame bad leadership.
It became slightly clearer in 2016 at Hazeltine National, when the Americans won by six points, then again in Paris, when Europe bounced back with a winning margin of a seemingly ridiculous seven points. After Whistling Straits in 2021, when the Americans triumphed by a frankly embarrassing 10 points, the last pair of closed eyes should have been pried open to the cold truth of reality that the situation wasn’t just dire, but was actively spiralling out of control.
Instead, the romance of the Ryder Cup prevailed one last time. I am not the foremost Ryder Cup scholar in the world, but as the author of a book on the subject, I’m not at the bottom of the hierarchy either. But though I saw the Whistling Straits blowout with clear eyes, some combination of hope and naivete and perhaps desperation led me to predict a narrow American victory in Italy. When I say “hopeful”, I don’t mean any kind of hope for my home nation; I mean hope for a close Ryder Cup—the oxygen we needed. The prediction went against history and statistics and common sense, but as someone with a great deal of love for this event, I wanted to see it revived from the coma.
Of course, I was wrong. Here in Italy, the situation became so preposterous that for a moment on Saturday morning, it was vaguely possible that Europe might clinch it before the day was done. Then Patrick Cantlay dropped three miracle putts just before sunset to call forth another regular Ryder Cup tradition—the hollow glimmer of false hope. That brief renaissance—along with the buzz surrounding a spat between Rory McIlroy and Cantlay’s caddie Joe LaCava—lasted through the night before Europe snuffed out the last cinders on Sunday and the event limped to its dull finish. We’ve reached rock bottom; who but the most fervent European partisans can actually think any of this is good?
We’ve fallen far. In the golden age of this event, from the moment Tony Jacklin resuscitated the European team in 1983 to the American comeback at Brookline in 1999, an incredible eight of nine Ryder Cups were decided by two points or fewer. Things changed in the 2000s, as Europe dealt the Americans a series of embarrassing losses, and our first taste of what was to come arrived in 2008, when Paul Azinger broke a long spell of clueless American leadership and led an underdog team to a resounding victory at Valhalla. Davis Love III reprised many of his lessons on a brilliant opening two days at Medinah, just before a historic European comeback gave us our last tight Ryder Cup. But after the Gleneagles massacre, America’s eyes were opened for good, and starting in 2016 we saw the advent of both teams operating with an impressive level of competency.
Ironically, the American Strategic Awakening and the growth of the event into a golf juggernaut had the unintended side effect of ushering in the modern era, in which hordes of fans in a three-day lather watch smart captains exploit their home-course advantage to a devastating degree, to the extent that by about noon on Sunday, the matches are effectively decided, and the final singles matches risk playing out in utter, disheartening irrelevance. You can almost see the gaudy scores of the future laid out in a zombie procession, one after another, in a numbing pattern.
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The mechanisms behind this phenomenon are not quite as easy to understand as they should be. Nothing matters more today than home-course advantage, and nothing is more predictive and definitive, as we chronicled ahead of the start of play this week. But what does that actually mean? Granular, logistical advantages are discussed, the most prominent being course setup. Maybe, the theory goes, the home team should no longer have control. It would be lovely to think that the solution lies there, because it’s something the governing bodies could fix, and in fact I’d bet a hefty sum that they’ll try at some point in the near future. But I’m sorry to say that a change like this is no more than cosmetic; the golfers are good enough, and similar enough, that the effect of a course tailored to one or the other team is always going to be marginal. To remove course setup from home hands is like firing a BB gun at a fighter jet; satisfying, maybe, but fruitless.
But if not the course, what’s the true engine of the blowout era? For mysterious reasons, the actual lopsided margins tend to be a function of the foursomes sessions specifically, and perhaps there’s a novel solution in eliminating this format from future events. It would be a bizarre fix, to be sure, and an unfortunate one, but maybe the only one actually supported by the numbers. Failing that, the only conclusion to draw is that with the advent of competent leadership in both camps, as captains turn into CEOs and accumulated wisdom mitigates the errors of the past, the big, overwhelming difference between the teams is the partisan crowds.
In other words: it’s the fans, stupid. In a sport where the players aren’t used to away games, the effect of having 50,000-plus fans vociferously endorse your opponent on a daily basis is apparently impossible to overcome. It may be that in 500 years, as the field of quantum physics blossoms, that we learn about an actual invisible atomic energy transfer between fans and golfers, wherein the will of the crowd influences results. This would explain the ridiculous, repeating phenomenon where the home team sinks long putt after long putt, sticks irons to gimme distance, and responds to any wayward approach by chipping in, while the visiting team seems to be magnetically drawn to every hazard on the property.
If I’m right that the crowds are the insurmountable hurdle to a competitive event, well… in that case you’re basically screwed, because they’re not moving this thing to a neutral venue. “Ryder Cup: Argentina” or “Ryder Cup: Moscow” isn’t happening. That means we’re in the age of impasse, and there’s no extracting ourselves from this quagmire.
That quagmire leads us to an inevitable pronouncement: the Ryder Cup is boring. Which is a great irony, because the lead-up to the Ryder Cup is about as intriguing and interesting as any subject in golf. Analysing this thing is truly fun, and a parallel bummer of the evolution towards predictability is that you can’t really go deep on the subject anymore. Sure, you can pick apart the course setup and the pairings and the strategy and various other logistics, but beneath it all is the sense that none of it actually matters. It all gets swept aside in the tidal wave of home-course advantage. Why waste time arguing? The home team is always going to win! Fatalism abounds!
I don’t know the solution. I’m not sure anybody knows the solution. Or if we do, it lies down paths we can’t travel. It bears saying now that the Ryder Cup has been on death’s door before—after World War II, when an obscure American businessman revived it, at the advent of the European era when large sponsors were lost and Jacklin applied the defibrillator paddles, to name two—and has always found a way to survive. It must do so again, or this latest requiem, this eulogy for the soul of the dead, will become the definitive one. As they say just down the road from Marco Simone, requiescat in pace.
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This article was originally published on golfdigest.com