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Thursday, October 7, 2010

How to Play Ryder Cup (for Americans)

In yesterday's post I looked at what the point totals might tell us about how to successfully play Ryder Cup golf and suggested that the strategy might be a little different from Presidents Cup. Today I'm going to throw out some observations I've made over the past few years and see if they might give us any ideas about what's missing in the US Ryder Cup approach.

It's certainly not talent, although the Euros have certainly fielded a world-class group of golfers in the last couple of decades. It's just a matter of how we apply our talent to the game.

I first got interested in Ryder Cup strategy a few years ago during a Ryder Cup broadcast when I heard Johnny Miller and Mark Rolfing discussing why the US had so much trouble. Miller had just said that the "secret" was having two birdie putts on every hole... and then Rolfing got Westwood on the mic right after he and his partner had polished off another US team. How did Westwood say they won? By "ham-and-egging" it, which he explained meant that one of them was always in the hole. If one player hit a shot into trouble, his partner made sure that his own shot stayed out of trouble.

The result? No big numbers on any hole. If you're losing holes when the other team makes a par, you're screwing up.

My own observation was that on many of the teams, each player had a special role. I called them "rockstars" and "roadies." Rockstars are the flashy players who rip the ball over the corners of doglegs and shoot at those hard-to-reach pins. Roadies are the plodding, put-it-in-the-fairway-and-on-the-green players. The roadie took care of par so the rockstars could take free runs at eagles and birdies. As a general rule, two rockstars don't score well because they get in too much trouble, and two roadies tend to shoot too many par rounds. Neither tends to win a lot of matches.

That's why I think the Tiger-Phil pairing never worked. It's not that they don't like each other, but you don't put two rockstars together. (If they really hated each other, do you think they could dominate at ping-pong together?) Rather, it's a rockstar problem: Is either of them is going to lay up just because the other is in trouble? Forget it! And I believe this is also at the root of the US problems with fourballs. Fourball is basically each team playing 2 singles at once, and singles are our strength; it's way simpler than foursomes, so we should be great in that format. Yet the US is better in foursomes than fourballs! I think it's because foursomes force players to play safer shots, while fourballs don't... and US players seem incapable of playing a layup when necessary. All the camaraderie in the world won't change that! That's just understanding the strategy, then doing it.

There's also a third category of player that I nicknamed the "super-roadie," a player good enough to play the rockstar role and push the scoring but also capable of taming his ego and playing roadie to a rockstar. Some of Europe's biggest point getters are super-roadies, like Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer.

By comparison, Seve was a rockstar; so is Monty. Monty doesn't have the typical wild rockstar game, but he has the swagger. Super-roadies rarely swagger, which makes them more dangerous because you underestimate them. Lee Westwood has been Europe's most prominent super-roadie for a while, and Martin Kaymer, Graeme McDowell, and Luke Donald all show signs of joining the ranks. It's no surprise they were leading point getters at this Ryder Cup.

If you ask me, you can trace much of the recent US success solely to the rise of Steve Stricker, who may be the first real super-roadie we've ever had. We have some promising possibles on the horizon as well -- I think Hunter Mahan will be one, and Jeff Overton's got some real potential too. Anthony Kim is a borderline rockstar, but his ability to team up with Phil at Valhalla shows he could go either way. Super-roadies don't have to be super-long though they tend to be longer than regular roadies, and they need accuracy and a good short game to pull off the role. (They tend to become major winners as well.) But super-roadies aren't cultivated over here the way they are in Europe, thus many potentially good super-roadies end up on the tricky path to rockstardom... and an overabundance of rockstars is not the way to win Ryder Cups.

Conspicuously absent from the Euro team were any bombers at all. It's not that they don't have any over there -- think about Alvaro Quiros, for example. But those players generally don't make the Euro team -- bombing is better-suited to an American game than a European one, hence the course was set up to make bombing less effective. It seems to have worked!

When a bomber goes to a Ryder Cup in Europe, he has to change his mindset about bombing. His length is a great advantage... but not because of the driver. The bomber's advantage there is his ability to hit shorter irons from a longer distance. He needs to hit shorter clubs to put himself in the fairway -- a necessity in bad weather and an advantage shorter players don't have -- then use his distance with mid- and short-irons to attack the pins. Our guys spent too much time hacking out of the hay because of poor tee shots.

If we can take any solace from it, it appears that the younger Euros like Rory McIlroy don't understand this principle either. American golf breeds rockstars, European golf breeds super-roadies. I suspect this was part of the reasoning behind Monty's to take captain's picks who played more in Europe. By comparison, most of the countries involved in Presidents Cup tend to mimic the American rockstar style; that's why we can better hold our own against them.

As for the groupings themselves: I don't think the Euros are nearly as methodical about pairings as we think they are. As I pointed out in yesterday's post, they were as willing to put two guys together and let them play every match as a pair (McIlroy-McDowell, the Molinaris) as they were to swap partners (Westwood, Donald, Kaymer, and Poulter all played several different combinations both among themselves and with other players).

Azinger's pod system captured a little of this dynamic, but it was actually a poor copy of what the Euros are doing. I'm not saying anything is wrong with the pod system, but pods are about life-and-death business and the Euros, for all the talk about Ryder Cup being a religion there, are about a game. Pods are organizational, but the Euros are organic. They use what works, and what works varies from day to day, so they just go with it. Sometimes it backfires, but that's how life works; when it does, they just reshuffle and play another round. In fact, even if it worked yesterday, they may reshuffle today just because it sounds more fun to do so!

So, here's what I see as the keys to the US becoming more competitive at the Ryder Cup:
  1. Learn to think about both balls, and make sure one of them is always in scoring position. If you can't do that, either pair up with someone who can or sit until the singles!
  2. Adjust your game to the course. If the course demands accurate play, don't expect bomb-and-gouge to work. And if you can bomb it and the rough isn't too high, then let the big dog eat... as long as you obey the first key!
  3. Encourage the development of more super-roadies. These guys really are the key, because they are the primary weapon in this format. They provide maximum flexibility, and they are the "horses" that the Euros are "riding," as Brandel Chamblee so quaintly put it.
  4. Don't get so caught up in a methodology that you lose your flexibility. Don't get stuck in pods, but don't tinker just to be tinkering either. If Woods and Stricker want to play every match together, let them... but don't make the other guys "marry" a partner if they don't want to.
  5. You know, there's no rule that says tour players can't play some informal "Ryder Cups" each week during their practice rounds. And the pros know who's most likely to make the team... so they could take some time to learn each other's games and play some FOURBALLS for practice. Learn to keep at least one ball in play at all times. DUH! Here's a practice tip: Choose a score you'd like to win by -- say, 3&2 -- and see if you can do at least that good. It'll add some extra pressure to the game and force you to consider alternate options for scoring.
  6. Remember it's just a game. Play it the way you have the most fun!
These keys aren't complicated, but they'll work. They've been working for the Euros for nearly two decades now. Don't you think it's time we tried them?

6 comments:

  1. Clearly, you are not paying attention - the world's foremost expert on winning in the Ryder Cup would excuse your thoughts on two levels.

    First of all - you said that the pod system is incomplete. Which leads to the second point - how dare you not genuflect to Paul Azinger just on general principal ? :-D

    Like any other theory on winning in team match play, nothing can be written in stone. (or Rolling Stone - depending on which side of the team equation you're on)

    Tiger and Phil didn't work because Phil kept putting Tiger in too many impossible positions. Phil just isn't a very good team player OR match player, unless you just happen to catch him on a day when he isn't missing anything.

    Phil and DJ didn't work because they are polar opposites mentally and both can be too wild.

    What do you do with Tiger and Stricker ? Until Monday, Stricker was both rock star and roadie. He carried Woods most of the week.

    I remember that comment from Miller. Having two birdie putts is a great way to take the pressure off of each other. But I don't understand your idea on avoiding big numbers. In match play, it doesn't matter if you put up a 50 on a hole to the other guy's eagle - it's just one hole.

    What the heck - you have my vote for RC captain in 2012 ! :-D

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  2. Well, this is unusual, Court... for the most part, you agree with me. ;-)

    Just to compare my positions with yours...

    Paragraphs 1 & 2 -- the smiley face is an agreement, right?

    Paragraph 3 -- "...the Euros are organic. They use what works, and what works varies from day to day, so they just go with it."

    Paragraphs 4 & 5 -- "As a general rule, two rockstars don't score well because they get in too much trouble, and two roadies tend to shoot too many par rounds. Neither tends to win a lot of matches... it's a rockstar problem: Is either of them is going to lay up just because the other is in trouble? Forget it!"

    Paragraph 6 -- "There's also a third category of player that I nicknamed the 'super-roadie,' a player good enough to play the rockstar role and push the scoring but also capable of taming his ego and playing roadie to a rockstar... If you ask me, you can trace much of the recent US success solely to the rise of Steve Stricker, who may be the first real super-roadie we've ever had."

    Now, to answer your question...

    Paragraph 7 -- It's true that it doesn't matter how big your score is when you lose the hole; losing with a quad is just as bad as losing with a bogey... which means bogey is a big number. The problem is that the other team rarely loses holes to our bogeys because they DON'T make big numbers. We've got some of the best players in the world; when we've got two players each playing their own ball, we shouldn't be losing holes when the Euros make par.

    Paragraph 8 -- And I really appreciate the vote, but I'm planning to make the next Ryder Cup team, so I'll be unavailable for the captaincy... ;-D

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  3. ok - PLAYING Captain. It's about time we revived the Nicklaus legacy !

    lol - if you're as much of an anti-Azinger as me, we're in agreement. (lol)

    I'm still in the camp that gives the Euros an advantage in match play because they grow up playing it more than the Americans. There are so many subtlties (not to mention the mind games) to match play (especially team match play) that our guys are behind the 8-ball unless they are just playing great golf.

    I just get the feeling that the Euros enjoy playing together more than our guys.

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  4. I agree -- the Euros do have a match play advantage. (I guess that puts them 1-up on us. ;-)

    But it's part of our culture. Good match play demands lay-ups as part of the game... but I can think of several times this year when players got skewered for being "gutless" when they laid up. We Americans are bred with the belief that unless you "go for it," you aren't trying... and we carry it over into match play.

    That's as erroneous as the media's belief that our team "doesn't care" unless they bawl like six-year-olds after mommy said "no." ;-)

    (And before anybody takes it that way, that's not a dig at Hunter Mahan. I honestly don't know how he held up under all that pressure -- he impressed the hell out of me -- and the media still wasn't satisfied. Jim Furyk was a lot kinder to them than I would have been.)

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  5. Speaking of that 17th hole green on Monday, did you hear Graeme McDowell's interview at the Dunhill Cup yesterday ? Apparently his caddy got a nasty cut on his head thanks to a cameraman wacking him in the head with his camera. They should have a little more sense than to take something like that into a scrum.

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  6. I missed that... but after all those Jaegerbombs, how can he even remember it? ;-)

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