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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Ryder Cup Lessons, Part 1

Everybody's looking for answers about the Ryder Cup -- some to explain the "Meltdown at Medinah," some to explain the "Miracle at Medinah." The two are interrelated, of course, and perhaps overblown. Did the US Team really have a meltdown? Seems to me that they played pretty well overall. Did the Euro Team really create a miracle? While it may not have happened on foreign soil before, such a large comeback has been seen before. How much of the discussion is hype and how much is fact?

I'm going to take a few posts to look at this absolutely amazing Ryder Cup from several different angles. I want to see the larger picture -- what can we learn from this one? Are there really clear mistakes (or strokes of genius) that were made? How many of those were mental rather than physical? Is it possible that goals were set and accomplished that didn't give the results everyone expected? What can weekend players learn that might help them play better?

Today I'd just like to comment on some of the more debated issues surrounding this Cup.

The Non-Concession

There's been a lot made of Francesco Molinari not conceding the final match to Tiger after it became obvious that it didn't matter. It came out in the pressers that Francesco wanted to concede but was told by his Captain that it did matter, that a tie was not as good as a win, so he did what his Captain said. As a result José María has gotten some criticism for being unsportsmanlike, perhaps even using this Cup to get revenge for 1999 and the American outburst that may have affected his opportunity to match Justin Leonard's putt.

I think something else has been overlooked here. For all the talk about the "ghost of Seve" at this Cup, the fact remains that José María and Seve were extremely close, that this was the first Ryder Cup since Seve's death, and that José María was clearly driven by a desire to remember Seve in these matches. No one could miss the frequent emotional expressions José María had at various points in the matches, nor the silhouettes of Seve on the Euro Team's bags.

We don't know whether Seve would have conceded the match or not, but I think it's safe to say that José María didn't think he would. At the very least, I think he wanted the first Ryder Cup after Seve's passing to be an outright win. I suspect that had more to do with José María's decision not to concede than anything else... and I for one am unwilling to kick the man for wanting to honor his friend.

The Unplayed Pairing

This one has probably caused the most debate among the commentators: Should DL3 have played the Mickelson/Bradley pairing in the fourth team session? You may recall that I said (before the third session) he should if the pair was hot Saturday morning, a feeling shared by most people. The argument being made since then is that an 11-5 lead is insurmountable while a 10-6 lead isn't. (That's ironic, given that before 1999 most would argue that the 10-6 lead was insurmountable!)

"What if" games are dangerous, however. Let me point out some flaws in the thinking.

First of all, had DL3 chosen to play his hot team, there is no certainty that the teams would have gone out in the same order. Even if they had, we can't be sure that the results for the other teams would have been the same because we're changing the chemistry on the course.

Some have argued that Keegan still wanted to play (I'll agree with that) and that the move would have been to send him out with Tiger. There are two flaws with that suggestion:
  1. There was no reason to break up Tiger and Stricks at that point. They had played badly in foursomes so DL3 sat them Saturday morning, but they had played well in the Friday fourballs. Let's not forget that they played against Colsaerts on Friday, and no pairing on the American team could have beaten his 8 birdie/1 eagle performance. The Stricker/Woods pairing posted birdies on 9 holes themselves in that Friday fourball and, given their past success as a pairing, there was absolutely no reason to believe they wouldn't do the same Saturday. DL3 would have simply considered them fourball specialists in this Cup.
  2. Keegan played well because he was playing with his idol, who also indulged in Keegan's over-the-top emotional play. Tiger has always played with the quieter players and would not have encouraged the outbursts as Phil did. It's worth noting that Keegan was much less demonstrative in his singles loss, and even Nick Faldo noted that Keegan was unusual because the more you ramped him up, the better he played. That dynamic would have been gone from a Tiger/Keegan pairing.
But I think the biggest argument against Mickelson/Bradley making a difference is dreadfully obvious: Mickelson/Bradley was at its best in foursomes. They won their Friday fourball 2&1, the least impressive of their wins, against Rory (who played much better Saturday) and McDowell, who was almost nonexistent Friday. The match ended at 17, with McIlroy/McDowell only 3under on their last 5 holes... and that was their best stretch during the entire match. Yet Phil and Keegan actually lost ground there, going from 4up to 2up. Against the much hotter McIlroy/Poulter on Saturday, there's no guarantee that they would have won.

Has no one noticed that the ZJohnson/Dufner team -- the one that replaced Mickelson/Bradley -- were undefeated going into the fourth session? They were 2up going into 13, where Rory made birdie to cut their lead in half. Has no one noticed that Zach and Jason were 3-under in their last 5 holes? Ian Poulter, as we all know by now, was 5-under on that same stretch. ZJohnson/Dufner lost 1down, a very narrow margin against a team that got hot at the last minute.

My point? I'm not at all sure that playing Mickelson/Bradley would have made a difference on Saturday night. Anybody who tells you otherwise is using faulty reasoning.

The European "Advantage"

My last thought (for today, anyway) has to do with this belief that the Euros have figured something out that the US hasn't, that there's something substantially different between the two teams. Although that something is generally thought to be organizational (the Euros are more devoted to each other and we can overcome that with pods, for example), I'm hearing more and more people attribute it to... well, magic. There's no other way to describe it.

I think you can argue that the US has spent years trying to duplicate the way the Euros play... and this time, they succeeded. They created a team where the players are passionate about the Cup and each other. Most of them were in reasonable form, and the pieces were largely interchangeable. (You'll always have a few players who need a certain kind of teammate, but that's to be expected. We're individuals, not mass-produced cookies.) And in the end, they played the way the Euro team usually plays -- they dominated the team matches and got beaten in the singles. The Euros generally win the Cup when they can manage any margin of victory in the singles, while the US tends to need a huge singles victory to win.

As I told a friend, the US finally succeeded in copying the Euro model. Unfortunately, this time they chose the 1999 Euro model!

I'll look at why the team matches have generally made the difference tomorrow -- and why the singles were so lopsided in 1999 and 2012 probably the day after -- but we need to get rid of this superstitious attitude that seems to have developed around the Ryder Cup. The Euros don't "want it more," the US isn't "too individualistic," the Euros don't have a "secret," and the US isn't "mentally fragile." It's not about pods or course setup or even how the teams are actually chosen, although such things can certainly help. It's not even about stats and rankings and who looks best on paper. And regardless of how one-sided it may sound when commentators spout their figures, the Euro team has only claimed the Cup two more times than the US in the more than 30 years since continental Europe joined the fray.

In the end, the Ryder Cup is about strategy. That strategy changes from Cup to Cup, and in this one it was all about the emotions of one man and how his team feels about him. It was the same way in 1999. I should point out that it's hard to plan for such things since one side can rarely anticipate it. When Ben Crenshaw made that angry, out-of-character challenge to the media in 1999, there was no way for the Euros to anticipate it. Likewise, the US hardly expected Seve's memory to have such a dramatic effect over a year after his death.

Strategy, whether we recognize it or not, always involves emotions. If the strategy rallies the troops to believe -- and manages to knock your opponents back on their heels -- then it's an effective one for this match and it probably won't work next time.

The Euro's big advantage -- at least as I see it -- is the willingness to go in without a planned strategy and then just "go with the flow." The US looks for a pod or a qualifying system or something else that they can predict, then ruthlessly execute that plan without variation.

Creativity and flexibility are the keys to winning a Ryder Cup -- a lack of planning, if you please. The problem isn't that the US makes too many plans, it's their refusal to scrap them if new opportunities arise. The US has had some great captains -- and I think DL3 did a great job -- but there's only one man who can turn the US fortunes in 2014...

MacGyver.

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