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Thursday, September 16, 2021

Ryder Cup Musings: Myths We Believe

The media is going nuts with all the storylines, wondering if Team USA can get their act together to defeat Team Europe. There's a lot of debate over what really determines why one team dominates another. Is there really one answer? Can the questions be answered at all.?

As we head toward the Ryder Cup I've decided to take a stab at finding some answers, although I won't promise a surefire method for producing a Terminator. But I think there are some valid observations to be made, some things we can say are important contributors to the current situation.

Some things that might be self-evident if we could just get out of our own way.

Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits

Currently I intend to write three posts I'm calling "Ryder Cup Musings." Today I'd like to look at what I'm simply calling MYTHS. These are things that everybody accepts as true, even though they might not hold up under closer investigation. And for obvious reasons -- I'm American, after all -- I'm focusing on four myths WE believe.

1) It's all about team bonding and chemistry.

I've ranted about this one before, but it needs to be reiterated simply because I don't think Team Europe believes it either. They will use the terms bonding and chemistry occasionally, but most of the time they just talk about matching one player's game to another's. Whether players get along personally or not isn't really an issue; if you're a team player, you deal with it, put the team first and do your job.

In fact, you may have heard Sergio speaking on GC earlier this week about his rocky relationship with Padraig Harrington, a relationship he says is much better these days but that never affected their ability to play together effectively. They respected each other's games and, when they arrived at the Ryder Cup, it was all about doing what was best for the team.

Is it any surprise that Sergio was Padraig's first Captain's Pick... or that we've known that he would be for months?

In any case, bonding and chemistry aren't a problem for Team USA. I actually worry that this belief in the importance of bonding is HURTING our ability to put a winning team together! I'm afraid our obsession with making sure players are 'comfortable' in their pairings may be creating an 'old boys network' where Captain's Picks are made based on existing friendships rather than actually picking the best players at the time of the Ryder Cup and simply putting together effective teams.

I also feel the need to add one very obvious fact -- namely, that team dynamics have nothing to do with qualifying for the team. You qualify on your own merits in events that measure your individual performance. Presumably, if you are a normal human being, you don't suddenly lose your abilities just because you're suddenly on a team. And given that these same players seem to perform just fine at the Presidents Cup, teamed with the same people, it would appear to be a moot point.

But that does bring up our second myth...

2) Our ranking systems enable us to pick the best players.

Last time I checked, our players qualify for the Ryder Cup by earning points at the Tour's weekly events. Do I need to point out that those events are 72-hole events based on individual stroke play performance? I'll come back to this point in a later post but since the Ryder Cup focuses on 18-hole (more or less) rounds of match play -- sometimes individually, sometimes in pairs -- choosing players based on the former will always result in teams that look better "on paper" than on the course.

A further problem comes from the course setups themselves. It's no big secret that American courses are set up differently than European courses. American courses lend themselves to 'bomb and gouge.' European courses run the gamut from links courses to tracks that -- and I mean no disrespect to those courses, but you've all heard this complaint from American players -- are somewhat 'ragged' and require more trouble shots than a 'well-groomed' American course. It means that American golf and European golf have some dramatic differences in what kind of 'good play' is required.

And the OWGR itself caters to this prejudice. Because the PGA Tour plays mostly on American courses, their players tend to excel at this kind of golf; and because everybody wants to play the PGA Tour because of the purses, the points awarded for good play on those courses are higher than the points awarded on European courses. That means Team USA's choices are best suited to play US courses. While Team USA's record in the Ryder Cup isn't all that great over the last couple of decades -- they're 3-7 since 1999 -- it's no surprise that those three wins came on American courses.

Ironically, the qualification process for Team Europe may explain part of their winning ways over the last two decades. While Team USA's points basically come from playing US courses, Team Europe uses TWO points lists -- one based in the Race to Dubai points list, which are gained playing on European courses, and one based on the OWGR, which are gained mostly from play on US courses.

So Team USA gets players who excel primarily on US courses while Team Europe gets some players who excel on US courses and some who excel on European courses -- which gives them players with a wider range of skills. And since Team USA's Captain's Picks tend to be players who also scored high on the points system (which translates to 'played well on US courses')... well, you can see a problem, can't you? 

3) Science is the key to creating a winning team.

I'm not just talking about stats here, although that can certainly cause some problems. I'm talking about personality profiles, equipment set up to maximize length at the expense of control, an overemphasis on technique and other similar approaches. I'm not saying all these things are bad -- for example, we desperately needed a system for training future captains and that change has been a good one. But that doesn't mean every system should be seized as a miracle-producing revelation.

Let me focus on one such system that truly perplexes me: pods. The concept is good; as I said earlier, Team Europe tries to match player's games for the best results. But pods don't really do that; rather, they try to match player mindsets... and that isn't the same thing.

Team Europe's pairings constantly catch observers and analysts off-guard. Players (like Sergio and Padraig, who clearly don't approach the game the same way) pair up and get points, based on little more than the Captain's assessment that their skills and current form complement each other. That is beyond what a pod can do.

Allow me to point out this interesting fact: Only THREE American captains have been successful with the pod system -- Paul Azinger, who originated the idea; Davis Love III, who won with it on his second captaincy; and Julie Inkster, the only captain to have won twice (once domestic, once away) with the system. I tend to think that this has less to do with the pod system and more to do with the captains.

  • Paul Azinger came up with the system but I think it has more to do with how he managed his players. His players still look back on what he did with awe.
  • Davis Love III's first team entered the 2012 Sunday singles leading 10-6... and then proceeded to throw away that lead, losing 8.5-3.5 on the final day and losing the Ryder Cup by a single point. They came back the second time determined to make it up to Davis. If you think a pod can create determination, I think you're deluding yourself.
  • And Julie Inkster is simply a Solheim Cup legend on the LPGA. Her teams won two Solheim Cups in a row... but even a pod couldn't make it a threepeat. And I feel that I should point this out -- the LPGA plays all over the world and thus their qualification system automatically looks more like Team Europe's two-points-list system. She simply took excellent teams and -- like Azinger, Love and all good captains -- led them.

In short, belief in your captain has more to do with victory than any science they may decide to employ.

4) Course setup doesn't really affect the strategy of good players.

I realize I'll get some blowback over this one, but I think you can simply rewatch the Paris Ryder Cup and see this at work. Despite the course being set up with fairly narrow fairways and very high rough to minimize the 'bomb and gouge' strength of Team USA, how many balls did you see hit long and deep into the rough?

The simple fact is that Team USA believes that 'might is right' and that they are good enough to overpower any course regardless of setup. I'm sure they would deny this, but it's clear this belief is the most basic requirement for getting a Captain's Pick. The argument is that length is always an advantage and I won't argue that. But I would amend that statement to read "length used wisely is always an advantage" and I don't see that in US play at all. And now that Bryson has won a major and WGC on courses where judicious use of length appeared to be the key, I doubt that we'll see much restraint at all by Team USA.

But we're playing a US course this time, so maybe it will work. This time. I'll return to this myth in the later posts as well.

So take this post as a rant, if you wish. I'm not saying that I have the key to success for Team USA; rather, I'm simply saying that you can't expect consistently good results if you aren't beginning from a sound base. And these myths simply aren't sound.

Yes, you'll want to see more than just a rant. You'll want to see what kind of info I'm basing my ideas on. I'll do that in the next two posts in this series.

I think you'll find them to be thought-provoking. I know they were for me.

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