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HAVEN, Wisconsin – To Graeme McDowell, the difference between the team chemistry of Europe and America can best be summarized in the team room.
“The American side has a couple of ping-pong tables and they love to play that at night and that’s how they do it. In the European team room, we just have a bar,” McDowell said. “People always laugh and think I’m joking but there were several years where that was the truth. We just hung out and had a drink and intimate conversation and jokes and having fun and messing around and creating the vibe and the culture that way.”
It’s that camaraderie, that belief in themselves that many believe has been critical to Team Europe winning nine of the last 12 Ryder Cups despite typically being the underdog. As Rory McIlroy noted, “this tournament isn’t played on paper, it’s played on grass.”
“We play for each other,” McIlroy said. “I think that’s the best thing that you can do. You play for the guys that are beside you. You play for everyone that’s helping our team try to win this week. You’re obviously playing for your country and your continent and I guess your tour in some way, as well. But most of all, we play for each other.”
Meanwhile, the American side’s version of “playing for each other,” is agreeing to put their various feuds amongst themselves on hold for this week. Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau staged an interaction showing they can get along on the range, while DeChambeau alluded to “something fun coming up,” between them – could it be a trust fall in Lake Michigan?
Then there’s Koepka who in an interview with Golf Digest made it sound as if playing in the Ryder Cup was a giant inconvenience. NBC’s Paul Azinger, who captained America’s winning side in 2008, suggested Koepka should surrender his spot if he truly felt that way. Ian Woosnam, who captained the victorious European side in 2006, went even further speaking at Ilkley Golf Club last week ahead of a Legends Tour event.
“The article Koepka has just done, that’s not nice for his team. It’s not good,” Woosnam said. “He basically said, ‘I could do without this, it’s getting me out of my routine doing this.’ Christ almighty, get a life!”
In contrast, the Ryder Cup takes on a feeling of life and death for Ian Poulter, Sergio Garcia and those who represent Team Europe. Theories abound for why, and European Ryder Cup captain Padraig Harrington offered his own when asked to explain why that is.
“The Ryder Cup is our way of asserting Europe’s position in world golf, the European Tour’s position,” he said. “It’s just something that we want to do, we’re keen to do.
“A lot of the guys on my team, a lot of the Europeans, they seem to want to be team players. Shane Lowry thought he was going to be a Gaelic football player; Sergio thought he was going to be a soccer player. So a lot of them have that team background that they nearly crave more so than the golf.”
To hear Harrington tell it, the sense of brotherhood and team unity that seems to materialize every time the Ryder Cup takes place for the 12-man Euro side already has taken form.
“The atmosphere is exactly where you would want it,” he said. “Literally, I don’t want to mess it up from here.”
But is this an oversimplification of a complex issue? Davis Love III, who captained the U.S. side in 2012 and 2016 and is a vice captain this time, said it’s an easy way out to say the U.S. team doesn’t get along as well or they are just a collection of prima donnas.
“There’s no chance the Euros want it more,” he said. “I ran into Collin Morikawa at a hotel during the Tour Championship and he stopped me and said, ‘I’m so excited I can’t stand it.’ Here’s a guy who has had an unbelievable run, young kid who has won majors and a ton of money, I’ve never seen him show that much emotion.
“Brooks Koepka in 2018 on Sunday afternoon at Le Golf National, grabbed me by the shoulders and said, ‘I don’t know what to do. I’ve never lost one of these.’ He was crushed. The passion these guys have for it is incredible. I don’t think the passion we have is more than Europe. They rise to the occasion. They come together as a team. I love what they do. I think it’s equal. It’s going to come down to as Darren Clarke always says, Who has the run of the greens? They couldn’t love it more than us and I don’t think we can love it more than them.”
If McDowell’s explanation of the difference in the two team rooms is the perfect analogy for Europe’s perceived strength in the team chemistry department, his theory for why the Ryder Cup may be a little more special to the Euros also is worth considering.
“When I look at that core group of Americans through the 2000s, they were the best players in the world and we managed to beat them more often than not. Only explanation I can come up with is that every year they are playing team events and eventually, it doesn’t wear you down but it becomes less special. Whereas we wait two years and put the Ryder Cup on a pedestal and give our absolute 110 percent,” McDowell mused. “Does it mean a little bit more to us? Yeah, I think just by definition of kind of the way we approach it and the fact that we don’t have Presidents Cup makes a huge difference. Because we’ve been dominant for the last couple of decades I think the intensity from the American point of view is starting to crank up a little bit. I feel a little shift, so it will be very interesting to see what happens this year in Wisconsin.”
That it will. Can U.S. Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker get his 12-man side to play for each other the way the Euros typically do? That is one of the questions of the week at Whistling Straits.