There’s no USA in ‘team’ — or at least there hasn’t been during foursomes at previous Ryder Cups

·7 min read

HAVEN, Wisconsin — Experience, chemistry, nerves, pressure — all nouns of much renown in nearly every run-up to a Ryder Cup. Who has it, or doesn’t? Who feels it, who is immune? And, invariably, does it matter?

Depends on who is being asked, of course.

Since the inception of the event in 1927, the United States has claimed the cup 26 times. But since the rival squad expanded from just Great Britain to the whole of Europe in 1979, the Europeans have won 11 Ryder Cups — and an impressive nine of the past 12 tournaments.

But those nouns can become adjectives when attached to European players in this event, and especially in one of the more unique formats over the three days: Foursomes.

The format, also known as alternate shot, means the two-man teams will play one ball, alternately hitting shots until they hole out. The pair with the lowest score wins the hole, with the same score resulting in a halved point.

Casual fans might remember the 2004 Ryder Cup when U.S. Captain Hal Sutton paired Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson together — and not just because at the time the duo had a seemingly frosty relationship. In that era, the pairs had to play the same make and model of ball throughout the round and that detail (along with how short of notice Sutton gave them to prepare) helped ruin the experiment.

But in 2006, the issue of the ball was somewhat alleviated, as that rule was changed so the ball could be switched upon every tee box.

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Generally, if the pair playing together doesn’t already use the same ball, the two will pick the ball of the player who is likely hitting the approach into the green. The emphasis on ball selection is comfort with distance control.

But it’s also a format that isn’t typically played stateside, and the European players are more familiar with it.

“I was brought up playing foursomes. Played it a lot in amateur golf, many in my team have. It’s not really alien to us,” European captain Pádraig Harrington said. “It’s certainly somewhere that I don’t think — because it’s not so alien to us, we don’t read that much into it. I think sometimes when people haven’t played it, they can over-complicate it. But as I said, I was brought up playing it. It’s made at our golf clubs at home, not just in championships. It’s a very common game, and really don’t read into it any more than there should be. I think sometimes you guys, again, might look at it, and try; it’s just two guys playing a golf ball around the place. It’s not that difficult when you’re brought up playing it.”

Yes, it is just two guys playing a golf ball around the course, but for whatever reason, it’s a style of play that has more often than not helped the Europeans stack points heading into Sunday’s singles matches.

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Ryder Cup: Putters used by the American team at Whistling Straits

Jordan Spieth's Scotty Cameron putter
Jordan Spieth's Scotty Cameron putter

“I think we always tend to try to look for guys with similar game styles or game styles that would complement the other player,” U.S. captain Steve Stricker said. “Good putting always is a big key I think in alternate-shot or in foursomes. You look for the guys who embrace that. That’s the important part is some guys are a little bit — they don’t care for that style of play. Other guys want to play it. It depends on the player and it’s up to us or our job to try to figure out those guys and try to pair the games together that make the most sense.”

An illustration of how difficult the last 30 years or so have been for the Americans in that format is that the all-time U.S. points leaders in foursome play are Lanny Wadkins, Arnold Palmer and Billy Casper with nine apiece. Jack Nicklaus had eight and Tom Kite had 7.5.

Kite was the last one of that group to win on the PGA Tour — in 1993.

The Europeans, by contrast, have four players with 10 victories in the format in Bernhard Langer (11-6-1), Seve Ballesteros (10-3-1), Nick Faldo (10-6-2) and Sergio García (10-4-3), who is playing this week. Teammate Lee Westwood (9-5-4) could join the double-digit win club this week as well.

They are followed by Tony Jacklin (8-1-4), Colin Montgomerie (8-3-3) and José María Olazábal (7-2-1) as players who would pepper the all-time U.S. leaderboard, and of those players, only Jacklin wrapped his Ryder Cup career before the 1979 expansion of the team.

Rory McIlroy (5-4-1), Ian Poulter (4-4-1), Tommy Fleetwood (2-0) and Paul Casey (1-1) have all experienced success in the format.

“A lot of it goes down to if you play well, then you’re a good team, and that’s all you can really do,” Fleetwood said. “I think, again, Europe is so lucky with the personalities that we have and how well we gel together and everything. We’ve always come out of it really, really good.”

As for the rest of the European team, Matthew Fitzpatrick went 0-1 in the format in 2016 while current world No. 1 Jon Rahm and Tyrrell Hatton didn’t play in the format in 2018. Benrd Wiesberger, Shane Lowry and Viktor Hovland are Ryder Cup rookies.

On the U.S. side, Jordan Spieth is the most successful of the group with a 2-1 record. Dustin Johnson (1-3), Brooks Koepka (1-1), Justin Thomas (1-1) and Bryson DeChambeau (0-2) have experience in it while Tony Finau didn’t play in the format in 2018.

Stricker’s team has six Ryder Cup rookies, though Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele were a winning combination at the 2019 Presidents Cup.

“I’ve played foursomes,” U.S. rookie Scottie Scheffler said. “I played it in junior golf on Wyndham Cup teams. I played in four or five of those. I always loved alternate-shot. Played it in the Walker Cup, and then we played a bit of it last week, and I’m sure I’m going to play a little bit more of it this week. That’s another thing that they’re using heavy statistics on is who pairs well and what format, and so I like the format.”

Another example of the European dominance in the format is the fact that through the first two days of player media availability, only the American players were asked about the format — if a European player mentioned it, it was only as part of a general answer about pairings.

Stricker, of course, wouldn’t tip his hand as to who would play together and when but until the U.S. team can find consistent success, it will continue to be a question as to how they can fit together in the truest team format in the tournament.

It is perhaps one of the most important tasks Stricker faces this week as captain.

“Foursomes, I think, it’s pretty important to put two personalities together, two friends together, two guys that get along, maybe their games complement each other,” Justin Thomas said. “For me at least what I’ve noticed is I’ve been fortunate to play — my record is obviously good in team events, but you look at my partners in Jordan (Spieth), Rickie (Fowler) and Tiger (Woods), I’ve been very fortunate to have some really good partners, and that’s like the No. 1 rule that caddies will tell you of having a good caddie career is have a good player. It’s just one of those things.

“We have such a deep, good team that it’s not like anybody is a weak link on our team, and it’s just about getting the energy similar I would say, and two guys that want to play together, two guys that want to go to battle out there for each other, that would take a bullet for each other, and I think we have a team room that’s full of that. I think that’s what makes it exciting for these pairings because there’s so many options.”