Max Homa steadied himself as he stood over the seven-foot putt on the 18th hole at Marco Simone Golf Club. This was a moment he’d dreamed of all his life, a moment he’d prepared for over the last few months by watching old Ryder Cup videos on YouTube. This was the opportunity of a lifetime, thousands of miles from home.
If he missed this putt, Europe would win the Ryder Cup. (They would eventually win it anyway, but you never want it to come as a result of your failure.) But the putt rolled true:
— Ryder Cup USA (@RyderCupUSA) October 1, 2023
Afterward, as he embraced his caddie Joe Greiner, Homa laughed through the nerves. “Did you see my legs shaking?” he asked. Whether they did or not, he made the putt ... which is a whole lot more than most of his team could say.
Homa was, by a wide margin, the most successful American player at the 2023 Ryder Cup. The only American to play in all five sessions, he compiled a record of 3-1-1. More than that, he was one of the few American players to show the kind of heart and fire the Ryder Cup demands.
— Ryder Cup USA (@RyderCupUSA) September 30, 2023
After every Ryder Cup, the hot takes fly like driving range balls, sailing in all directions, with varying degrees of competence and relevance. The winning captain is always a strategic genius, the losing captain a bumbling moron who needs to be told which end of a tee to put in the ground. The U.S. lost Sunday, 16½ to 11½, but you could make a case that the Americans lost the Cup Friday morning, or when they boarded the plane to travel to Rome, or even when the glow of their victory at Whistling Straits in 2021 wore off.
One of the keys to Europe’s victory: the performance of Luke Donald’s captain’s picks, who put 9½ points on the board to the United States’ 6. Flip those 3½ points, and you have a U.S. victory. Beyond that, Donald’s decision to start both sessions with foursomes — at which Europe excels, and which Europe won by a decisive combined score of 7 to 1. Again, if the United States had flipped even three of those seven Europe wins, or gotten halves in five of them, we’d be having a whole different conversation today.
America didn’t reach any reasonable combination of those achievable goals, not this year and not in 2018, just like Europe didn’t in 2021 or 2016, and it’s worth asking why. What makes the home team such an overwhelming favorite in these Ryder Cups, and is there any hope for that changing in the near future?
The home team gets the right to set up the course the way it wants to, of course, and that provides a significant strategic advantage. So, too, does the home captain’s ability to choose the order of sessions. Both give the home team small edges that add up to large advantages.
But the course setup didn’t help the Europeans chip in from off the green, again and again. The order of play didn’t force Americans to miss makeable putts. The difference is the effect of the crowd, and specifically, the crowd at a team event.
At a major, with rare exception — the 2023 Open Championship, for instance — the gallery isn’t rooting against a specific player. There are preferences, sure — everyone wants Rory McIlroy to win another one of the damn things — but galleries at the Masters and the U.S. Open aren’t actively cheering when a player misses a putt or sends a drive into waist-high rough.
But at the Ryder Cup, the galleries are intensely partisan and intensely personal. Some, like Justin Thomas, feed on that antipathy. Others, who have spent their entire sporting lives getting only cheers, can’t handle it. (Worth noting: Brian Harman, who was the subject of so much abuse at the 2023 Open, recorded the second-highest U.S. point total. He’s one of the few American players who, in college football terms, got that dawg in him.)
Plus, team events do a real psychological number on players’ heads. When you miss a putt in a major, you’re only letting down yourself. When you miss a putt in a Ryder Cup, you’re letting down your entire country, your entire continent. That’s a whole different level of despondency. Again, for some, failing their teammates is psychologically devastating; for others, usually on the American side, it’s just a frustrating stopover between stroke-play tournaments.
Scottie Scheffler, for one, clearly gets it. He was an absolute wreck on Saturday after getting his brakes beat off by a European duo that has won as many majors as you have. The image of Scheffler, head in hands, weeping as he left the scene in a golf cart, is one of the enduring images of this Ryder Cup, for all the right reasons:
"Anybody who thinks the Americans don't care about this, you're seeing it right here..." 🇺🇲😞 pic.twitter.com/AOduU7cLmR
— Sky Sports Golf (@SkySportsGolf) September 30, 2023
So how do the players get through this? By leaning on each other, if they can. Another of the hot-take cliches about the Ryder Cup is that Europeans are better because they want it more. Like most cliches, it has its roots in truth. Unlike the United States, which tends to employ a blow-it-up-and-start-over approach after every loss, Europe’s Ryder Cup teams are built on a continuum that stretches from 2023 Ludvig Åberg, so young he hasn’t even played in a major yet, all the way back to legends like Seve Ballesteros and Tony Jacklin.
American eyes may roll at the continual and constant invocation of Ballesteros, but his name clearly means something to the Europeans that Americans simply can’t comprehend. Watch this video, and tell me you’re not ready to run through a wall for Europe:
— Ryder Cup Europe (@RyderCupEurope) October 2, 2018
Yeah, playing “Welcome to the Jungle” as you drive up to the course doesn’t quite compare with that.
Unless and until the United States buys into the entire all-for-one, one-for-all ethos of the Ryder Cup; unless and until Americans can sacrifice their individuality for the greater good, not the greater paycheck; unless and until our players can show the joy, heart and selfless dedication of their players … well, we’ll get some wins, but we’ll never truly achieve Europe’s level of victory.
In the boozy afterglow of Sunday’s triumph, McIlroy was asked about 2025, and how the Europeans will fare in America after having lost, badly, in recent years. His answer is worth noting.
“One of the biggest accomplishments in golf right now is winning an away Ryder Cup,” McIlroy said, “and that's what we're going to do at Bethpage.” No “hope to.” No “goals.” Nothing less than a definitive statement of intention and expectation.
Take him seriously, America. Because it’s a whole lot easier to face down an enemy army when you know your mates have got your back.