Every two years, 24 of the best golfers on the planet get together for a friendly little golf exhibition between America and Europe. Well, yes and no. It may have started off that way back in 1927 when the first official Ryder Cup was played at Worcester Country Club in Massachusetts between a team from America and a team from Great Britain.
But now, more than 90 years later the Ryder Cup has evolved into a massive golf event between America and the whole continent of Europe, watched on TV by millions of both golf fans and sports fan in general around the world, and becoming more hotly contested with each one.
The Cup, once dominated by the United States, took a competitive turn in 1979 when it was decided to include golfers from all of Europe, as opposed to just Great Britain and Ireland. Since then, the Europeans hold a slight edge, winning ten Cups to the Americans eight.
But since 1995, Europe has dominated the matches, winning eight out of 11. After the U.S. was thoroughly shellacked at Gleneagles in 2014, things came to a boiling point. Capping off years of frustration, Phil Mickelson could no longer hold his tongue and infamously called out Captain Tom Watson at the post-tournament press conference for what Phil saw as failures in leadership.
Uncomfortableness and controversy ensued when Mickelson said that players had no say in any decisions that were made throughout the week, effectively throwing Watson under the bus for the team’s loss.
The remedy? A much talked about, and by those on the European side, scoffed and laughed at American Ryder Cup task force. With help from players like Mickelson, Tiger Woods, and Rickie Fowler, a new, long-term game plan was formulated and introduced at Hazeltine in 2016, where the reinvigorated Americans dominated a young European team and cruised to a 17 – 11 victory.
So what can we expect now, as the matches return to European soil at Le Golf National in Paris? The U.S. team is the prohibitive favorite according to most, and as well they should be, with nine players in the top 15 of the Official World Golf Ranking to the Euros’ five. Americans won three out of four majors this season. They have three of the top four players in the OWGR. And they have Tiger Woods!
Why not just give the trophy to the Americans and call it good? Home field advantage. That’s why.
You have to go back all the way to 1993 to find the last time an American team won on European soil. Interestingly, Tom Watson captained that team at The Belfry in England, where the Americans won 15 – 13.
This victory, in essence, lead to the pick of Watson as captain for the 2014 team with the hope that he could recreate that same magic from 1993. However, it was not to be, and since ’93, it’s been all Euros, winning five straight at home.
The question is why, and the answer has a lot to do with course setup. Typically, American teams like a big, wide ballpark with big fairways, short rough, and large, fast greens like those they see on the PGA Tour week-in and week out.
Meanwhile, Euros, known for their precision ball-striking, prefer narrow fairways that are more difficult to hit in order to help negate the Americans’ distance advantage. Euros are also used to putting on slower greens on the European Tour.
They don’t call it home-field advantage for anything. The host team and its representatives get to dictate how the course is set up for the week, and there’s no doubt Captain Bjorn will have tight fairways and slower greens at Le Golf National.
And speaking of Le Golf National, it’s been a regular stop (Open de France) on the European Tour for over 25 years, so European players know the course well and have seen it many times, including the winners of the 2017 and 2018 Open de France and European Ryder Cup rookies, Tommy Fleetwood and Alex Noren. In fact, seven of the European players participated in this season’s Open de France back in June, while only one American (Justin Thomas) did. So for most of the American players, they’ve never played the course and will have limited prep time to get to know the sightlines, green contours, and ins and outs of the course.
Then there’s the Loop of Doom, an ominous moniker if ever there was one. It comprises the final four-hole stretch at Le Golf National, and water most definitely comes into play on three of the four holes. All played over par during this season’s French Open.
U.S. Captain Jim Furyk thinks this tough stretch of holes should set up some excitement and drama as the matches finish up here. And those that reach the 18th hole will find the most difficult hole on the course, a brutish par-4 converted from a par-5. It plays to roughly 471 yards, with water all down the left fairway and on three sides of the green. Miss the fairway and the potentially severe rough likely means a layup. Birdies aren’t out of the question, but par will be a great score and could likely be the difference between winning and losing.
For many, this biennial tradition is the most exciting week in golf. And for the first time ever, all ten of the top ten players in the world will compete on this grand stage. Grandstands surrounding the first tee – where players say they’re the most nervous they’ve ever been on a golf course – will accommodate some 6,500 spectators, almost four times as many as Hazeltine in 2016.
Come Friday morning, the atmosphere promises to be electric. The American team is one of the most talented in history, but with home course advantage, key leadership back on the Euro team in the form of Ian Poulter, and rivalry rematches like Rory vs Reed, this Ryder Cup is poised to be one for the history books.