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The Pre–Ryder Cup Vibe Check

Can Team USA overcome its interpersonal obstacles to regain the Cup? Will Europe’s experience and general affability prove too much? And what exactly is a “brass chest”? Answering those questions and more ahead of the 2020 Ryder Cup (in 2021).

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Normally, the time between Ryder Cups goes by pretty fast. The tournament happens every two years, after all, not every four like the Olympics. And we get eight major championships, a Presidents Cup, and the selection of the next set of Ryder Cup competitors (which alone can earn almost a year’s worth of media coverage) in that span. But the gap between the tournament at Le Golf National in Paris and this week’s running at Whistling Straits feels like it’s been a whole lot longer—largely because it has.

The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the 2020 Ryder Cup to this year, and it also delayed team selections. The U.S. group was finalized two weeks ago, with Steve Stricker locking in his six captain’s picks, and European captain Padraig Harrington completed his roster within the past 10 days (as if Ian Poulter was ever going to be left off the squad).

But drama doesn’t end with completed rosters. In fact, things are only getting juicier. Patrick Reed is liking through being left off the American squad; Brooks Koepka said in a recent Golf Digest interview that the Ryder Cup is a challenge for him and others because golfers are so individualized (interestingly, that hasn’t seemed to be a problem for the European team); and Bryson DeChambeau has been so busy training for a long-drive competition that his hands are apparently “wrecked” with callouses.

All in all, it’s shaping up to be quite the week in Wisconsin. So Elizabeth Nelson and I convened to wade through the mess, discern what’s real and what’s not, and take a Vibe Check of both teams ahead of Friday’s opening rounds. We’ll start with this question: Does the U.S. stand a chance? —Megan Schuster

Nelson: To the extent that actually wanting to be there tends to be a baseline requirement for prevailing in high-level sports, it’s difficult to feel bullish about the Americans’ chances. For all of the norm-breaking, Paul Azinger–exasperating honesty of Koepka’s remarks, he was basically giving voice to what has been an open secret in the industry for years. The U.S. team has a long history of fractious intra-locker-room rivalries and incidents like the one in 2018, when captain Jim Furyk was internally savaged for breaking up the winning pair of Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth as the Euros walloped the Americans 17.5 to 10.5. Or in 2014, when Phil Mickelson big-dicked captain Tom Watson, publicly calling into question his tactics after the Yanks were stomped 16.5 to 11.5 at Gleneagles. Or the time in 1969 when Jack Nicklaus conceded a 4-foot putt to Tony Jacklin, ensuring a tie, and Sam Snead practically had him arrested and deported. This thing has a long tail. But the Euros never go through this!

I don’t want to get deep in the sociological weeds here—like, for example, I wouldn’t want to imply that the communitarian affability of the European team, or the individualist ego-tsunami of the American squad, tells us anything about why one continent favors guaranteed health care and the other favors ever-larger garages. But the point is that all this contentiousness simply can’t help. Maybe the Americans can turn things around by acting like the Bronx Zoo Yankees and punching each other out all the way to glory? What do you think? Will Brooks gingerly shake Bryson’s tender hand?

Schuster: I was wondering how long it’d take us to get to that infamous Phil press conference, so thank you for citing it before I had to, Elizabeth!

I don’t even know if I care so much whether the members of the American team like one another. After all, Spieth and Reed weren’t especially close when they were partnered together in 2016—with Reed later joking that he’d been carrying Spieth to wins—and they still managed to be wildly successful. It’s more a question of whether these guys can channel their angst and agitation to their play, or whether they’ll take it out on one another in the clubhouse.

Earlier this year, Brooks said he could get along with anyone for a week—even Bryson—and I mostly believe him. He’s a competitor at heart, and despite the doubts he conjured in his GD interview, I think when he’s standing on that first tee, he’s going to want to win more than he’s going to want to embarrass his teammate. The main concern I have is whether Stricker can get his golfers to put their blinders on and focus that potentially negative energy long enough to take some chunks out of the European team in the early rounds (which has been critical for the team’s past success). I’m sure the American-leaning crowds will help some, as they did in Minnesota five years ago, and this team has more than enough talent if it can get hot early. But what pairings do you think we’ll need to see to make that happen?

Nelson: Well, you’ve got to start with Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, two stalwarts who went 3-1 as a pair at the last Ryder Cup in Paris, and who look enough alike that they could plausibly conduct some kind of doppelgänger-driven bank heist. (You never know.) If I were Stricker, I’d pair Koepka’s roiling emo snake-pit with smooth and placid Tony Finau and hope for the best of all possible worlds. And I’d team wunderkind Collin Morikawa with just about anybody and feel confident. As you say, the Yanks’ perceived disadvantage certainly does not stem from any lack of great players. But I absolutely agree that getting off to a hot start is crucial to their chances. This team is one bad Friday away from the Caine Mutiny.

You’ve also got to wonder which side the windswept Whistling Straits will ultimately benefit. The Pete Dye–designed course runs along Lake Michigan and feels like a Midwestern riff on a Scottish links course. Spieth finished second to Jason Day there at the 2015 PGA Championship, but with cloudy skies and temperatures expected to be in the low-to-mid 60s, this would not seem to provide any sort of classic home-field advantage. Do you want to talk about the captain’s picks? Is it time yet?

Schuster: Do you mean is it time to talk about Patrick Reed? If so, always.

Seriously, though, with all the fireworks potential the automatic bid guys bring to this roster, it seems like Stricker was trying to add some flame retardant with his captain’s picks—which I think is smart! Spieth, Finau, and Xander Schauffele are all incredible golfers, but they’re also relatively mellow. Even on the occasions when Spieth gets a little volatile, the heat is only ever directed internally. Daniel Berger, Harris English, and Scottie Scheffler may also function as highly dependable, non-boat-rockers who Stricker can trust to get the job done without adding to a powder keg of a situation. Sure, bringing Reed into the fold would’ve been some fun, chaotic energy from Stricker, but Reed is coming off an extended hospitalization for pneumonia and has hardly played golf in the past month. As much as he and wife Justine may want to criticize the captain’s decision, there’s not a whole lot of ground to stand on.

Now I feel like we’ve been neglecting the Europeans, largely because they’re the much more stable, reliable option between these two teams—the best friend in the rom-com rather than the primary love interest. What stands out to you about this squad? Other than your beloved Poulter, I mean.

Nelson: There are many topics to discuss besides my hero, “Mr. Ryder Cup” himself, Ian James Poulter. The defending Cup holders look stout. Their tent poles are Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy, two dominant players who’ve both spent time as world no. 1 within the past two years. But there is also a beguiling mix of innocence and experience here, with 24-year-old budding superstar Viktor Hovland bringing the youthful swagger while longtime juggernauts Sergio Garcia and Paul Casey provide the wisdom from many past autumn scraps. Top to bottom, the Europeans probably don’t have the depth of the American team, but if Harrington schemes things up correctly, they shouldn’t need it. I’ve got a feeling that Hovland, competing in his first Ryder Cup and on the simmering verge of international stardom, is going to make a lot of birdies and turn a lot of heads.

Now let’s talk a bit about my fantasy world: Am I the only one who sees the potential branding bonanza of a Rory McIlroy–Tommy Fleetwood four ball pairing? That is to say Fleetwood-Mac. People? Am I wrong here? Poults would have my back on this. Do you have a prediction for the Euros’ Man of the Match this weekend?

Schuster: I 100 percent would love to see that, not only from a branding perspective but also because two of my favorites joining forces like that might get me to abandon any semblance of national allegiance.

It’s strange to be going into this tournament without the man who was most dominant last time around, Francesco Molinari. He and Fleetwood smoked the field in 2018, and while he’s out with a bad back, I’ll be curious to see who steps up in his place. It’s hard to pick against Rahm for this, given the world-beating year he’s had, but for whatever reason, T-Fleet seems to have the perfect demeanor and game for this type of event. So I’m going with him.

It seems we’ve reached predictions time, so to round this out, I’m asking two things of you, Elizabeth: How will the differing team dynamics impact things on the course this weekend? And which side do you think is going to win it all?

Nelson: I am dithering like a debutante in a Jane Austen novel: everything seems possible, and one way or the other I am going to end up married to a man in jodhpurs. At the end of the day, I think the Americans are going to overcome their collective marginal personality disorder and win in a closely contested affair that will be decided late on Sunday. Reed’s gripes notwithstanding, Stricker strikes me as the sort of broadly respected figure that should be able keep the tent from burning down for four days—which may not sound like a lot, but would be an improvement over his recent predecessors. Plus, the talent top to bottom is staggering: If you can’t win with a team anchored by Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Collin Morikawa, Patrick Cantlay, and the Battling Buff Boys, then you should probably just stick to the Presidents Cup moving ahead. Now I’m going to play that Lee Greenwood song about loving the USA and think about how I’m probably totally wrong.

Schuster: I have a hard time picking against the reigning champions, especially when Bryson is out here saying things like he has a “brass chest” (whatever that means). But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that coming into this tournament with incredibly fucked vibes and winning anyway is perhaps the most American thing that Team USA could do. So onward and upward, boys. You’ve got a continent to smash.