The unique team psychology of the Ryder Cup

The biennial clash between the game’s two heavyweight continents is back - can USA restore the balance?

Morgan Sweeney September 25, 2016

The Ryder Cup transcends golf with its partisan spirit and unique team format. But how do the players cope with this dramatic departure from their comfort zones? And why have Europe consistently been able to hold the upper hand these past two decades? EDGAR takes a closer look at the unique team psychology ahead of the action at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota. 

Four years ago on a sun-drenched Saturday in late September at Chicago’s Medinah Country Club, English golfer Ian Poulter did something remarkable. The second day’s play of the 2012 Ryder Cup was coming to a climax and Poulter’s European side were being comprehensively thrashed by their freewheeling American opponents.

Trailing by 10 points to four with just two fourball matches out on the course, Europe were staring at an embarrassingly lopsided defeat. And then Poulter, a player whose tenacity and passion have always eclipsed his talent, singlehandedly flipped the 24-man contest on its head.

With his partner Rory McIlroy little more than a bystander, Poulter rattled off five closing birdies in a row from a variety of improbable positions to score a blow worth far more than the single point on the scoreboard. As the final putt dropped, Poulter let out a deafening war cry that silenced the flanks of star-spangled spectators (who moments earlier had been feverishly chanting “U-S-A!”), the Englishman’s eyes nearly popping out of their sockets as his team mates looked on in awe. 

Anyone with a passing interest in golf will recall what happened next. Europe went on to stage an incredible final day comeback, winning the Sunday singles session by a margin of 8.5 to 3.5 to seal an historic victory. And while it was German Martin Kaymer who holed the decisive six-foot putt, it was Poulter who was unanimously credited as the catalyst that inspired this unprecedented rally. 

Although not lacking in self-belief (he once famously declared that when he reached his full potential it would just be ‘me and Tiger’), Poulter has never won a major championship and has spent only fleeting stints in the world’s top 10. His record as a professional golfer is admirable but by no means stellar. 

At the Ryder Cup however, he is a different beast. Like Colin Montgomerie, another Ryder Cup titan who failed to win a major, something about the event lights a fire in Poulter. “I can be great mates with them [the Americans], but boy do I want to kill them in the Ryder Cup,” he once said, adding that sinking a crucial putt felt like “scoring a penalty in the Champions League final”. On the other side of the pond, the feeling is entirely mutual. “When Ian Poulter yells and screams, his eyes bug out,” observed Steve Stricker. “That’s why you want to beat him.”

These players are used to not only playing for themselves, but holding only themselves accountable for success and failure alike. That changes, of course, when the hopes of a continent (not to mention the rest of the team) weigh heavy on every shot. Guys like Poulter relish it, others shrink. But all feel the pressure like no other occasion in the sport.

The bearpit

Most of the game’s greatest players will cite their first ever tee shot in a Ryder Cup as the most nervous they’ve ever been on a golf course. Lee Westwood said of his debut in 1997, “I couldn’t get the ball to stay on the tee. My eyes had glazed over and my hands were shaking.” Spanish legend Jose Maria Olazabal says, “Anybody who doesn’t feel his legs trembling must be a dead man.” 

Over the past two or three decades, the Ryder Cup has grown into a sporting colossus – a biennial clash between the game’s two heavyweight continents that now ranks as one of the most watched sporting events on the planet. It has become the richest piece of theatre in golf by separating itself from the game’s great individual prizes. The Ryder Cup brings unbridled passion, from players and fans alike. Golf, a sport starved of patriotic fervour, saves it all for three days every two years. And the results are always electric.

From an entire team of Americans (and their wives) storming the green when Justin Leonard holed the pivotal putt in 1999’s ‘Battle of Brookline’ to Bubba Watson urging the crowd to continue cheering as he struck his opening drive, it’s no wonder former European captain Mark James named his book ‘Into the Bearpit’. 

Furthermore, when this most individual of sports morphs into a team competition, all of golf’s well-worn assumptions are thrown out of the window. This is the event where legendary players can be humbled, where journeymen can become heroes overnight and where all the attributes that bring glory to an individual count for nothing if he can’t buy into the ethos of team spirit.

Smells like team spirit

Here lies the intriguing dynamic that many believe has separated the European and American teams for the last two decades. A lot of those Ryder Cups were impossibly tight encounters, and there are many experts who attribute each result to the rub of the green - one key putt here, one chip-in there. But logic says there is a wider sporting truth at play, one which is so rarely applied to golf. 

It says that European team spirit has allowed them to consistently amount to greater than the sum of their parts, while the Americans – perhaps more accustomed to plying a lone trade – have not been able to. You need only look at the great Australian cricket team of the 1990s and early 2000s to know the value of never-say-die team spirit. Conversely, the listless, disorganised approach of England’s footballers have amounted to decades of underachievement.

It’s too simple of course to say that Europe has team spirit and the U.S. does not. But much of the American camaraderie feels forced – such as their obsession with games of table tennis in the clubhouse, and their deference to Tiger Woods. The Europeans appear more at ease with one another and in part it’s their diversity that brings them together.

The Tiger effect

Woods and Phil Mickelson are the two most decorated players of the last two decades, but neither man has a particularly enviable Ryder Cup record. At the height of their personal rivalry in 2004, the pair were not exactly what you would describe as best pals, and the tension when paired together by hapless captain Hal Sutton (who spent most of the contest squinting nervously beneath his Stetson) was etched all over their faces. Needless to say, this supposedly invincible duo were beaten by Europe’s lesser lights, and never partnered one another again. 

Tiger Woods in particular has epitomised much of the recent American Ryder Cup malaise that has seen the Stars and Stripes lose eight of the past 10 matches, while often fielding a considerably stronger side. Though he never said so in public, Woods was perceived to disdain the Ryder Cup, where all his great strengths as an individual were nullified by the team format. For the Europeans, the man they feared so much in majors was a tantalising target in match play.

In 2002, the famously aloof Woods played his practice rounds at sunrise while the rest of his team were still at breakfast, a habit he used in majors to avoid the crowds, but one that did nothing to enhance team unity. Additionally, teammates have looked intimidated when paired with Woods, as if the failure to match his perfectionism may incur his wrath. Perhaps it’s no fault of the 14-time major winner. In his heyday, Woods played golf with an intensity never witnessed before or since. But partnering such a player in a Ryder Cup was always likely to be problematic for some.

Beware of the underdog

“You have to leave your ego behind when you play a Ryder Cup,” says Olazabal, who enjoyed a longstanding partnership with his mentor Seve Ballesteros as a player, and later led that Miracle at Medinah as captain. The Spaniard was an integral part of the European sides of the late 1980s who broke a lengthy spell of American dominance that paved the way for an era of European success. “We had an extra reason to win in those days,” he recalls. “The Americans looked down on us, which gave us a tremendous fighting spirit that you could see in the likes of Seve, Nick [Faldo] and Bernhard [Langer].” 

Europe has always used the spirit of the underdog to its advantage, even if that tag no longer applies. As a globetrotting tour, players tend to stay at the same hotel and dine together, forming tight friendships that are not so easily cultivated on America’s more insular PGA Tour. Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke are genuine best mates. So too, Sergio Garcia and Luke Donald.

Europeans still use the American superiority complex as a motivational tool, even if these days, the players are on a much more level footing. And while the US lunges from one Ryder Cup blueprint to the next, Europe have devised a carefully crafted formula for success that both the players and captains have embraced. In short, the boys in blue get the Ryder Cup.

Meanwhile at Gleneagles two years ago, at the end of the last matches, deep schisms in the American team were revealed. Phil Mickelson, the Americans’ most senior player, chose their post-defeat press conference to haul his captain Tom Watson over the coals, insisting that the US had ‘strayed’ from the winning formula employed by 2008 skipper Paul Azinger. Still smarting from being dropped the previous day, Mickelson brazenly stated that there had been no communication between the players and captain whatsoever, while the dignified Watson sat smiling benignly to his left. 

With American frustration at breaking point following the 2014 matches, a special ‘task force’ was assembled with a mandate to endow the 2016 team (and those that follow it) with a ‘winning formula for a successful future’. Promising a revolution of sorts, the PGA of America instead leaned heavily on the opinions of both Woods and Mickelson and ended up giving the captaincy back to Davis Love – the man denied so dramatically the first time around at Medinah.

Those that believe golf’s governing bodies are allergic to change had plenty of ammo on this one, but change is nonetheless afoot. Mickelson is 46 now and should yet make this year’s team thanks to a burst of recent good form, but Tiger Woods will be at Hazeltine this September only as a non-playing assistant captain and the Americans will field a younger side carrying less scar tissue from past defeats. What’s more, there will likely be no Poulter for the Europeans, who are also set to field an inexperienced side.

Jordan Spieth, the new poster boy for the Stars and Stripes, has taken a bullish attitude. “We’re tired of hearing about changes that need to be made. We’re tired of hearing about the past,” Spieth said in January at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. “And we’re ready to believe in a younger, more hungry team going forward.”

With home advantage and a clutch of in-form players, the Americans are currently favoured by the bookmakers to end their losing streak this week. Former European captain Colin Montgomerie believes the matches at Hazeltine are nothing short of a ‘must win’ for the home side. “America need a win for the sake of the competition,” he said with a hint of a smile. “If they lose this one, they won’t want to come to France [in 2018].”

No pressure then? It’s the Ryder Cup. We’d expect nothing less.

The Ryder Cup takes place September 30 – October 2