After a 30-year drought, can the Americans rewrite Ryder Cup history?

  • Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior WriterSep 28, 2023, 09:30 AM ET


    • Senior college football writer
    • Author of seven books on college football
    • Graduate of the University of Georgia

GUIDONIA MONTECELIO, Italy — American golfer Max Homa has been known to crawl down a rabbit hole at times while preparing to play. Getting ready for his first Ryder Cup has been no different. Homa said he “nerded out” the past few weeks by watching YouTube videos of past Ryder Cups played outside of the United States.

“I just started really enjoying the silence, because it meant that our team was doing well,” Homa said of the crowd noise of an away game.

The silence is significant. For the past three decades, the Ryder Cups played on the other side of the pond have sounded more like a rock concert, as European fans willed their teams to six straight victories. The Americans’ last win outside the U.S. was a 15-13 victory at The Belfry in Warwickshire, England, in September 1993.

“They’re bonded by nationality over there,” former U.S. Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger said. “The Englishmen play together, the Irishmen, the Spaniards. I think it’s immeasurable what it means to them. I think Americans, we can quantify it. I think for them they can’t even quantify it. It’s a big deal to us, too, don’t get me wrong.”

Azinger was a player on the 1993 team that last defeated the Europeans outside the U.S. He was captain of the 2008 squad that ended a three-match losing streak with a 16½-11½ win at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky.

“I always looked at the Ryder Cup, in my generation, my era, as being razor thin,” Azinger said. “I would compare it to being in Vegas. There’s only a 1% advantage in blackjack, but they’re building some pretty nice hotels on it.”

The Europeans have been playing with house money in the Ryder Cup for quite a while.

The American teams have fallen in Spain, England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and France. They’ve lost in nail-biters (two matches were decided by a single point) and unceremonious blowouts (three European victories were by five points or more). Regardless of the final score, the end result was the same: The Americans haven’t won the Ryder Cup away from home since former U.S. President Bill Clinton moved into the White House and Beanie Babies hit store shelves for the first time.

“Well, I mean, it’s difficult,” said Zach Johnson, who will captain the Americans’ attempt to end the drought at Marco Simone Golf and Country Club outside Rome this week. “It’s hard to win outside of your comfort zone. It’s hard to win against a team that’s always been very, very formidable. It’s really just that simple.

“The European teams have been very stout, very good, very deep, and this year is no different. It’s just difficult. I know what history says. I’m very aware of that. But at the same time I can speak confidently, and talking to my team, these guys are ready and want to embrace that difficulty and want to just look at this as a great opportunity. The teams of the past are teams of the past. This is a new team with a new opportunity.”

Only four of the 12 players on the American team — Rickie Fowler, Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas — have experienced losing the Ryder Cup away from the U.S. Fowler was a part of three losing squads in 2010, 2014 and 2018. Spieth played on two, and Koepka and Thomas were on one.

“Over half the team wasn’t born yet the last time we won over here,” Spieth said. “I think that’s been made very clear to us over the last few months. It’s not something we really care about, to be honest. Most of the guys weren’t on any of those losing away teams.”

Actually, five of the U.S. players hadn’t been born yet. The rest were too young to remember watching the American Ryder Cup win in Europe that was televised live in the U.S.

Davis Love III, a vice captain this week, secured the winning point that year at The Belfry by defeating Italy’s Constantino Rocca, 1 up, on the 18th hole. Brian Harman was 6 years old, Fowler was 4, Koepka was 3, Homa was 2 and Patrick Cantlay was 1.

“I think our current team right now, we have so many guys that have not played a foreign Ryder Cup, an away game, if you will,” said U.S. Open champion Wyndham Clark. “I think that ignorance is bliss, in my opinion.”

IT WASN’T ALWAYS this way. Great Britain and the U.S. split the first four matches after the Ryder Cup’s inception in 1927. Then the American teams lost only once in the next 50 years, winning 19 times in 21 matches and retaining the trophy with a tie as the defending champion in 1969. The matches were so lopsided that players from continental Europe were added to Great Britain’s and Ireland’s roster in 1977.

Finally, with Spain’s Seve Ballesteros and Manuel Pinero and Germany’s Bernhard Langer leading the team, the Europeans won the Ryder Cup with a 16½-11½ victory at The Belfry in 1985. It was the American team’s first defeat since 1957. Scotland’s Sam Torrance clinched the winning point and told reporters, “I cried all the way from the 18th tee to the green. I knew I had won the cup for us. I have dreamt of this all my life.”

Along with having a deep passion for the Ryder Cup, Azinger believes the European teams have another sizable advantage.

“I do believe that there is something magical about being on your home soil that Europe has really been able to take advantage of through the years, a lot of it by course setup,” Azinger said.

The Europeans have long manipulated courses to their advantage. At Valderrama Golf Club in Spain in 1997, European captain Ballesteros wanted a tight course with overhanging trees to take the driver out of American star Tiger Woods’ hands. Woods, a 21-year-old Masters champion, went 1-3-1 and lost to Rocca in singles in his Ryder Cup debut.

Marco Simone will be no different. There’s tall, thick rough along the sides of fairways, which have been pinched in at strategic locations. Accuracy off the tee will be paramount. The Europeans want to take wedges out of the Americans’ hands and force them to hit mid-to-long-irons on approach shots. The Europeans employed the same formula in their 17½ – 10½ win at Le Golf National outside Paris in 2018.

Azinger said he was the first American captain to request control of the Ryder Cup course in the U.S. from the PGA of America in 2008. The U.S. teams since then have preferred longer and more wide-open layouts to take advantage of their firepower off the tee. That strategy resulted in a 17-11 victory at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Minnesota in 2016 and a 19-9 rout at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin in 2021.

Ten of the past 12 Ryder Cups have been won by the home team.

“Whether it be in Europe for us or in the U.S. for the American team, there has to be an advantage to that,” Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy said. “That’s why I’ve said this in the last number of years: Winning an away Ryder Cup is probably one of the biggest achievements in golf right now.”

SOME OF THE American losses can be attributed to strategic mistakes. At The Belfry in 2002, the match was tied 8-8 going into Sunday singles. Torrance, the European captain, front-loaded his lineup with Colin Montgomerie, Sergio Garcia, Darren Clarke, Langer and others. U.S. team captain Curtis Strange did the opposite and put Woods, Phil Mickelson, Love and Jim Furyk at the bottom. The Europeans had four victories and one tie in the top six matches. By the time the American stars’ matches mattered, the outcome was all but decided. The Europeans took seven-and-a-half points out of the 12 in singles, winning the match, 15½-12½.

“They’ve got one Tiger,” Torrance said after the victory. “We’ve got 12 lions.”

Part of the American team’s futility during its long losing stretch was that Woods and Mickelson, two of the greatest players of their generation, didn’t play very well in the Ryder Cup, especially in road matches. Woods went 9-12-2 during five road losses from 1997 to 2018. Mickelson played in each of the six defeats outside the U.S. and had a 6-13-4 record.

Mickelson went 0-4-1 in an ugly 18½-9½ loss at the K Club in Ireland in 2006. Woods dropped all four of his matches outside Paris in 2018.

Finally, after the Americans fell for the third straight time at Gleneagles in Perthshire, Scotland, in 2014, Mickelson had enough. While European captain Paul McGinley said his team relied on a “template” for winning, Mickelson publicly questioned whether the U.S. team had a plan at all. During a post-match news conference, with captain Tom Watson sitting close by, Mickelson suggested the U.S. team had strayed from the winning formula that Azinger had installed in 2008.

“We all do the best that we can and we’re all trying our hardest,” Mickelson said. “And I’m just looking back at what gave us the most success. Because we use that same process in the Presidents Cup and we do really well. Unfortunately, we have strayed from a winning formula in 2008 for the last three Ryder Cups, and we need to consider maybe getting back to that formula that helped us play our best.”

Mickelson said the U.S. team was no longer using the pod system that Azinger introduced, which divided automatic qualifiers into groups and allowed them to make the captain’s pick for who would join them. The players in the pod practiced, played, ate and spent time together. Mickelson, who had been benched for two sessions that year for the first time in his Ryder Cup career, was heavily criticized for his remarks. In the end, his comments led to significant changes.

With Woods, Mickelson, Fowler and Love leading the way, the PGA of America formed a task force to examine ways the American team could be more efficient and successful. The governing body gave players more ownership of important decisions. The goal was to have a winning record over the next 10 matches. The Americans are 2-1 so far.

“I applaud the PGA of America for allowing myself and some of my peers before me to have direct ownership in how we navigate Team USA,” Johnson said. “I think it’s in a better place, and I think it’s all because of that collaboration between us players, the PGA of America and some of the other powers that really know what’s going on because we are passionate about this very cup.

“You learn from things. You learn from defeats probably more so than wins. I think you’ll learn from both, certainly, but I think the efficiency has probably amped up a little bit and that’s part of it. But yeah, make no mistake, I think Team USA is arguably in a better place now than what it was seven, eight, nine years ago, whatever it may be.”

Johnson said this week that he’s not following the pod system that Azinger made famous. He said his players are too familiar with each other, having played so much golf together as juniors, college players and pros. While the European team’s culture is still being fostered around motivational speakers, inspirational messages and team unity, Johnson and his vice captains are asking less of their players this week. There are fewer team meetings, dinners and other mandatory appearances.

“I think they’ve probably learned from past failures, maybe,” Koepka said. “You’ve got to figure out what works. Different groups of guys each time, so you’ve got to figure out what works for the majority or what works for most, and I think they’ve done a really good job this week of letting us be us and do what makes us play well.”

Spain’s Jon Rahm said the DP World Tour has left “no stone unturned” in getting the European players emotionally ready for this week’s matches. Ireland’s Shane Lowry said he cried after watching one of the motivational videos.

Of course, none of what happens outside the ropes will matter unless the U.S. team plays well and ends its 30-year drought Sunday. And there’s no question keeping the winning streak alive matters to the Europeans.

“It’s a big deal,” Rahm said. “You want to stretch the streak as much as possible. Hopefully, we can get into the 30s of years of Europe being undefeated here at home.”

Champagne was still bubbling at Whistling Straits after the U.S. team’s record-setting rout of the Europeans two years ago when Spieth was asked about the significance of the victory.

“I said that this is really nice, but until we win one over there, nobody can talk about a change in the Ryder Cup or the U.S. or anything like that.”