SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France — The American team at the Ryder Cup is one of the strongest ever.
It features nine players who have combined to win 31 major championships, nearly half of those by Tiger Woods, who signaled his return last week by winning the Tour Championship. It has Dustin Johnson, who is back at No. 1 in the world. One of only three Ryder Cup rookies on the team is Justin Thomas, who already has won a major and reached No. 1 in the world.
That’s the team that usually wins the Ryder Cup, especially at home. The European team hasn’t lost a Ryder Cup at home since 1993.
These are not “mops” on the European team, the word Thomas Bjorn used to describe two of his captain’s picks.
Europe has five major champions, four players among the top 10 in the world. It can make a case as one of the best teams since the days of the “Big Five” in the late 1980s when Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam and Sandy Lyle began this run of European dominance.
But it’s not about what they achieved before getting to the Ryder Cup.
It’s about who they become playing under a flag, for a tour, and playing for each other.
“I think that the strength of Europe has been we all get behind one another, and even whatever differences we may have, we put them to the side for this week and we’re a cohesive unit,” Rory McIlroy said Tuesday. “And that’s the way we try to be.”
For all Woods’ amazing feats in golf — 80 victories on the PGA Tour, the most recent on Sunday at the Tour Championship after returning following a fourth back surgery that threatened to end his career — he has been on only one winning team at the Ryder Cup back in 2008. That was nearly 20 years ago and required a record comeback on the final day. His own record is 13-17-3, a product of being on six losing teams.
“Looking back on my entire Ryder Cup career, that’s not something that I have really enjoyed and I’ve really liked seeing,” Woods said. “I’ve played a lot of matches. Of those seven previous Ryder Cups, I’ve sat out one session. … My overall Ryder Cup record, not having won as a player since 1999, is something that hopefully we can change. We haven’t won as a U.S. squad here in 25 years on foreign soil. So hopefully, that will change this week, as well.”
These are two of the strongest teams, the first time the Ryder Cup has ever featured all 10 players from the world ranking.
That only raises the anticipation when the matches start Friday on the first tee at Le Golf National before a grandstand that has just under 7,000 seats. Adding to the plot is that the Americans are defending champions for only the third time since 2002.
Ultimately, the Ryder Cup is decided by who keeps the ball in play, especially with the thick rough at Le Golf National, and who makes putts. Europe, however, has a spirit about it that has allowed for a spotless record at home the last 25 years.
Webb Simpson is playing his third Ryder Cup and already has seen 23 players from Europe on those three teams.
But it’s not about names.
“I think they are strong every year in the Ryder Cup no matter who is on the team, or what form they are in,” Simpson said. “They have a great team, obviously. They get the Ryder Cup well. You know, 2016 was a great example of how we’re getting the Ryder Cup … we’re getting a lot better.”
The Americans showed that at Hazeltine, the first year after the Ryder Cup Task Force intended to build a model of continuity. It’s the European way, and the U.S. can only hope it will end 25 years of losing the Ryder Cup away from home.
It helps that so many of their young players are friends outside the Ryder Cup, even outside golf. Thomas and Jordan Spieth have been close since they were 14 and picked to represent the U.S. at the Evian Junior Masters — in France, no less. Thomas and Rickie Fowler are neighbors in Florida. Brooks Koepka spent the Saturday night before his first U.S. Open victory on the phone with Dustin Johnson (it wasn’t a long conversation). Fowler, Thomas and Spieth, along with four others, shared a house during the British Open this past July at Carnoustie. The lodgings became known as “The Frat House”.
“The American team has become a little more cohesive in the last few years, and I think that’s to do with the younger guys coming on board and really embracing the Ryder Cup and making it a very important part of their careers,” McIlroy said. “You’ve seen Jordan and Rickie and J.T. and those guys. They hang out together. They spend a lot of time together, and it seems like the togetherness is just a little bit more than maybe it used to be back in the ’90s and early 2000s.”
Come Friday, it’s about making putts and winning the 18th hole, something Woods believes has held the U.S. back, especially overseas.
Europe still likes to play the underdog role, even having won eight of the last 11 times in the Ryder Cup. It has reason to feel like one in France with such a loaded lineup the Americans offer. Then again, it was like that in 1997 at Valderrama when the Americans had five major champions and eight players among the top 15. Europe had two of the top 15 in the world — Faldo and Colin Montgomerie. Europe won.