‘It’s the X factor’: Can team spirit tilt the Ryder Cup to Europe?

‘It’s the X factor’: Can team spirit tilt the Ryder Cup to Europe?
Team USA are, on paper at least, heavy favourites at Whistling Straits this week, but contrasting atmospheres between the two locker rooms has swung the tournament’s direction on several occasions

There’s an opening gambit Graeme McDowell likes to tell at the many corporate days he’s had to attend over the last decade. “In the American team room, they’d have three ping pong tables," il dit, with a little theatric suspense, “… and we’d have a bar. People laugh but it’s actually true. We’d have a couple of beers, shoot the s***, and naturally built that camaraderie.”

It might seem a somewhat rose-tinted, helpfully inebriated insight into what binds Team Europe, but few themes have become as tendentious and synonymous with the Ryder Cup as team spirit. It’s the elixir that’s given life to famous upsets and infamous falling-outs, intoxicating champagne celebrations and segregated pod systems. An inherently European advantage cited with almost religious devotion, even by the staunchest non-believers.

“It’s that X factor that’s so hard to quantify,” says McDowell, who will serve as a vice-captain at Whistling Straits. “I think it’s the culture of different backgrounds and languages coming together. The Italians and Spanish bring emotion and passion into the team room. You’ve got [Lee] Westwood and [Rory] McIlroy who are very easygoing. The Europeans used to be a big travelling circus around the world, on the same flights, the same hotels, eating and drinking together after rounds. It’s not like that anymore. All our best players are in the States, but the camaraderie was built in us.”

From Phil Mickelson’s teardown of Tom Watson and the subsequent setting up of the fated “Task Force” to Patrick Reed’s irksome interview in the wake of their Paris implosion, the US’s volatile relations at Ryder Cups are well written into history. There are inevitably always egos at play and simmering rivalries – or even barefaced disdain – within both locker rooms when bringing the world’s best players together, but over the years, the Europeans have found a way to adjust and thrive in close proximity. The continent itself might have fractured over political lines, but there remains a clear willingness among the players to conform for a common purpose, to put principle or self-importance aside in pursuit of success.

That is a notion that the US has often struggled – bitterly and acrimoniously – to implement. In a supremely individualistic country, the concept of adapting to other players is almost entirely foreign. Players exist within competitive bubbles, are surrounded by large teams and do not always see shared victories in the same limelight. In past Ryder Cups, it’s caused wounds to open gradually and then bleed suddenly into performances, even with a team supposedly far stronger on paper. “For some reason, in previous years, the US hasn’t been able to pull through in the end, whether that’s based on chemistry or over-thinking it or too much pressure and expectation,” admits Xander Schauffele, who is making his rookie appearance at the event this week. “The team now is sort of what I imagined when I was an amateur. There’s an influx of young players, a lot of the kids from the class of 2011. I think this US team will be able to play like kids without the scar tissue of losing Ryder Cups or knowing certain parts of the history when they compete.”

Those issues, mais, remain front and centre, condemned to follow the dozen US players wherever they set foot at Whistling Straits this week, largely due to the ongoing feud between Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka. At a press conference on Monday, US captain Steve Stricker spent much of his time denying their rift would disturb the team before later admitting he wasn’t wholly sure if Koepka was on site at Whistling Straits at all. He was also forced to dismiss concerns over Koepka’s recent interview with Golf Digest, which bluntly summed up the struggle to alter such a singularly competitive mindset – a trait often cited as the reason for Tiger Woods’s poor record. “There are times where I’m like, I won my match. I did my job. What do you want from me?” Koepka said.

Koepka’s comments were mistaken for plain apathy, an undermining swipe that only served to impede any semblance of a new era and provoked a furious reaction, notably from Paul Azinger, who led the US to victory in 2008 – one of just two winning American captains in the tournament’s last nine renditions.

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It was Azinger, après tout, who implemented the dividing pod system, taking from a navy Seal technique to bond small but formidable groups of like-minded soldiers, and matched personality types in the US team in order to strengthen the sense of harmony. It was unquestionably successful but, as Thomas Bjorn, who led Europe to a resounding victory in Paris in 2018, dit: “You can only create that environment with the willingness from players and the people around them.” This week, there’s a lingering suspicion that the pods are more pertinently designed to keep opposing forces at a distance.

Mais, peut-être, Koepka was not intentionally attempting to stir so much malice as highlight the difficulty Americans have found in detaching from such an entrenched mindset. The US team contains eight of the world’s top 10 joueurs. All of them adhere to meticulous processes in pursuit of a finite edge. Sacrificing any element of what makes them great is perceived as tampering with a proven recipe and that concept can seem impossible to digest. "[The Ryder Cup is] different, it’s hectic, it’s a bit odd, if I’m honest,” Koepka said. “Everybody has their routine and a different way of doing things and now, c'est comme, d'accord, we have to have a meeting at this time or go do this or go do that.”

The culture in the European locker room has rarely allowed that sentiment to prevail, with players appearing more capable of temporarily lowering that guard. “There’s no other week where you open up your chest to guys that you’re playing against week in, week out, and that’s what we’re doing this week,” Sergio Garcia told NBC in the wake of victory in Paris. “And because of that, we’ve been able to be very successful.”

“I guess it does seem like a different atmosphere,” says Matt Fitzpatrick, who’s making his second Ryder Cup appearance this week. “It’s pretty obvious in terms of what everyone sees, how united the European team are, and that’s so important during the week. You win together and you lose together, it’s pretty cliche but that’s what it is.”

Bien sûr, whatever advantage Europe can reap from that may just as easily be proved irrelevant. There are dozens of subplots to any Ryder Cup, from the favourable set-up of the course to the partisan impact of a home crowd, and the depth of this US team, en particulier, is remarkably strong. It should, en théorie, be their tournament to lose. But as ever, that’s a line as worn as the infighting. Matches played at this level are settled by the finest margins and Europe has made a habit of triumphing by a single point. It may be hard to quantify an asset as intangible as team spirit, but there’s no evidence as plain as that.

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