The newest U.S. Ryder Cup team, fresh enough that those snubbed are still feeling the sting, embarks Thursday on a bonding/reconnaissance mission to Rome to properly begin the process of what it hopes will end a three-decade debacle on the far side of the Atlantic.
Not since the year Beanie Babies were introduced and “Schindler’s List” was in theaters (1993) have the Yanks been able to bring the 17-inch tall, four-pound trophy back with them from overseas, something they had done previously with such regularity that hardly anyone noticed.
Will making a pre-Cup trip to survey Marco Simone Golf Club in Rome be enough to reverse the American fortunes against a European team that looks far more formidable than it did six months ago?
Captain Tom Lehman tried something similar in 2006 when he took his squad to the K Club in Ireland a few weeks before the matches, only to see his guys get routed, 18½-9½, a margin so lopsided that no amount of Guinness could ease the humiliation.
To be fair, Lehman’s U.S. roster included Vaughn Taylor, Brett Wetterich, J.J. Henry and Chad Campbell, nice players in their day but not exactly world-beaters, as they demonstrated.
This U.S. Ryder Cup team is loaded. Before you say Justin Thomas doesn’t belong, he is 6-2-1 in the Ryder Cup and belongs on the team as much as anyone else for who he is and the spirit he brings as well as a game that sparkles in these settings.
Among the many things that makes Johnson’s team different from others that have tried and failed in recent decades at Valderrama, The Belfry, K Club, Celtic Manor, Gleneagles and Le Golf National is not just the amount of experience but the amount of successful experience on this roster.
Of the eight players who have competed in the Ryder Cup, only one – Rickie Fowler, at 3-7-5 – doesn’t have a winning record. In other words, the veterans aren’t used to that lightheaded feeling when things start going sideways on Friday and it feels as if the flying monkeys from “The Wizard of Oz” are gathering behind them.
As for the four rookies, Brian Harman, Max Homa, Sam Burns and Wyndham Clark don’t lack for confidence. Even if the moment feels immense to them, it’s bound to feel the same for the European rookies, too. Robert MacIntyre secured a spot Sunday, and Ludvig Åberg, who won in Switzerland, surged into the picture. Europe's other potential rookies include Sepp Straka, Adrian Meronk and Rasmus Højgaard, among others.
This week’s trip to Rome isn’t by itself enough to change the course of Ryder Cup history, but it can’t hurt. When the U.S. team arrived at Le Golf National four years ago and saw the tight fairways and what appeared to be deep pastures of rough, it looked and felt like a bad fit, like showing up to a fancy party, only to realize after arriving that you aren’t dressed for the occasion.
By going to Rome in advance, captain Zach Johnson (who was part of the K Club clobbering) hopes to alleviate any surprises. In an era when analytics hold an outsized influence, seeing and feeling the place may be just as valuable.
It doesn’t make hitting it straight and holing putts any less important; it just helps make doing those things slightly more comfortable. That’s the idea, anyway.
It’s also part of finding the secret sauce that creates a team out of 12 players who devote their professional lives to being better than the teammates whom they now will be fist-bumping and bro-hugging when things go well.
Three of Johnson’s captain’s picks – Fowler, Thomas and Jordan Spieth – are vacation buddies, while Scottie Scheffler and Burns are best friends, like Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele.
For years, the Americans were criticized for lacking the camaraderie credited with helping the Europeans dominate the Ryder Cup. It was fair to a point. There did seem to be years when it felt as if the Americans might have preferred to arrive at the course in 12 different courtesy cars, but not always.
It’s not as if all of the 12 European players wanted to vacation together. Ian Poulter was a brilliant Ryder Cup player, but he’s not everyone’s cup of tea. The same could be said about Sergio García at times, but what those players did was galvanize the group. The European teams have excelled at being more than the sum of their parts.
The Americans have begun to find their own way of doing that. Three of Johnson’s captain’s picks – Fowler, Thomas and Jordan Spieth – are vacation buddies, while Scottie Scheffler and Burns are best friends, like Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele.
That doesn’t make it a closed club. It gives the Americans an organic foundation. They don’t have to do as much to create a camaraderie as some other groups had to do. If it means Keegan Bradley and Lucas Glover got left out, well, there were other reasons, too.
European captain Luke Donald will finalize his team today, and the countdown to the first tee at Marco Simone on the morning of September 29 will begin to feel more urgent.
The Americans know their own history. They can’t escape it.
Rather than run from it, the Americans have something to run toward. That could turn out to be their greatest advantage in Rome.
Top: Not since the late Payne Stewart, John Cook and the rest of the Americans cracked the champagne after winning the 1993 Ryder Cup has a U.S. team sprayed bubbly overseas.
DAVE ROGERS, ALLSPORT VIA GETTY IMAGES