HAVEN, WISCONSIN | One by one, they climbed the stone steps carved into the steep hill leading from the 18th green to the Whistling Straits clubhouse.
First came Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, then came Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas carrying a champagne bottle, Xander Schauffele with a cigar between his teeth and Harris English carrying the Ryder Cup.
A moment later, Tony Finau bounded up the steps with an American flag wrapped around his shoulders.
What’s a few more steps once you’ve reached the top of the world?
With the largest margin of victory since 1979, the United States’ 19-9 victory took a sledgehammer to the old notion that the Ryder Cup means more to the Europeans.
If the final score didn’t get the point across, Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau hugging it out with the Ryder Cup trophy between them while Justin Thomas sang “Why Can’t We Be Friends” should.
“This is going to be the next era of Ryder Cup teams for America,” Patrick Cantlay said.
This is a generational shift, not just in the American team but in the Ryder Cup itself.
Remember how everything changed when the iPhone came along? This is an iPhone moment for the United States in the Ryder Cup.
Pick a buzzword – passion, camaraderie, teamwork – all have been ascribed to the Europeans and for good reason.
Between his understandable and predictable tears, U.S. captain Steve Stricker proclaimed it a new era in American golf. He’s right.
For so long, the pressure has been on the United States side to match what Europe brings to the Ryder Cup. Pick a buzzword – passion, camaraderie, teamwork – all have been ascribed to the Europeans and for good reason.
They also tended to play better in the Ryder Cup than the American team.
From the moment the first tee shot was struck into the rising sun and morning chill on Friday morning, this American team played with a freedom and lightness that seemed like a beach trip with friends.
“More like a Presidents Cup,” Spieth said, referencing the Americans’ complete dominance and the vibe at Whistling Straits. When Thomas and Daniel Berger were urged by fans at the first tee to shotgun beers after their Saturday play was complete, they didn’t hesitate. Spotted Cow ales for everyone.
“The atmosphere was light but everyone has that killer instinct,” Cantlay said, after capping a spectacular late summer run with the Ryder Cup.
To borrow a line from former European captain Paul McGinley, the Americans prefer to play off their front foot and they did at Whistling Straits wearing what must have felt like steel-toed boots to the Europeans.
The Americans looked unafraid, the vultures didn’t circle when they lost a hole, which they didn’t often do.
This looked and felt like more than a fresh coat of paint on an old house. This was closer to a tear down and a complete rebuild, updated and refreshed and built to enjoy for years to come.
What the American team has tended to lack is what Rory McIlroy showed in his tearful post-round interview and what Shane Lowry meant when he said getting picked to the European team was his biggest accomplishment in golf, winning the Claret Jug in Northern Ireland included.
It feels like that has changed.
It’s just not the glow of the dominating performance but a new generation of American players who feel what the Europeans have felt about this event for years.
“The most important thing for the U.S. team is a lot of young guys that are great players have bought into the Ryder Cup,” Rory McIlroy said. “I think that was probably missing in previous generations. But guys like Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, the sort of heartbeat of that U.S. team, they really bought into the team aspect of Ryder Cups.”
There is reason to believe the American team is poised to go on a dominating run in the next few Ryder Cups, not unlike what the Europeans had done before the party ended on the windblown edge of Lake Michigan.
The core of future Ryder Cup teams is set. Spieth and Thomas are at the emotional core. Schauffele and Cantlay are a built-in points pair going forward. Finau seems to blossom in the team atmosphere.
Dustin Johnson may be timeless. Koepka, provided he stays healthy, will probably spend more quality time with DeChambeau in team rooms. Collin Morikawa and Scottie Scheffler are just getting started.
Go back to the Americans’ lopsided victory at Hazeltine five years ago and it seemed then that the narrative had changed. The task force had succeeded in that the PGA of America surrendered control of the event to the players and the captains. Whatever they wanted, they got.
Then Paris happened.
This U.S. team is different than the 2016 team in almost every way. There are only three players who were on both – Johnson, Spieth and Koepka – and that team had players on their way out including Phil Mickelson, Matt Kuchar, Zach Johnson, Brandt Snedeker and Jimmy Walker.
This team is filled with players just getting started, Spieth being the American player with the second most Ryder Cup experience behind Dustin Johnson.
If Stricker had a stroke of brilliance, it was his understanding that his team didn’t need any more motivation. He’s been part of enough teams to sense what does and doesn’t work.
Stricker’s minimalist approach – there were no inspirational videos, just a text or two from Tiger Woods – is the new model.
Whoever captains the Americans in Rome two years from now – it’s likely to be Woods, Phil Mickelson or Zach Johnson – should take what Stricker did, perhaps sauté it in garlic and olive oil to fit the Italian theme and let the players go.
The team room was quiet at night. There were brief meetings at Whistling Straits when play ended but then players were on their own for the evening.
Seemingly little things were big things. When they learned Cantlay needs three hours to physically prepare to play, he and Schauffele were given later starting times.
“I just tried to make it easy for them, (that) is really what I wanted to try and do, and that was kind of my way back in 2017 on the Presidents Cup team,” Stricker said. “I really had nothing planned for the week, no speeches from anybody, no videos.
“We all know it’s a huge event as it is. We don't need to have some famous person of highest stature come in and tell us how important it is and we need to get fired up and do this and do that. Everybody knows how important it is, and they want to win.”
The Americans didn’t just win. They turned in a performance that will echo for a long time.
At least until Rome in two years.
“I think that this is unfinished business,” Spieth said. “We needed to win this one and I think it was a massive stepping stone for this team and the group that we have here that have really known each other since almost back to grade school to continue to try to work hard to be on these teams to go over there.
“It’s one thing to win it over here and it is a lot easier to do so and it is harder to win over there. If we play like we did this week, the score will look the same over there in a couple of years.”
From the top of the world, the future looks limitless.