U.S. needs scheduling sweet spot for away Ryder Cups

U.S. needs scheduling sweet spot for away Ryder Cups
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GUIDONIA MONTCELIO, Italy – The stalwarts of the European Ryder Cup team will take a well-deserved break after plowing through the month of September to stay competitively sharp for one of the year’s biggest events.

The reward for their seemingly tireless effort following a long PGA Tour season was wresting back the cup from the U.S. – and, now, renewed confidence that a plan (and captain?) are in place for a rare away victory in two years at Bethpage Black.

Of the top 10 players in combined strokes gained last week at Marco Simone, seven were European.

In other words, they outplayed the Americans.

The question is whether they also out-prepared them.

For all but three U.S. players, the Ryder Cup represented their first game action in 33 days: Defending champion Max Homa and Justin Thomas (who didn’t qualify for the FedExCup playoffs) teed it up at the PGA Tour’s Fortinet Championship, while Brooks Koepka made a tuneup start the week prior to the Ryder Cup at the LIV Chicago event.

The opposite approach was taken by the European side, with all 12 players competing at least once, at the BMW PGA Championship, and several playing two or more times over the last five weeks.

Before the balls went in the air, at least, the Americans saw the benefit of the added rest.

“Not enough gets made (of the fact) that our bodies take a beating all year,” Brian Harman said, adding that he had just been “resting and grinding” over the past month. After the three-week playoffs that were held in searing-hot temperatures and suffocating humidity, Wyndham Clark said he didn’t touch a club for two weeks to get his “mind right and refreshed.”

“The European team, it’s great that they got to play, but I also think they might be a little mentally fatigued as the week goes on,” Clark said. “This is obviously a very intense environment and mentally challenging, and then also you put in a pretty physically demanding golf course being so hilly and up and down, that maybe, come Sunday, they might be leaking oil and we’ll be fresh.”

When informed of Clark’s comments, European captain Luke Donald countered: “I would say my guys are sharp and ready. They’ve been in competition quite a lot, and sometimes that can be a big benefit as well.”

And that’s exactly the way it played out, particularly early. The Europeans looked sharper from the outset, sweeping the opening foursomes session for the first time in their history. Later that afternoon, they authored a trio of clutch moments that stole three half-points to take a 6.5 to 1.5 lead.

That margin – five points – eventually proved to be the difference.

And so on Sunday night, after the Americans’ road losing streak was extended to seven matches, Johnson was asked how much, if at all, competitive rust played a factor in the Americans’ slow start in what became a 16.5 to 11.5 loss.

“My first reaction would be no,” Johnson said. “There’s also something to be said about rest and recovering and getting your game in a position where you can go compete. These guys have won a lot of golf tournaments with weeks off. I have.”

For the U.S. side, the 33-day layoff this year was the longest in the FedExCup era. It was an additional two weeks off from even the most recent cup, when 19 days separated the 2021 Tour Championship and a home Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits. When the Americans last played an overseas Ryder Cup, in 2018 in France, the Tour Championship and Ryder Cup were played in consecutive weeks. The U.S. lost there by seven points.

It’s worth nothing that Marco Simone was awarded the Ryder Cup in 2015, back when the Tour ended its season in mid-September. It wasn’t until four years later, in 2019, that the Tour decided to conclude its season earlier to avoid conflicting with the NFL season. That move created a longer gap between the two events, only one of which, of course, is run by the Tour.

“The schedule is the schedule. You can’t control that,” Johnson said. “I thought I had a fairly appropriate plan in place. I might reflect on that, and there may be some changes in there that I maybe could have done or nuanced or altered.”

Could more U.S. players have competed at the fall opener in Napa?

The appearance there certainly didn’t seem to hurt Homa, who earned a team-high 3 ½ points while competing in all five matches for the Americans.

Could a few of them have teed it up overseas to get ready?

Nine of the 12 Americans made the scouting trip to Marco Simone in mid-September. (Spieth missed for the birth of his second child, while Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele cited scheduling conflicts.)

“I thought it was really great of Zach and the PGA to be accommodating to have us come over here and take a little scouting trip,” Thomas said. “Obviously it didn’t show, but I felt it was very helpful.”

It would have been even more helpful had the trip rolled directly into tournament competition. For its flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship, the European tour has a limited number of special invitations at its disposal – that’s how American Tom Hoge played – and the idea of adding U.S. Ryder Cuppers to the field would have been attractive to sponsors.

“I’m not going to slight the preparation of these guys,” Johnson said. “Whether it was at home or here or wherever, I know they were working their tails off to bring the cup back home.”

The Europeans clearly used the September schedule to their advantage.

A few days before the BMW event outside London, the entire team flew to Marco Simone for reconnaissance. During their brief stopover in Rome, the Europeans tried out a few fourballs and foursomes pairings, deepened their connection over dinner and drinks, and then were matched up in specific groups later that week at Wentworth.

“That started the whole bonding process,” Justin Rose said, “and also the comfort process of us all understanding each other’s games and dynamics. Nothing was left to chance on that front.

“When you give people clarity, they can sink their teeth into something. When things are reactive, it feels like you’re hoping for something to change versus when there’s a plan, it’s just about execution. And players, we spend our whole lives practicing to execute.”

And their execution was just about flawless.

Fresh off the scouting trip to Rome, nine of the 12 European Ryder Cuppers placed inside the top 18 at the BMW PGA. That red-hot form continued two weeks later at the Ryder Cup, where Viktor Hovland, Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood paced the squad in the strokes-gained metrics. Tyrrell Hatton and Rose also gained strokes throughout the competition.

“They were playing really good golf, and then they carried it right into here,” Spieth said. “They holed a lot of putts, they holed chips, and they played really, really good golf this week. They stepped on us early, and then the crowd was able to get behind them. Their rookies were able to see that; it made it an easier transition for the rookies. And then, all of a sudden, we were in a hole and had to try to fight back.”

So, most importantly for the Americans: What can be done in the future?

Personally, Spieth said, for any big event, a major or a team event, he prefers to play his way into competitive shape. Ideally, he said, the Ryder Cup would start a week or two after the end of the Tour season, or perhaps even later in the year to allow for both rest and recovery, as well as a period to refocus with dedicated practice as well as a tuneup start. Of course, any scheduling tweaks would require increased cooperation between the Tour and the PGA, and the landscape of competitive golf could look markedly different by 2027.

Would any of it have made a difference this time?

“It’s hard to say,” Spieth said. “It’s kind of a hypothetical.”

“We unfortunately just didn’t play well enough,” Thomas said. “I can’t speak on behalf of everybody, but I didn’t feel the preparation was necessarily the issue.”

McIlroy opined that one of the greatest accomplishments in the game right now is winning an away Ryder Cup. With the narrowing talent gap between the Americans and Europeans, strategy matters. Preparation matters. Details matter.

The dates for the 2027 matches at Adare Manor haven’t yet been confirmed, but everyone with a stake in Team USA should be paying close attention. It just might be their key to ending three decades of futility.

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