The generational shift that defines Steve Stricker’s US team continued to pay off handsomely on Saturday morning as the Americans moved closer to winning back the Ryder Cup along the windy, western shores of Lake Michigan.
The youngest team in Ryder Cup history – average age: 29 – continued its rampage on the Straits Course and their European foes, winning three of the morning’s foursomes matches to take a 9-3 stranglehold on the proceedings and move within 5½ points of reclaiming the title. The Americans, who became the first team in competition history to lead by six or more points after three sessions, were threatening to not only win back the Ryder Cup but run away with it as the groups went off for Saturday afternoon’s fourballs.
All six of the US team’s first-time players – Xander Schauffele, Scottie Scheffler, Harris English, Patrick Cantlay, Collin Morikawa and Daniel Berger – delivered at least a half point on Friday as the Americans stormed to a commanding 6-2 lead, their widest advantage through day one since 1975.
The debutants kept it up Saturday as Schauffele and Cantlay took a full point with a 2&1 win over Lee Westwood and Matt Fitzpatrick. It was the same for Morikawa, playing with Dustin Johnson, after a 2&1 win over Paul Casey and Tyrrell Hatton.
Schauffele, who recently won gold at the Tokyo Olympics, has contributed three points in all to what could become a runaway win. Cantlay, the newly minted PGA Tour player of the year and FedExCup Playoff champion, has added 2½. Morikawa, the reigning Open champion and last year’s PGA Championship winner, has chipped in two, same as Berger.
Stricker, the Wisconsin native who used four of his six discretionary picks on first-timers, has done an excellent job of selecting players who are comfortable together. That hasn’t always been the case for a US side that has won only two of nine Ryder Cups this century despite routinely coming in with the superior individual players.
For the first time since 1993, the United States are playing a Ryder Cup without Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson in the team – though Mickelson is at Whistling Straits in a vice-captaincy role. So far, they have not been missed as a 12-man US contingent with only 12 previous Ryder Cup appearances among them are making the most of their opportunity to turn the page.
A large part of the US team’s inexplicable Ryder Cup futility in the Tiger-Phil era was down to the lack of team morale so frequently ascribed to the team’s broader failings. Even if you were paired with Woods, and Woods was your friend, it was intimidating just to play with him – and there was a certain intimidation coming off Mickelson, too, that made him not an ideal partner. You simply didn’t want to lose if you were playing with these guys, so you played tighter.
Woods and Mickelson didn’t always bring it themselves, either – at least not to the standards of a twosome that’s combined to win 21 major championships and 127 PGA Tour titles. Mickelson owns the competition record for most matches played (47), but has won less than half of them to overtake the all-time mark for matches lost (22). Woods played in eight Ryder Cups overall, none on the winning team since 1999, amassing 13 wins, 21 losses and three draws; a record that is almost shocking in light of his dominance outside the competition over that span.
The duo’s vast talent failed to catch fire regardless of the format. They also struggled to mesh with all types of partners – including each other, as their ill-fated 2004 pairing at Oakland Hills demonstrated.
While it’s flatly unfair to attribute the US team’s chronic underperformance over the past two decades to Woods and Mickelson, the inability of the sport’s two most decorated players over that span to thrive in the competition became a symbol of doomed individualism.
Freed from the psychic baggage of two decades of failure, this year’s team is realising the lofty expectations that weighed down previous iterations. Spirits were high as the afternoon pairings went off while Johnson guzzled a beer and spiked it to the ground amid rollicking chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” from the jam-packed grandstands. They’re getting closer and everyone can feel it.
“We have a whole new team,” said Tony Finau, who at 32 years old is the third-oldest American in the team. “We have a team with no scar tissue. There’s only a handful of us that has even played in a Ryder Cup, and the few of those, we have winning records. So we actually don’t have guys on our team that have lost a lot in Ryder Cups.”