U.S. needs to embrace Ryder Cup underdog role — it's the reality

The narrative for Ryder Cup matches since 1985 is that the Americans are perpetual favorites. Yet, the Europeans are 12-6-1 in that time. Why? They have leveraged the role of underdog

Ryder Cup
In 1985, the Europeans routed the United States 16.5-11.5 in England. Since then, they have gone 7-1-1 at home and added four road wins to assert its dominance in the matches.

For 30 years now, European Ryder Cup teams have perpetrated an uncanny competitive fraud. Somehow, in the run-up to each renewal of golf’s most prestigious and hotly contested team competition — and despite going 11-4 vs. the Americans since 1995 — these Euros have managed to inhabit and shrewdly leverage the role of perpetual underdogs.

But here’s the bigger scandal: Since 1995, each and every iteration of the U.S. team has played the patsy to this ruse. Then, saddled with a baseless, self-imposed expectation of victory, the Americans go out and kick away — to these so-called underdogs — two Ryder Cups for each one they manage to win.

Historical context matters here: The modern Ryder Cup has evolved into a wildly entertaining spectacle because it has proved a competition among equals. In fact, no one much cared about these matches until the early 1980s, when continental European golfers were invited to join those from Great Britain and Ireland. That more than leveled the playing field. Since 1985, the Euros have gone 12-6-1. The U.S. hasn’t won on foreign soil since 1993, where the Europeans have turned the trick thrice.

And yet, prior to each of the 19 Ryder Cup competitions since 1985, including September’s event in Italy (a 16½-11½ European romp), the U.S. team and stateside golf pundits have declared the Yanks favorites, “on paper”.

How exactly do these rather dominant Euros manage paint themselves as plucky underdogs every two years?

Because the Americans let them.

I’ve got news for the U.S. golfing establishment: Bigger purses on the PGA Tour, more ritzy courtesy cars and better-heeled corporate sponsors do not make the preponderance of U.S.-born tour pros any better than Euros competing for smaller purses on European Tour. Not since 1985. Any assertion of parity may have been mere theory during the 1990s, but it’s an established fact today — one American golfers and media commentators more or less refuse to acknowledge.

There exists on the U.S. side a belief that public claims of superiority and greater talent depth, however specious, bolster the will to win, thus aiding the competitive effort.

Time for a new approach. The existing M.O. produces the opposite effect. It’s poor sportsmanship, too — but mainly it’s bad tactics. Such American posturing does nothing but heap more pressure on players when things go wrong and — on the golf course, at match play, over the course of five rounds in three days — things are always going wrong.

Self-belief is important. But delusion is never the answer. In the face of adversity, against a competitive equal, it’s the equivalent of an anchor around one’s neck.

The Euros deal with no such burdens, and the reasons why have little to do with team-room bonhomie, variable numbers of captain’s picks, competitive downtime prior to the matches, or the default-yet-amorphous need to show more “fight”. Euros routinely compete with joy and freedom and far smaller doses of pressure because they don’t saddle themselves with any self-imposed, baseless expectations of victory. The moment they do, The U.S. will beat them 11 times out of 15.

What’s more, European Ryder Cup players can read. They watch television. They recognize their opponents are publicly parroting an empty, triumphalist narrative between Cups. Competing, as equals, against overconfident opponents — then beating them 66 percent of the time — surely is exhilarating. Pressure? Under those competitive circumstances, what pressure?

Ryder Cup 2012
The 2012 U.S. Ryder Cup team, captained by Davis Love III and featuring Tiger Woods, took a 10-6 lead into Sunday's singles matches at Medinah Country Club — and lost 14.5-13.5.

I write a lot about golf and soccer, and I’m about to embark on another futbol book, one whose premise sheds meaningful light on this specific Ryder Cup dynamic.

This new project will shine an historical and cultural spotlight on the U.S. v. Mexico men’s soccer rivalry, the most compelling, geo-politically fraught feud in world futbol — by the way, these two nations will co-host the World Cup in 2026. Throughout the 20th century, Mexico dominated its competition with America in the same way the U.S. once dominated the Ryder Cup. In 1990, soccer finally mainstreamed itself north of the border. Then, in 2002, the U.S. Men’s National Team bounced its continental rival from the FIFA World Cup in South Korea.

In response, the Mexican futbol ecosystem shuddered: Its fans, players, coaches and media had never seriously conceptualized the Americans as soccer equals, not until that fateful June afternoon in Jeonju. Still today, despite going 8-19-8 against the U.S. since 2000, the Mexican soccer establishment and its national team fans (on both sides of the border) essentially refuse to accept this premise of parity. It does not compute. The Mexicans will not allow it to compute. It’s a truculent, prideful stance, one that only raises the stakes and heaps ever-increasing pressures on its national team to beat an American rival that, in the 21st century, has proved every bit its equal.

An identical dynamic has informed the Ryder Cup since 1985, when a European side finally beat the U.S. after 50 years of complete domination.

For whatever reason, the European Union today (home to 500 million people) turns out as many competitively proficient golfers as the United States (320 million). Recent major-championship results infer the same conclusion: I count 89 majors contested since 1999. Americans have won 48 of them, the Euros 39. Three quarters of those events were contested on what U.S. players would consider home soil. Remove Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, who won 19 majors between them during this stretch, and the tally flatters a supposedly deeper U.S. contingent that much less.

Upon examination, any American presumption of golfing superiority rings rather hollow. As such, taking that public stance does nothing but pile more debilitating expectations on American Ryder Cuppers — to perform as favorites, as superiors, when in fact they are not.

In this century, the pressure on Mexican national teams to beat los yanquis has become ever more massive and demoralizing. Because Mexican media and its soccer-watching public demand dominance against a rival that is every bit its competitive peer, each loss, each middling performance, is followed by the trashing and firing of managers, massive public recriminations centered on players themselves, and 10 times more pressure to win the next match.

American golf fans: Any of this sound familiar?

Ryder Cup 2023
Patrick Cantlay defeated Justin Rose 2 and 1 in their Sunday singles match at the 2023 Ryder Cup, but it did not help the Americans overcome a 10.5-5.5 deficit after the first two day of team play.

I caught Irishman Paul McGinley doing Golf Channel desk work ahead of the opening foursome session at Marco Simone G&CC. He called the overall result in advance, revealing that he saw things “lining up very well” for the Euros. When his American media colleagues tried to draw him out, the former Ryder Cup captain caught himself and artfully demurred. He pointed out that bookmakers still had the U.S. as favorites. Which they did.

However, as McGinley knows full well, bookies aren’t concerned with accurate prognostication. Their interest is exploiting blind optimism and rooting interests in service of maximizing money laid on either side of the line. McGinley isn’t even a Ryder Cup captain anymore. But there he is, on Golf Channel, sticking to a narrative that takes pressure off his former brothers in arms.

The U.S. must show the same savvy and discipline. It’s difficult enough to effectively prosecute 18 holes at match play, where an individual competitor plays not for himself but teammates as well. The anxieties and stresses only mount when said individual competes for team and country, before a worldwide television audience.

Playing in the shade of unfounded expectations that even a victory will not assuage? That is counterproductive.

Ever wonder why U.S. players clearly do not relish their Ryder Cup experiences like their European counterparts? There’s no mystery to it: All the Yanks talk about are the pressures associated with this event, because they literally cannot win: If they lose, they’ve been “upset” by inferiors, again. If they do prevail, said victory only reinforces this unreasonable assumption that U.S. players should win every two years.

Either way, these external, self-imposed pressures degrade American performances.

It's high time the U.S. golfing establishment — players, fans and media — better align expectations with competitive realities.

The Americans need to change their own narrative and stop treating victory as a birthright. That goes for competitors, fans and media.

Here's another thorn U.S. players, supporters and media types could easily remove from their collective Ryder Cup paw, were they not so prideful: Show more respect to your opponent. As individual competitors, on tour, American players already embody this realism, this equanimity toward fellow golfers. This is how golf works, of course: Anyone ranked in the world top 200 can beat anyone else on any given day, especially at match play. The modern Ryder Cup dynamic has somehow bullied U.S. players into a collective, steadfast, sadly inaccurate conceit.

Going forward, players and captains must level with themselves and the American golfing public, over and over again, until fans and U.S. golf media — hardly an innocent bystander here — get the message. When some media wag next asserts that the Americans will surely be favored on home soil, at Bethpage Black come 2025, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain and his prospective players should respond this way: Are you high? Maybe you’ve been covering figure skating since 1995? The Euros have kicked our ass the last 30 years. They are clearly the favorites, and hat’s off to them. We relish the opportunity to take them down.

I guarantee results will improve when humility and sportsmanship intersect with rationality.