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Europe’s Jamie Donaldson during the singles. Photo: Action Images/Lee Smith
Europe’s Jamie Donaldson during the singles. Photo: Action Images/Lee Smith

Europe punches above its weight in Ryder Cup

Despite having a lower average ranking and a younger team than US, Europe tends to come together better as a team in the Ryder Cup

Tennis, at its heart an individual sport, is in an existential funk trying to figure out how to be a team sport that rallies around the idea of a nation. But there’s no such problem for golf, yet another individual sport at heart.

Golf has the Ryder Cup, and this biennial competition of 12 golfers, apiece, from the US and Europe is in a sweet spot.

As a team sport, the Ryder Cup is not time-intensive to necessitate a trade-off of personal goals—every golfer wants to be here. And yet, it is compelling enough in its construct to capture the imagination of the golf fan as much as a major. Part of the charm of the Ryder Cup is that, like tennis and the Davis Cup, it offers an immense amount of creative space to the underdog. As it will again next week in Paris.

Since 1979, when US versus Great Britain evolved into US versus Europe, there have been 19 editions of the Ryder Cup. The score reads 10 for Europe and eight for the US, with one draw.

It makes poorer reading for the US in recent times. Since 1995, the scorecard reads 8-3 in favour of Europe. This is despite European teams having a lower average ranking and a younger team than the US.

Choices, matchups, camaraderie, spunk, desire—in general, in the Ryder Cup, Europe has comes together better as a team and punches above its weight (chart 1).

This year, too, on paper, everything points to the US. There’s ranking: the average ranking of the US team is 12, while that of Europe is 18. There’s time spent in the pressure zone: the 12 American golfers have 16 titles between them in 2018, the Europeans 12. There’s consistency: the American team have missed 35 cuts this year, the European ones 45.

But when it comes to the Ryder Cup, where team chemistry and managing expectations are an entirely different challenge, the picture changes. This US team does have more participations in the Ryder Cup, as well as fewer rookies.

It also has a story in Tiger Woods: on a resurrection trail, playing in his first Ryder Cup since 2012, in an arena where he has not succeeded in the way he has at the individual level.

In the Ryder Cup history, Woods, the most decorated golfer of the last two decades, is ranked fifth in terms of matches played (33), but has a losing record. As does Phil Mickelson, who has played more Ryder Cup matches (45) than anyone in history.

Neither would have made it to this team on the strength of their current rankings, but have been drafted under a unique clause that gives captains discretion on four picks. After Mickelson and Woods, there’s a drop in experience to players like Patrick Reed, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth—all fine golfers who were lynchpins of the 2016 win.

Europe, on the other hand, has a quartet of players—Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter, Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy—who have great experience in Ryder Cup golf, with each featuring in at least four editions. They relish the uniqueness of the format, especially in the fourballs and foursomes of the first two days, where team-members compete as a pair. By themselves, each member of this quartet has a winning record (chart 3).

It’s set up nicely. The US looking to restore respectability to a lopsided score of recent years, armed with hardy generals and young stars.

Europe, once again, is looking to upend conventional metrics of measurement with a veteran quartet and five rookies, and home advantage; kind of like tennis and the Davis Cup, but without its conflicts of national identity.

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