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2016 Ryder Cup: USA wins after 8 years


October 2nd 2016, Chaska, Minnesota, U.S.A.: Two years ago, Phil Mickelson opened his mouth. His timing was off but the message was spot-on. Team USA needed a change in direction in order to change its fortunes in the Ryder Cup.

Voicing his frustrations and criticisms in the aftermath of America’s 2014 loss at Gleneagles – and in front of then-captain Tom Watson – put Mickelson squarely in the crosshairs. But on Sunday, in front of a Hazeltine National gallery spilling over with national pride, Mickelson was taken off the hook.

The pressure he had placed on himself, the responsibility placed on the Task Force created two weeks after Gleneagles, and the charge given to the Ryder Cup Committee to regain the Cup, all came to a satisfying conclusion.

“There’s a lot of pressure on these guys over the last couple years,” USA Captain Davis Love III said in a packed media center Sunday night. “Obviously a few people in this room have brought it up – we haven’t had a good run lately, and I’m thrilled for them that they got the win.”

No one had to face more pressure than Mickelson. That Sunday night in Gleneagles, he was critical of how Watson handled the team, saying the players had no input in the decisions, and that the U.S. had strayed from the system used by Paul Azinger in its last winning Cup year in 2008.

Two weeks later, the PGA of America announced the task force, and the overhaul began. Of the 11 members on the committee, eight are current or former PGA TOUR notables – Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Jim Furyk, Rickie Fowler, Steve Stricker, Davis Love III, Tom Lehman and Raymond Floyd. Not so surprisingly, all but Floyd were constants in the team room this week.

But only two of the committee members actually played – Mickelson and Fowler. Both were sent out by Love in the top half of the Singles draw. Fittingly, both produced points, helping to prevent the Europeans from rallying like they did four years ago at Medinah.

Fowler won two late holes to beat Justin Rose, 1 up. Mickelson, meanwhile, produced the best performance of his Ryder Cup career, making 10 birdies – and needing every one of them to earn a half-point against Sergio Garcia. Had this been a stroke-play event, he and Garcia would have shot the low rounds of the day, 63.

In all, the United States won seven of 12 matches. The 17 points was the most produced by the U.S. since 1981, when Billy Casper captained his team to a 18.5-9.5 victory. Four years later, Europe ended its long losing streak – and has been the dominant side ever since.

On Sunday, Mickelson was asked about the Task Force, and the pressure this week to justify all of its actions since Gleneagles.

“The pressured started,” he said with a wry smile, “when some dumb ass opened his mouth two years ago.”

This Ryder Cup was a referendum, of sorts, on the task force – although the committee members insist Sunday’s result is not the end game. The Americans were certainly hoping for immediate rewards this week but understand the broader picture of long-range dividends.

“We have a bigger, wider scope of leadership,” said Love, in his second go-round as U.S. captain, having been on the losing side in Europe’s soul-crushing rally at Medinah in 2012. “You know, we’re now focused for the future. Obviously we had to build this team, but we’re also building for the future at the same time.”

Said Mickelson: “We need to build on this. Otherwise, it’s all for naught. We created a very solid foundation this year.”

Indeed. Patrick Reed, the emotional leader of the team, produced the kind of performance that the Europeans have leaned on for years with players such as Seve Ballesteros, Ian Poulter and Sergio Garcia.

Jordan Spieth, although not at his highest form this week (he lost to Henrik Stenson 3 & 2), will be a mainstay for years to come. Brooks Koepka also made a nice splash in his first Ryder Cup appearance. Fowler, after failing to win a match in two previous Ryder Cup appearances, had two wins this week.

And Ryan Moore, the last man on the team -- he got the final Captain’s pick a week ago after losing to Rory McIlroy in a playoff for the TOUR Championship -- had the decisive putt on Sunday that won the Cup, as he rallied to beat Lee Westwood on the final hole. He’s part of the inner circle now; don’t be surprised if he makes multiple Ryder Cup appearances.

Having a long-range plan was one of the pivotal goals of the committee. The Europeans seem to have a smooth-running engine because they stayed true to the blueprint. It’s no surprise that part of the Task Force’s goals was to imitate what the Euros were doing. No shame in being a copycat if it leads to success.

Success, however, will likely be much more difficult two years from now. The Americans won’t have the home-course advantage but instead must battle in France at Le Golf National. And they’ll be facing a European team not only eager to regain the Cup but one that may be more grizzled than the one Sunday with six rookies on the 12-man team.

Having raised the stakes this week, Mickelson fully expects they must raise their game in 2018. He’d love to be there again, although he’ll be 48 years old. Even if he’s not playing, he’ll likely have some role in the team room that week.

“For us to go to Europe and try to win the Cup is a whole different feat,” Mickelson said. “That’s going to require a whole different level of play, of solidarity, of fortitude – and we’re going to have to build on this in two years if we want to try to retain the Cup."

“So it’s important to start this foundation. Yes, it’s great that we had success this week, but it’s not about one year or one Ryder Cup. It’s about a multitude, for decades to come.”

Just then, Love popped the cork off a bottle of champagne. The noise forced Mickelson to stop in mid-sentence.

“That’s my cue,” he said, “to shut up.”

Darren Clarke - Captain of Team Europe
Captain Darren Clarke did not think Europe could have done anything more as they suffered a first defeat in eight years at Hazeltine National.

The Europeans arrived in Minnesota in search of a fourth consecutive win with six rookies in their ranks and got off to a horrible start, suffering a 4-0 whitewash in the opening foursomes session.

Clarke's men dug deep and when Rory McIlroy and Thomas Pieters claimed a third win of the week as a pair in the Saturday fourballs, Europe had clawed their way back level at 6½-6½.

The Americans won the remaining three matches in that session to leave Europe with a mountain to climb and then closed out a high-quality singles 7½-4½ to win back the trophy.

With eight wins in the last 11 contests, it is unlikely such an in-depth review will be required on the other side of the Atlantic, and Clarke felt Europe did everything they could to keep the trophy.

"I couldn't be more proud of the guys that I'm surrounded with," he said. "They did everything I asked of them. They tried their heart out. They worked hard. They fought hard."

"The bottom line is that Davis' team holed a few more putts than we did and they played better. So when it comes to it, the American Ryder Cup Team deserved to win this Ryder Cup and we're all gutted and disappointed."

"We will be back stronger to fight in two years' time in Paris."

"We couldn't have done anything more. I've had a wonderful group of vice captains behind me helping me every step of the way."

"The whole concept this week has been that we're here as one team, one unit and we've all made our decisions together."

"This just doesn't happen overnight. There's a year and a half of planning going into it and the whole backroom team and the support that I've had from the European Tour has been fantastic."

Clarke also insisted he would not have done anything differently and suggested, as is often the case in golf, what happened on the greens proved decisive.


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