Not even Seve and Ollie won four matches from four as a Ryder Cup partnership, as extraordinary as they were, but Francesco Molinari, the Open champion, and Tommy Fleetwood, his long-haired lover (if you believe all you hear!) from Liverpool (OK, Southport) achieved that at this year’s Ryder Cup at Le Golf National, Versailles, France. Furthermore, Molinari became the first non-American golfer to win all his five matches in the contest. They were key players in Europe’s 17.5-10.5 victory, the third biggest European win ever. (There was only one halved match in it; Paul Casey’s singles against Brooks Koepka.)
This demolition job was accomplished against what was supposedly – with its nine major champions – the strongest US squad since their Walton Heath annihilation of the Europeans in 1981. There has only been one American win in Europe since then – another remarkable statistic. In the same period, Europe has won four times in the States. Perhaps it’s the jet-lag? I know these are all much-travelled international sportsmen, but if you’re Jordan Spieth teeing it up at 9 o’clock in the morning in France, that’s 3 am at home in Florida. If you’re Rory McIlroy starting out at 9 in the morning in Minnesota, that’s 3 in the afternoon in the UK. Maybe there is a fundamental advantage to Europe right there?
One thing which emphatically came out of this match was how hard it is to perform in the singles if you have played four times previously. Ballesteros and Olazábal found this, too. Six players tried this year. Fleetwood had won four from four; Spieth three from four. In the singles they both lost on the 14th. Dustin Johnson, the world No. 1, led 1 up with six holes to play and then went 6-6-6 and lost. McIlroy played Justin Thomas so something had to give there and in the end it was McIlroy who faded, but prior to the 18th hole he’d only had one birdie all day. Which leaves us with Molinari, the exceptional exception to every rule this particular week.
There was another man for whom this was a very special occasion. In a blog last month, I suggested that Sergio Garcia might tell the European captain, Thomas Bjorn, not to pick him because he was playing so badly. How did that work out? Sergio won three points out of four and with 25.5 in his career has now amassed more points than anyone in Ryder Cup history. In my defence The Times headlined with ‘Captain’s gamble goes against the lessons of Hazeltine thrashing’ and the Sunday Times had ‘Bjorn should have been braver with his wild cards’ but other people’s errors of judgement are no consolation. On the other hand, of course, what matters is that the one person who mattered got the call right. Bjorn’s four picks, like everyone on the European team, each contributed at least one win. Ian ‘The Postman’ Poulter delivered again by defeating Johnson in the singles while Casey and Thorbjorn Olesen likewise stepped up to the plate.
The French sports paper L’Equipe published a stat before the off showing that the 12 members of the European team had played a cumulative 233 competitive rounds at Le Golf National. The US had eight under their belt: four rounds by Thomas in this year’s French Open (coincidence or not, with four points from five he was the American’s top player last week), two by Bubba Watson when he missed the cut at the same tournament during his infamous ‘sightseeing’ visit in 2011, and two by Tiger Woods at the 1994 World Amateur Team Championship.
Oh yes, Tiger. His Ryder Cup record was never very good. This week he lost all four matches he played – the first time he’d literally been pointless – and with a total of 21 matches lost in the competition he is second only to Phil Mickelson (who has 22) in that unwanted regard. He has played in eight matches, seven of which the US has lost. He is the only player in the history of the event to have been on the losing side in six successive appearances. That’s another one for the record books. In fact, of Jim Furyk’s four wild cards, Woods, Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau all failed to contribute anything. Only Tony Finau, the last of his selections, who won two from three, came though for him. Furyk may cop some flak for that but the reality is that Woods and DeChambeau made perfect sense when he chose them and to replace Mickelson with Xander Schauffele was not a move every captain would have made…well, other than with the benefit of hindsight.
The United States raced into a 3-0 lead in the opening fourballs on Friday. They then lost the next eight matches out and, as they had been at Medinah in 2012, they trailed by 10-6 going into the singles. There was to be no phenomenal comeback here. Thomas beat McIlroy at the last after a drive into a bunker did for the Irishman but his colleagues could not build on that. Europe in fact sealed victory when Mickelson missed a putt to win the 15th hole against Molinari, who thus went to dormie 3. With Garcia and Stenson (who won all his three matches) also dormie, that was the 14.5 points guaranteed.
When it was over, Molinari said this meant “so much more than majors, more than anything. It’s hard not to get emotional”. At Le Golf National he played and beat Tiger three times. He had also beaten him on the final hole at Medinah to clinch the European victory six years ago. (BTW, he also played with him in the last round of this year’s Open!) The Ryder Cup goes to Italy in four years time, when Molinari is sure to be a significant figure. The suggestion is that Woods is likely to be the American captain in Rome. Why not? Competing on the course hasn’t suited him very much. However, I’m sure Frankie will be banking on still being a player by then.
You can follow me on Twitter @robrtgreen and also on my other blog: f-factors.com