2021 Ryder Cup: Paths to victory for the United States and Europe at Whistling Straits


Team golf events offer innumerable paths to an end result. This is true in any sport, ostensibly, but because there are 28 “games” played in a Ryder Cup, the combinations and permutations that lead to raising a trophy at the end of the week are much more mathematically complex than in, say, a seven-game series or a one-game playoff that are often determinants of champions in baseball, basketball and football.

With this immense number of possibilities up in the air, it’s basically impossible to predict the very specific scenario that will play out at this 43rd Ryder Cup (especially since the pairings for Day 1 are not even known yet), but broadly-speaking we can map the routes to the 14.5 points it will take for the United States to win the Ryder Cup and the 14 points it will take for Europe to retain it. We can speak in generalities since we mostly know which players will be playing the most matches and which ones mesh well with the statistical profile of Whistling Straits.

The United States has more attractive contingency plans than Europe. This is not surprising, and it is often a good thing, although the U.S. has at times in the past proven that having so many options doesn’t necessarily lead to choosing the correct one. Europe’s choices are more straightforward, and they are epitomized by what Thomas Bjorn told Rory McIlroy in 2018 in Paris after he and Thorbjorn Olesen got lit up by Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler on Friday morning with the U.S. leading 3-1 going into the afternoon.

“The only thing I said to Rory is, ‘We go again,'” recalled Bjorn. “It was a bad morning. He didn’t play well, and you go again. You go out there, and you bring a different type of game.”

Europe won the next eight points, by the way, and ran away with the 42nd Ryder Cup. The point here is that Europe is loaded — like, loaded — at the top of its roster, but the drop at the bottom is steep, and it gets even steeper when you factor in course fit for short hitters like Ian Poulter, Matt Fitzpatrick and Lee Westwood.

So Europe presumably has a simpler Plan A, but it has also been tremendous at choosing which Plan B to utilize. I doubt Thomas Pieters was slated to go all five matches at Hazeltine in 2016 when he went 4-1-0. Same with Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood in Paris when they combined to go 9-1-0. But they rode the hot hand and seem to more often push the right buttons when it comes to playing or sitting guys.

The opposite example of this comes from 2014 when Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed were benched in the afternoon session on Day 1 after winning 5 and 4 in their first match over Poulter and Stephen Gallacher just one Ryder Cup after Poulter ripped their hearts out. If that was a Euro team with two rookies that had just destroyed the other team’s soul, there’s no chance they would have sat in the afternoon.

Anyway, even though a lot of those contingencies remain unknown in the days leading into this Ryder Cup, I’ve laid out the blueprint for each team going into these matches at Whistling Straits. Here’s how each team can win the 2020 Ryder Cup.

United States

As noted above, the U.S. advantage here is its monumental depth, which will shine in singles when it will be favored in 8-10 of the matches. Theoretically, if you can get to Sunday tied, your team should be fine. So how do you get to Sunday tied? Here are some recommendations.

  • Be willing to flex out of a pairing you’re planning on playing every match like Spieth and Justin Thomas or Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele if they aren’t going well. If they’re hot, let them go, but if not, it’s fine to pull back a bit and stack a fresh deck on Sunday. Somebody will be hot, and you can ride a Brooks Koepka and Daniel Berger or Collin Morikawa and Johnson pairing if they’re showing out. If Berger and Koepka are torching everything they look at, let them eat! This is an amenity Europe just doesn’t have.
  • Remember that having depth doesn’t mean that every pairing should play the same number of matches. It means that you have more opportunities to find some fire early and let two world-class players rack up points for you throughout the week.
  • Let the probable pairing of Scottie Scheffler and Bryson DeChambeau light the course on fire in four-ball and then hide them in alternate shot.
  • Preach the importance of Sunday. The winning team in eight of the last nine Ryder Cups has won Day 3. This is the point of the week when Europe’s horses will probably be emotionally depleted. They sent five (!) guys out for all five matches in 2016, and they combined to go just 2-2-1 in singles. Sunday is where the U.S. has the advantage, both because it can match up its power off the tee against a severe lack of it on the Euro side (this is especially true at the bottom of both rosters) and because it will likely have fewer exhausted players at the top.
  • This resting strategy seemingly contradicts my first point that you should ride hot players into the ground, but I think the points can coexist for two reasons. The first is that the burden of going all five matches is weightier when you know you have to (Euros) rather than when your captain is selecting whoever is playing the best to also play the most. The second is that 2016 is again instructive. The U.S. let Reed and Spieth go five matches (as it should have) but didn’t find anyone else to ride. Europe spent those five players early, and there’s a real difference on Sunday between letting two go the distance and forcing five to do so.
  • Sunday is also where youth can be leveraged. J.T. and Spieth should have no problem going all five if you need them. They’re young, hungry and ready to rock. Europe may ask Garcia and Paul Casey to go four or five each, which means they could be toast come Sunday afternoon.

Europe

Padraig Harrington’s team may have the two best players in the event, and though neither played well in Paris, they don’t have an unconventional course setup to fall back on this time around to propel the rest of the team forward. I’m less sure of probable pairings on the European side, so I’ll give some recommendations for them on a more individual basis.

  • Jon Rahm and McIlroy will be asked to play all five matches and likely won’t be paired together. How many points do they have to win for Europe to have a shot on Sunday? At least five or six, surely, depending on who they square off against. If they win four or fewer points over the first two days, it’s difficult to see Europe retaining the Cup.
  • Someone unexpected must emerge. The most likely candidate here is Viktor Hovland, whose skill set fits this course well and could be the Pieters or Molinari of this Cup. Europe is not going to be able to play its lions (specifically Westwood and Poulter) as much as it would like, which means a younger player will need to pick up the slack.
  • Garcia needs to putt well. Garcia will likely play a lot this week — he’s played 41 of a possible 44 sessions over the course of his career — and he’s been flushing it all summer. If he rolls it well this week — and Europe gets what it thinks it will out of Rahm and McIlroy with Hovland crushing — the U.S. could be in some trouble on Saturday night.
  • Figure out how to keep it close to tied going into Sunday. I know Europe came back from deep at a lengthy course in 2012 at Medinah, but that took a miracle, and it was against a much shorter-hitting team on the U.S. side than they will face this time around. If they’re down by 2-3 going into Sunday like they were in 2016, that’s a wrap.
  • Steal some singles points with your lesser players. By my estimation, Europe has the six worst players at this event. That’s a very relative term given the fact that these are 24 of the very best players in the world, but they will need some of those players to halve matches or rip off upsets on Sunday to have a chance at winning for the eighth time in the last 10 tries.

Rick Gehman is joined by Kyle Porter, Greg DuCharme and Mark Immelman to preview the 2021 Ryder Cup. Follow & listen to The First Cut on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.





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