SAINT QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, FRANCE.. European Captain Thomas Bjorn faced a most difficult dilemma. Naming his four Captain’s picks was fraught with a range of difficult decisions and no doubt whoever he ultimately decided upon — there would be second guessers. The 47-year-old Dane is not a man who is indecisive and naming of Ian Poulter, Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia and Paul Casey drew plenty of responses with a good number scratching their heads and wondering the thinking when other younger players were available.
Fast forward to the recently concluded Ryder Cup matches at Le Golf National and with Europe’s resounding victory over a highly rated American squad the brilliance of Bjorn was certainly been validated. Unlike American Captain Jim Furyk’s four picks which were a depressing 2-10 — the Euro picks by Thomas put forward a superlative effort — accounting for a 9-4-1 record — over half of the total 17 1/2 points recorded by the side.
Bjorn’s fallback on having experienced players was led by 42-year-old Henrik Stenson. It was the Swede’s partnership with long time companion Justin Rose that signaled Team Europe’s resolve after trailing the morning session of fourballs by a 3-1 margin. The American momentum was certainly there and having Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler primed for victory would prove no easy task. Rose and Stenson dispatched them 3&2 and sent a loud signal that Europe was not going to go quietly — and ultimately at all. Stenson would end his week in grand fashion swatting away Bubba Watson by a 5&4 margin. What many might not realize is that Stenson and Rose earned a critical point during the Saturday foursome against Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepkla. Called upon to make a hole saving putt from 7 feet on the 16th hole Stenson did not waver dropping the putt to maintain a 1-up lead. On the long and demanding par-4 17th it was Stenson again coming to the forefront — sinking a 12-foot par putt and with Koepka missing from 7 feet for par the match was over. How important was that match? If Stenson and Rose had lost the overall score going into Sunday’s singles would have been Euro 9-7. Gaining the victory effectively made the mountain for the USA to overcome even higher to negotiate.
But the clear hero for Team Europe came from the brilliant golf displayed by Francesco Molinari. Remarkably, the 35-year-old Italian accomplished a phenomenal 5-0 record — something only done three other times and most recently by American Larry Nelson in 1979. This is the same Molinari who until this year had never won a match in past performances. Molinari and his partner Tommy Fleetwood had to tackle the likes of Tiger Woods and Patrick “Captain America” Reed and the USA squad believed this pairing would produce real success. Someone must have forgotten to explain that to Molinari and Fleetwood who thoroughly vanquished the previous week’s winner at East Lake and the Hazeltine hero in quick fashion holing time after time key putts and never letting up on the petro pedal. The margins were respectively 3&1 Friday and 4&3 Saturday.
Going into the matches Woods was looking to continue on the path he had demonstrated since The Open Championship — a clear return to the top floor of professional golf. Reed was responsible in guiding the American squad with his dazzling play and in his epic takedown of Rory McIlroy in the lead off singles match in ’16. Gutting the American duo, and doing so convincingly, was a clear and powerful statement that the American team would need to look elsewhere for leadership and success. That effort did come from Justin Thomas who finished the matches with a sterling 4-1 record but other such as Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka were clearly not on form and produced only two victories in nine matches.
An underlying aspect of the matches on the L’Albatros course was the set-up of the layout by the host side. Knowing full well how the Americans had altered Hazeltine National in ’16 with wider fairways, softer pin locations and far less rough — the thought process was to provide a venue in complete opposite terms. The length and density of the rough was especially penal. Failure to hit fairways likely meant difficult scrambles for par and more often bogies or worse. Given the fact that Team Europe was very familiar with the site — having Tommy Fleetwood and Alex Noren as past winners of the French Open contested at Le Golf National — the belief was that home course familiarity would be a pivotal factor. In the end, that assessment proved spot on as only one American team member — Justin Thomas — had played the course in competition when playing in this year’s French Open. Given the record Thomas amassed during the event one can only wonder if other Americans had done likewise in playing the course what their performance might have been.
Coming into this year’s event in France there was belief that the American squad, with its overall depth and individual playing records, would finally be able to snap the European home advantage and win for the first time outside of America since 1993. That didn’t happen at Le Golf National. The earliest it can happen is in four years when the event is played for the first time in Italy in ’24.
Team Europe will have some tough decisions to make before the next get together in Wisconsin. Chiefly, who will be the next Captain? Likely the name will come from the several assistants that were present to assist Bjorn. But the soul of the European team is how singularly important the matches are. The focus is on the overall team and until demonstrated consistently by the Americans an ironclad belief that no matter what Team Europe will emerge victorious.
Thomas Bjorn cradled the Ryder Cup upon its formal presentation. The hard work — the preparation — and the wherewithal to lead no matter what others said about his leadership. The Bjorn identity was forged by 12 men determined to return what they truly believe is their right to possess. America may have its “individual” golf stars but Europe has shown that no matter the respective country its members hail from — for three days every two years this line-up has an identity and a singularly minded purpose. Eur-eka indeed!
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