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what's going on in American golf?

I was at Gleneagles on Thursday and Friday last week, and enjoyed the Ryder Cup immensely over the weekend. It’s great to see the European team having such a stranglehold over this competition, but it does leave you wondering what the story is with the Americans. They have now lost eight of the last 10 contests, and did not look anywhere close to challenging Europe this time round. As Tom Watson said, we “kicked their butts”.

The plot thickened later yesterday following Phil Mickelson’s destruction job on his captain at the post-event media conference. Other than the performances of most of the players on the course, if you ever wanted to see a clear demonstration of the difference between the two sides, several minutes of awkwardness in front of the world’s media tells you all you needed to know.

What makes this whole affair even more bizarre is that culturally, we Europeans have fought and disagreed over everything for centuries. We are still at it, and yet here we are giving the Americans a lecture on unity and togetherness. The irony is so thick I can taste it.

Mattering more

It strikes me that the bottom line in all of this, is that the Ryder Cup matters more to European golfers than to American golfers. You can see that written in the intensity, the body language, the team spirit and camaraderie, and the post match celebratory atmosphere. In my eyes, this year there was only a single American – the rookie Patrick Reed – who rose to the challenge over the competition, and actually looked like he wanted it as much as the Europeans did. One in 12 is not enough.

And I would include Tom Watson in that. There is no doubt that Watson is an magnificent champion in his own right, and a thoroughly polite, decent and genuine human being, but in terms of his captaincy role, I just didn’t think he had enough of a spark about him. He carried the same expression through the weekend, win, lose or draw, and my sense is that the Ryder Cup needs a bit more passion than that. It is of no surprise to me that Paul Azinger, who seemed to have no shortage of ‘mongrel’, or fire in his belly, was the last US captain to lead them to a win. If America are to get their Ryder Cup effort back on the rails, they could do worse than go back to him, or perhaps look towards another firebrand to build their team around. The bad news for the US is that we have a long line of captains-in-waiting for whom the Ryder Cup means everything – Darren Clarke, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood, will all take their turn in the years ahead, and I have no doubt that each will get all the buy-in they need from their teams.

Maybe Mickelson was as much of a problem in 2014 as Watson. It is extraordinary for a senior player to stick the knife into his leader so publicly, and so soon after the event as well. The relationship between leader and senior players in any squad is fundamental, and I reckon that Mickelson’s undermining of his captain would have been causing problems way before the press conference. Here’s a parallel – could you have imagined Roy Keane with his teammates picking holes in Sir Alex Ferguson’s leadership during the Man Utd glory years? I think not. Every general needs a strong sergeant. Watson, it seems, may have had them, but it was just that they were on a different page to him.

A strong base

At least in part, the foundations for our success in the Ryder Cup lie in the underdog spirit coursing through the veins of European golf. For a long time, and still to an extent, the European tour and the golfers associated with it have been in the shadow of our larger, richer, and more heavily sponsored transatlantic neighbours. I think this translates onto a collective “we’ll show them” attitude. It’s still prevalent – even this time round at Gleneagles, when we were the favourites, we still played like the underdogs.

Perhaps no single golfer embodies this better that Severiano Ballesteros. I loved everything about the way Seve played golf, especially in the way he used to stick it to the establishment – he was a true global star. In my view his passion for the game almost outshone his talent, and he was the type of individual who seemed to thrive on, or even live for, confrontation. What a figurehead, and what a leader. Seve, and others like him, set the tone for the Ryder Cup, and lifted it from a quaint biennial social outing, to the fierce global competition it now is. His legacy to European golf is still burning bright.

So, while we wait to see if the US can pick through the bones of yet another defeat and learn some fundamental lessons in how to lead and run a team, European golf can sit back and bask in the collective glory of another job well done. Hats off particularly to Paul McGinley, who in contrast to his American compatriot, earned and maintained the respect of all his players, before, during and after this competition, regardless of the size of ego. Olé, olé olé olé!

Yours in psychology,


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