When Steve Stricker was unveiled as America’s Ryder Cup skipper for the next match in 2020, the amiable 52-year-old admitted it was “a dream come true”.
Stricker was handed the role for two main reasons. First, he is certainly well respected in the game and considered ‘one of the good guys’. Second, he has also served his time as a Ryder Cup vice-captain, as well as leading the United States to victory in the Presidents Cup match of 2017. In that contest, against an International team (which does not include Europeans), the States coasted to a 17-11 triumph, as they retained the trophy for a sixth successive time.
The Americans have had no such luck in the Ryder Cup, with the dominant Europeans winning nine of the last 12 matches since 1995.
And while ‘pleasant’ is a word which certainly describes Stricker as a person, the same cannot always be said for the atmosphere that has surrounded a number of recent US Ryder Cup teams – especially some of the ones that ended up being beaten.
So Stricker’s first task is to make certain he can develop a sense of harmony within the camp. The fact that the next encounter is being staged on home soil will definitely make it easier for him, and the Americans will be pumped-up and ready to attempt to win back a trophy they dominated between 1935 and 1981.
Even last year, when the Europeans named one of their strongest ever sides, the visitors were still expected to win. But instead of winning for only the second time in 37 years on European soil, they travelled back across the Atlantic with their tails firmly between their legs following a 17½ – 10½ hammering.
They had even taken an early 3-1 lead on the first morning before capitulating, and there was nothing vice-captain Stricker could do about it. Going into the contest, the stats were heavily in the Americans’ favour.
Consider this, as many as 11 of their 12-man team were ranked inside the world’s top 17, compared to just five players from Europe. Yet the hosts came out on top in three of the five sessions, which included scooping up the concluding singles 7½ – 4½.
The European side certainly played some inspirational golf, but their success was once again aided by a seemingly poor spirit within their opponents’ camp. Following yet another defeat by Europe, news of disharmony spread quickly, and this is something Stricker will have to try and dampen down if it pops up again. That said, the Americans have already been installed as the bookies’ favourite for the match, probably due to their home advantage.
Stricker’s Cup History
Stricker, who hails from Wisconsin, the state in which the 2020 match will be played, has already been involved in six previous Ryder Cup occasions. He contested three as a player, including the US victory of 2008, and three more as a deputy in 2014, 2016 and 2018. The 2016 match yielded an American win, but the other two went the way of Europe – in Scotland and France, respectively.
In 2014, he will have witnessed first-hand the disagreement involving Phil Mickelson and captain Tom Watson, when the US lost 16½-11½ at Gleneagles. In the press conference that followed that match, Mickelson compared Paul Azinger’s captaincy during the 2008 victory with that of Watson’s six years later.
He explained how Azinger’s style involved the players in the decision-making process and said: “We have strayed from a winning formula in 2008 for the last three Ryder Cups, and we need to consider maybe getting back to that formula that helped us play our best”.
In response, Watson said he had a different management philosophy to Azinger. Mickelson may also have been hurting at Watson’s decision to play him in just three of the five sessions, while seven of the American dozen contested at least four sessions that week.
Bad Blood in Paris
Fast forward to 2018, when the US next visited Europe, and it was a similar story – but perhaps worse on this occasion.
With Stricker once again acting as a vice-captain, he will have been aware of the spat involving Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth, who together had formed an excellent partnership in both 2014 and 2016. During these two matches, Reed and Spieth collected five points out of seven, losing just once over both fixtures.
But with Reed expecting to partner Spieth once again in 2018, he was dismayed to learn that the latter had expressed a wish to play alongside his friend Justin Thomas, who was making his Ryder Cup debut. Captain Jim Furyk agreed to play Spieth with Thomas, much to Reed’s annoyance. Reed told a post-match press conference he was unhappy with both Spieth and Furyk, and also complained about the captain leaving him out of two sessions, saying “I don’t think it’s smart”.
Reed, who is an honorary member of the European Tour, says Europe’s players “leave their egos behind” when they join up as a team to contest the Ryder Cup. Another issue last autumn involved Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson, who are apparently good friends off the course. But there were reports of the pair having to be separated at the post-match party in Paris, with Furyk claiming it was only a brief altercation.
So, Stricker has a lot to digest ahead of next year’s match at Whistling Straits, and his popularity among the players will be fully tested over the three days. He has already been given a vote of confidence by Tiger Woods, who has partnered Stricker many times in both the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup.
As for his own success as a player, Stricker is a 12-time winner on the PGA Tour, he reached No 2 in the world ten years ago and has posted 13 top-10 finishes in major championships. His highest finish in a major is runner-up at the 1998 PGA Championship.
But maybe his greatest achievement would be finding a formula that could create a strong bond among the players of the American Ryder Cup team in 2020 when they attempt to win back the trophy in his home state.