This story appears in the September 17, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine — and get up to 94 percent off the cover price. Click here for more.
On Sept. 28, when the Ryder Cup is contested in France for the first time, the Americans will try to do something they have not done in a generation: win a road game. The last time the U.S. brought the Ryder Cup home from Europe was 1993, when Tom Watson was the captain and American players were actually happy that he was.
Since then, the best thing you can say about the Americans’ trips to Europe is that they did not lose their luggage. Their losses have come by ugly scores (18.5–9.5, in Ireland in 2006), in ugly weather (at Celtic Manor, in Wales in 2010) and with ugly press conferences (Phil Mickelson taking shots at his captain, Watson, in Scotland in 2014). This year’s event feels different. The Yanks may lose at Le Golf National in Paris, but it won’t be ugly. This time, they’re ready.
Two years after whipping Europe 17–11 at Hazeltine, the U.S. is heavily favored to retain the Cup. There are a few reasons. One is sheer talent. The Americans have nine of the world’s 15 top players, plus Mickelson and Tiger Woods, giving them their biggest edge since the early ’80s.
Another is preparedness. America’s overseas drought began in 1997 at Valderrama. One of the most memorable moments in Spain was when Woods putted the ball off the 18th green and into the water. Afterward, captain Tom Kite rued his team’s unreadiness: “I should have been stronger in encouraging our guys to come to Valderrama for a practice round. We had very little knowledge of this golf course.”
Not a problem this year. Justin Thomas entered the French Open largely because it was held at Le Golf National. Jordan Spieth, Bubba Watson and Tony Finau played the course with captain Jim Furyk in July. Mickelson sneaked in a Monday round on his way from West Virginia to the Scottish Open. Brooks Koepka played it in 2014 while on the European Tour.
The final reason is subtler but perhaps most important: This time they are not just a collection of individual talent. They are an actual team. Half of the six members of the Ryder Cup committee, formed after the 2014 debacle and instrumental in the team’s selection, are players, including Mickelson and Woods. This event means more to them than it once did—and they actually want to win it for one another.
When they return to the course, there will be no awkward pairings, like the time rivals Mickelson and Woods were shoved together in 2004. Much has been written and debated about the fraternization among young U.S. golfers. Some love it; the grumpier disdain it. But the chumminess in this group is genuine, and it should help the Americans in France. Furyk can choose his pairings based on who shares the longest hugs.
Spieth and Thomas have been friends since childhood. Thomas lives down the street from Rickie Fowler and his fiancée, Allison Stokke. (“It’s a 45--second car ride, because I do drive it,” Thomas says.) Thomas and Fowler are so close that their parents shared a house at this year’s U.S. Open. At the end of the Masters in April, runner-up Fowler stayed near the scoring area to congratulate Patrick Reed, the winner. Spieth shot a final-round 64 while paired with Thomas, then went to the house where Thomas was staying to hang out that night. Koepka and Dustin Johnson, buddies and frequent workout partners with similar bomb-and-pitch games, are an obvious choice to play together.
Furyk can go with the tried and true (Reed and Spieth went 2-1-1 together in 2016), the ultra cool (DJ and Koepka) or the ultra geeky (Woods and Bryson DeChambeau, who could spend so much time talking about trajectories and poa greens that they risk missing their tee time).
Woods was the face of America’s Ryder Cup failures, but now he is a surprising part of its -renaissance. It’s not just his stunning play this year. (He’s vaulted from 656th in the world to 13th, the latest jump coming after his first victory on Tour since 2013.) The younger Woods was wired to dominate as an individual and sometimes seemed uncomfortable at the Ryder Cup. This Woods has embraced his colleagues.
Tiger has played several practice rounds with DeChambeau, and he plays regular practice rounds with Thomas at Medalist Golf Club in Hobe Sound, Fla. But the best partner for Woods may actually be . . . Mickelson. They have gone from icy rivals to almost-buddies. They rib each other publicly and will play a made-for-pay-per-view exhibition over Thanksgiving weekend—a joint venture that would have once been unthinkable. Neither is suited for 36 daily holes of Ryder Cup competition at his age. (Woods is 42; Mickelson 48.) But if Furyk tells his team that Mickelson and Woods will play together on Friday afternoon, the goose bumps alone should be worth two points.
All of this means that, when the U.S. puts tee to tee box at Le Golf National, it is a guarantee of . . . nothing. But while the European Ryder Cup players have long enjoyed a stronger esprit de corps, the Americans have now negated that advantage. And that should allow their superior talent to triumph.