Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
Haven, WI. When team USA left Le Golf National in Paris in 2018 - the sting of defeat was utterly painful. The assembled European squad beat the Americans in a lopsided manner -- 17½ to 10½.
The loss marked the 9th in the last 12 matches and 7 of the last 9.
The sting of losing was becoming a permanent feature.
What changed from that time frame to what transpired over three days at The Straits Course along Lake Michigan in Wisconsin?
The answers are multiple ones but they start with the selection of Wisconsin native Steve Stricker as skipper of the team.
The self-effacing 54-year-old had seen personally the results of past Ryder Cups and realized for a new day to dawn there needed to be a new game plan -- with new players.
Several weeks prior to the matches Stricker smartly recruited 12-time USA Ryder Cup player Phil Mickelson as an assistant captain. Mickelson had won the PGA Championship at Kiawah earlier in the year and his play prior to that event and afterwards was hardly meritorious.
Mickelson was a captain's pick in 2018 and his performance there was disappointing -- two matches played and no points earned.
Stricker secured Mickelson's involvement yet also sent a clear message -- getting a player's spot on the USA side would be entrusted to those now playing the best. Stricker saw the past as a likely loser and wanted a fresh slate from which to build the foundation for the next generation of USA Ryder Cuppers.
Five of his six captain picks were rookies -- Xander Schauffele, Daniel Berger, Collin Morikawa, Scottie Scheffler and Harris English. Patrick Cantlay, the other rookie, qualified outright. Keep this in mind, the team that came to Whistling Straits had the most rookies since 2008 when Stricker himself was a rookie on that team. The USA team was also the youngest in history. More importantly, the team assembled was the best ever when measured by their overall world ranking.
The personal side of Stricker was also a clear boost. Going into the matches the Wisconsin native leaned heavily on his assistant captains and solicited advice and counsel from the players. For Stricker, the goal was to get total buy in from all involved. But ultimately, the final calls would be his.
The preparation also meant removing distractions coming into the matches. Much was made of the constant back and forth comments emanating from Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Kopeka. Stricker smartly downplayed the verbal jousting and preferred to keep matters private. Instead of raising temperatures hotter -- Stricker applied water when needed and kept the focus on where matters needed to be.
The easy-going nature should not be confused with being lackadaisical. Stricker was keenly attuned to getting the right people paired with the best partners. In eliminating distractions and keeping matters focused squarely on the task at hand the American squad was ready to go from the very first tee shot in Thursday's opening foursomes matches.
In past years, the American squad when achieving success in a given session had then stumbled. In Paris, the USA led after the opening foursomes with a 3-1 lead. From that point onwards the roof simply collapsed.
The respect for Stricker was mutual. Players were impressed with his professionalism and desire to keep matters going as smoothly as possible. Stricker did not need to deliver a Vince Lombardi oratory to motivate players. He created a pathway easy to navigate and to follow.
Far too often the intensity meter on getting Americans to perform had actually been an anchor around their necks and the results showed. Stricker learned from that. Undoubtedly, captains on either side can receive too much attention when things go right and receive too much blame when things go south.
Ultimately, players have to perform when called upon. But getting them in the right position and making sure the task at-hand is not littered with mindless distractions is what frees them up to perform at their best.
Stricker indicated this will be his last captaincy. While he did not hit a single shot, he was the man who steered the American side to a tidal wave win. The next generation of players is now ready to move matters beyond the Wisconsin landscape.
Much was made of the tears Stricker would shed when asked about his love for the event and for the men who played for him. But it was that genuine quality that endears him to his fellow citizens in Wisconsin and the team he assembled.
The turnaround from Paris to Wisconsin is remarkable.
Stricker will never take the credit because no one knows better than him it's the players who must perform when the appointed tee time calls you to the tee.
The 43rd matches could well prove to be a watershed moment when the USA side now reasserts itself in these fabulous matches.
Steve Stricker take a rightful bow indeed.