JERSEY CITY, N.J. – It was the perfect storm.
As a fall evening slipped away and the most anticlimactic Sunday competition since Tiger Woods took a 10-stroke lead into the final round of the 2000 U.S. Open came to a close, the final score only told a part of the story as the Americans celebrated a 19-11 victory over the International team at the Presidents Cup.
It wasn’t nearly that close.
After three days of utter domination, the U.S. came out predictably and understandably flat on Sunday, dropping four of the first five singles matches after losing just two full points in the four team sessions.
After coming within two holes of closing out the Internationals on Saturday, the greatest American team in a generation only managed to win 4 ½ of 12 points, but on this the record books will be skewed.
A decade from now, observers will note that the Internationals lost by eight points, but that won’t even begin to paint an accurate picture of the 2017 matches.
International captain Nick Price called the U.S. dozen a juggernaut, while U.S. frontman Steve Stricker said his crew reminded him of the American team that finally stopped the European domination of the Ryder Cup in 2008 at Valhalla, only better.
The talent amassed on the red, white and blue side was undeniable, with the U.S. team featuring three of this year’s four major winners and four of the world’s top-eight ranked players. The American side was deep – deep like the 1992 U.S. Dream Team – and it was always going to be a long shot for an International team that hasn’t won since Bill Clinton was the nation’s chief executive; but in retrospect the bigger advantage went to current form, which weighed heavily in the Americans’ favor.
Eleven of the 12 Americans played last week’s Tour Championship, as telling a sign as any that Stricker would have no problem going with a “next man up” mentality. In fact, if there was a hole in the U.S. lineup, it was Phil Mickelson, who was one of Stricker’s two captain’s picks
“This team was just an amazing bunch of guys, amazing performance. Everybody was on great form. For us to have 11 guys in the Tour Championship; everybody except Phil Mickelson was at East Lake,” Matt Kuchar cracked, a not-so-subtle jab at Mickelson (who went 3-0-1). “It was like, how many times does it happen that you get 11 out of 12? If it was only for Phil, we would have had 12 of 12, but Phil was not there.”
The Americans nearly swept the opening foursomes session, winning 3 ½ of five points, won four of five matches on Day 2, and lost just a single outright team match in Saturday’s two sessions.
“We played maybe the most on-form United States team that I can remember,” said Adam Scott, the elder statesman of the International team.
The Americans also enjoyed immediate chemistry. There will likely be volumes written about this team, which promises to carry the U.S. flag for years to come, and why they gel so seamlessly. There are natural friendships, like Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler, who are South Florida neighbors and emerged this week as a new power pairing. There are compatible personalities, like Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed, who added a new chapter to an already impressive legacy. There are bona fide fits, like Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, whose power game paired perfectly in the fourball format.
But most of all there was talent. So much talent.
“This was one of the best putting teams I’ve ever seen,” said Woods, one of Stricker’s assistant captains. “I know that they are young, they are talented, hit the ball a long way, but in the end, look at how many more putts we made. Probably from [Nos.] 15 to 18, it was pretty impressive to watch.”
And, finally, this U.S. team had its perfect captain.
Stricker was serious and subdued and kept things exceedingly simple for his players. Where Fred Couples, who captained the U.S. team to victories at three consecutive Presidents Cup, kept things relaxed; Stricker seemed to embrace an edgy aggressiveness while maintaining a quiet and conservative demeanor.
Win each session was Stricker’s simple message and he maintained that Darwinian drive even as the Americans faced a 14 1/2 to 3 1/2 point advantage heading into Sunday singles. He didn’t complicate things, didn’t overthink pairings or attempt to reinvent an already productive wheel following the U.S. Ryder Cup team’s victory last year at Hazeltine National.
“We’d be the stupidest guys on earth if we split up [Jordan] Spieth and [Patrick] Reed, [Justin Thomas] and Rickie [Fowler],” Stricker reasoned. “That’s not the thing to do.”
It’s a commonly held notion that captains receive far too much credit in victory and a disproportionate share of blame in defeat, and some might argue that it would have been difficult for any captain to mishandle this Murder’s Row; but there’s no denying that Stricker’s style was a perfect fit for this team.
“He’s just such a great leader. He’s a quiet leader but he’s a really good leader and we all respect him. We all trust him,” Dustin Johnson said. “It really has been an amazing week playing for captain Stricker. I think we would all agree that he’s been an amazing captain this week. We all love playing for him.”
Whether this team goes down as the best ever depends on what they do going forward, and Sunday’s post-match news conference included its share of questions about next year’s Ryder Cup, but for an American side that not that long ago went searching for answers with a task force, it was a victory on many levels.
Those dark days seemed like a lifetime ago as the Americans boarded the ferry back to Manhattan and a celebration that promised to spill well into Monday morning.
Sunday’s swing toward the Internationals will blur the historical significance of the U.S. domination at Liberty National. Although the winning margin was not a record, the performance was unquestionably record breaking.
It was the perfect storm.