At Ryder Cup, United States Must Embrace the Underdog Role

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterSeptember 23, 2014

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In America, we are used to being the best at everything. Frankly, even when we aren't actually the best, people in this country just spout off unprovable sentiments like "America is the best country in the world" and, sure, why not go with that, because it sounds just about as awesome as we know America to be.

We're the best at everything, especially when it comes to sports. (Except soccer. We aren't the best at that. And men's tennis, international hockey and a bunch of other Winter Olympic sports we try not to care too much about because we don't win.)

But in everything else, America rocks. We're the best.

Except golf. We are not the best at golf. Not this year. Not anymore. Does that mean it's time for American golf fans to embrace an underdog role? Could the Ryder Cup be looked at more like…the World Cup?

The Tiger Woods era is over, and Phil Mickelson is way past his prime, so American golf feels like it may be in a bit of a holding pattern, while European golf—led by Rory McIlroy—feels as strong as it's been in a generation.

Matt Dunham/Associated Press

That probably makes it bad timing for this realization to sink in, considering the 2014 Ryder Cup begins this week. There are surely a fair number of American golf fans who wish this was 2008 again, but sadly for them, the last time the United States took home the Ryder Cup seems like a distant memory today.

Jim Furyk is currently the top-ranked American in the world. Not to take anything away from Furyk's recent run late in his career, but the fact that he's the only American in the Top Five, and one of just two in the Top 10 in the World Golf Rankings, probably says more about the state of American golf today than anything Woods or Mickelson has (or hasn't) done on the course over the last half-decade.

Actually, it might go back even further than that. The United States is 25-12-2 all-time in the Ryder Cup, but the U.S. has won the Ryder Cup just once since taking home the title in 1999.

The Europeans have owned this competition for most of two decades, winning seven of the last nine competitions with the Americans, most recently the heartbreaking U.S. collapse at Medinah in 2012.

There will be no need for a miracle this year. At least, there shouldn't be. The Europeans shouldn't need it. With names like McIlroy, Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose and Martin Kaymer, the American side seems summarily overmatched.

Let's put the United States' chances in perspective: The best news coming out of the American camp this week was Rickie Fowler getting USA shaved into his head.

We have that over Europe. Haircuts. Or do we even have that?

AUCHTERARDER, SCOTLAND - SEPTEMBER 23:  Ian Poulter of Europe gestures during practice ahead of the 2014 Ryder Cup on the PGA Centenary course at the Gleneagles Hotel on September 23, 2014 in Auchterarder, Scotland.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

What the Americans don't have is the hottest golfer on the planet right now, Billy Horschel. Horschel finished tied for second at the Deutsche Bank Championship and then won both the BMW Championship and the Tour Championship to take home the FedEx Cup title…and $10 million.

Since Tom Watson made his Ryder Cup captain's picks on September 2, the day after Horschel finished two strokes back of Chris Kirk at the Deutsche Bank Championship, he didn't include the player who went on to win the Tour's final two events on this year's team.

Watson didn't pick Kirk either, for what it's worth. Kirk's run during the FedEx Cup events—he finished tied for fourth at the Tour Championship—have ballooned him to 22nd in the world, ahead of Webb Simpson, Keegan Bradley and one behind Hunter Mahan. Mahan won the Barclays in late August, which helped him earn a spot on the team, then finished outside the top 20—and twice outside the top 50—in the Tour's final three events of the season.

This is a tall task for the United States. But let's not sweat the small stuff too much with the Ryder Cup selection process. Horschel or Kirk or even a healthy Jason Dufner wouldn't make much difference this year. The Americans, with the FedEx Cup champion or not, would be marked underdogs in Scotland this week.

So should we just embrace that?

Can American sports fans truly embrace the role the underdog in an international event? Can we still enjoy the Ryder Cup if we don't think we have much of a shot to win?

Why not? We just did it this summer with the World Cup, and that was awesome (of course, there were more than just two teams competing in that, so the distractions were abundant, but people still cheered for the U.S. without much hope of winning the whole thing).

The United States Men's Soccer Team had no chance of winning the FIFA World Cup this summer—head coach Jurgen Klinsmann even said so before the tournament began—and yet record numbers viewed the tournament on ESPN, ABC and UniMas.

Did we really think the United States had much of a chance to win the gold in ice hockey in the Sochi Olympics? Really? They didn't even medal! Yet the ratings for the pool-play games against Russia and the semifinal against Canada were through the roof for NBC.

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

There's something comforting about being the underdog that most Americans never get to feel, certainly in a sports context.

"I think we've got a slightly different threat from America than we've had in the past as far as they really feel like they are underdogs and they are up against it," Europe captain Paul McGinley told reporters last week. "We've seen that in the past, certainly from a European perspective, how not being on form can really galvanize a team."

Serena Williams never gets to feel what it's like to play without the pressure of being expected to win. The USA Basketball team destroyed the field in the FIBA World Cup this summer, and the big story coming out of the event, suggested Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, was that it's all a big recruiting ploy for Mike Krzyzewski. The players can't even properly celebrate the winthat's how much pressure there can be when a team is the obvious favorite.

We don't have that in soccer, and American fans of the beautiful game have embraced the role of plucky underdogs. In hockey, sure, it's a little different, because while the Americans may never be the best players, we still house most of the teams in the best domestic league in the world. The NHL is, by and large, American, so it's odd and a little disappointing when Team USA doesn't medal in big events.

So perhaps that, more than the soccer parallel, is the best comparison for this Ryder Cup crew.

Yeah...he seems worried.
Yeah...he seems worried.Peter Morrison/Associated Press

Jordan Spieth and Fowler are two of the young up-and-comers in the game, and putting one of them with a Mickelson or Furyk in some of the early matches could be a nice bridge from who's old to who's new in American golf. Yet Spieth and Fowler have played in 189 PGA Tour events and have two wins combined.

McIlroy, for comparison's sake, has played in 87 PGA Tour events. He has nine wins.

It might take a while before the Americans—before any American—dominates the game of golf again. There is no pressure on the United States in the Ryder Cup. Nobody expects them to win.

This week in Scotland, if just for a few days, it might be OK to embrace that feeling.


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