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7 Ryder Cup takeaways: U.S. stars struggle as European vets deliver

PARIS – And there you have it, the curtain has fallen on the 42nd Ryder Cup. The final score shows 17.5-10.5, but if you were out among the masses at Le Golf National on Sunday afternoon, it certainly felt a lot tighter than that, at least for part of the afternoon. Europe put on a huge finishing kick, winning six of the day’s final seven matches. Holding a four-point lead to begin the day, Europe responded by winning the singles, 7.5-4.5.

Here are seven takeaways from the week:

1. For the U.S., their big guns simply didn’t fire. The top five ranked players on the U.S. side – all in the world top 10 – combined for a record of 10-15-1. World No. 1 Dustin Johnson finished 1-4 for the U.S., winning an opening four-balls match with Rickie Fowler, then losing his next four, including a singles match to Ian Poulter. Something had to give in that match; neither had ever lost in Ryder Cup singles. Johnson fell to 3-1 while Poulter moves to 5-0-1. Take Justin Thomas (4-1) out of that top-5 mix on the U.S. side and Johnson, Brooks Koepka (1-2-1), Bryson DeChambeau (0-3), Rickie Fowler (1-3) and Jordan Spieth (3-2) were a combined 6-14-1. That’s not going to get it done.

“Our studs,” said one person from the U.S. team room, “didn’t play like studs this week.”

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2. Tiger Woods appeared tired. Coming off an emotional week in Atlanta, where he won for the first time in more than five years, Woods showed up to Le Golf National and just looked gassed. He added the WGC-Bridgestone to his late-summer schedule once he qualified and played all four FedEx Cup Playoffs events, and ended up playing seven tournaments in nine weeks. It showed.

He didn’t drive the ball with the authority he had a week earlier, and he ended up with a record of 0-4, his worst showing in eight Ryder Cups.

“For me, it's been a lot of golf for a short period of time,” he said. “I’ll have a better understanding of what my training needs to be for next year so that I certainly can endure the entire season, because this year was very much up in the air of how much I would play or if I would play at all.”

Woods played 18 tournaments plus the Ryder Cup in 2018, one year after playing three competitive rounds of golf. His 18 starts represented his most since 2012. Next year’s Presidents Cup will be played months after the finish of the FedEx Cup Playoffs, at Royal Melbourne in Australia, so Woods will have more time to space out his schedule. Then again, as of now, he’s scheduled to be the captain, not one of the team’s players.

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3. At 48, Phil Mickelson came to Paris knowing the reality that this likely was the last Ryder Cup he’ll play outside of the U.S. On Sunday, after losing in singles to Francesco Molinari – a match that ended abruptly on the tee at 16 after Mickelson’s tee shot plunged into the water, Mickelson brought up the possibility that this could be his last Ryder Cup, period. This was his 12th U.S. Ryder Cup team, and he was asked what the event has represented to him.

“It's difficult to talk about it because it means so much to me over the years, and I did not play well this year,” he said. “This could very well, realistically, be my last one.

“But with these guys, I'm motivated now to work hard, to not go out on this note, and I'm motivated to play well these next two years to get back at Whistling Straits (the 2020 venue) and to show what I can do in these events, because this week was not my best. I was not playing my best, and I spent more time hitting balls throughout the week than I have all year trying to find something that would click, and it's just been a struggle. The last month has been a struggle.”

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4. Italy’s Francesco Molinari entered this week’s Ryder Cup with a record of 0-4-2 in two appearances, having never won any of his six matches. And then he teamed with Tommy Fleetwood (aka MoliWood) to go 4-0 in the team session, and became the first European in history to go 5-0 when he defeated Mickelson, 4&2. (Fleetwood had a chance to go 5-0 but was beaten in singles by Tony Finau.)

Historic. Better yet, Molinari now has been on three winning teams.

“I’ve been part of another two winning teams where I didn't bring full points, and I'm glad after I've been carried on the shoulders by some of these guys to give something back,” Molinari said. “But it's about every one of these guys, the vice-captains … it's just the best team I've ever been part of by miles.”

Molinari wasn’t the only history-maker. Sergio Garcia on Sunday established a new record for points won, moving to 25.5 for his career, ahead of Sir Nick Faldo, when he defeated Rickie Fowler in the singles. He improved his record to 22-12-7.

5. The 18th hole at Le Golf National is an absolute beast at 471 yards, demanding a tee shot hit into a slim sliver of a fairway (water on the left, deep bunkers right) and an approach shot hit to an island over water – with, oh, tens of thousands of fans in the amphitheater that surrounded the 15th, 16th and 18th greens.

It made for an incredible setting.

Before Sunday, only two matches had gone down the 18th hole, and both were in the Ryder Cup’s opening four-balls session on Friday. On Sunday, three singles matches made it down the final hole, the last one finishing after the match’s outcome had been decided. Europe’s Rory McIlroy conceded the hole to Justin Thomas to lose, 1-down; Ian Poulter was conceded birdie to beat Dustin Johnson, 2-up; and Alex Noren made a long birdie putt to hold off Bryson DeChambeau, 1-up.

In all, there were only five matches that made it to the difficult 18th. Since 1979, the fewest number of Ryder Cup matches to reach the 18th hole had been seven, that being in 1979 at The Greenbrier. Two years ago at Hazeltine, where the U.S. won, 10 matches went to the final hole.

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6. Thomas Bjorn’s four captain’s picks outshined those picks made by U.S. Captain Jim Furyk at Le Golf. Bjorn opted for experience, choosing Garcia (3-1), Paul Casey (1-1-1), Ian Poulter (2-2) and Henrik Stenson (3-0). Those four were a combined 9-4-1. Furyk mixed experience (Woods and Mickelson) with two rookies (DeChambeau and Tony Finau). Three of his picks (Woods, Mickelson, DeChambeau) failed to collect a point, while Finau finished 2-1. Overall, the four picks were 2-10.

Finau, though the team’s final addition, was a nice surprise, finishing 2-1 and beating the red-hot Tommy Fleetwood in singles, 6&4. Finau made six birdies and not a single bogey in his 14 holes.

“There is pressure here like no other golf tournament we play,” Finau said. “I controlled my nerves pretty well. I know I had the game to do it. If there was any doubt about me being a pick, there shouldn’t be anymore.”

Bjorn was on the hotseat some after the selection of Garcia, who had not been in very good form this season. Garcia missed the cut at all four majors and failed to qualify for the FedEx Cup Playoffs. But once Bjorn called him, he worked hard to be ready.

Garcia was emotional after his singles victory over Fowler.

“Yeah, I don’t usually cry, but I couldn’t help it,” he said. “What a week. It’s been a rough year, but we fought hard. Obviously so thankful for Thomas to pick me, and believe in me, and so happy to get the Cup back here in Paris.”

Added Bjorn with a knowing grin on his face, “He wasn’t a bad pick, was he?”

Stenson, another pick who was playing on his fifth team, joined Molinari as the only other player to leave Le Golf without a loss. He went 3-0.

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7. Did the venue make a difference? You bet it did. Le Golf, set up tightly, lined with gnarly rough, and featuring slower greens than PGA Tour players are accustomed to seeing, is a course that the European players know very well. Tommy Fleetwood and Alex Noren won the last two French Opens that were staged here, and all but two of the players on the Euro side boast at least one top-10 in their careers at Le Golf. (Molinari, who went 5-0, has three runner-up finishes in the French Open.)

Justin Thomas, who was the best player for the U.S., tied for eighth at the French Open this summer. He was the lone player from his team in the field. Several other players came over and played it prior to the Open Championship, but the U.S. team didn’t have near the knowledge of the course that their opponents did.

“I think the Europeans definitely did a good job on the golf course,” Furyk said. “They know it pretty well. It was set up, they thought, in their favor, right? It was a tight golf course. It’s a wonderful golf course. … Their players played very well. We’ve just got to tip our caps.”

Good news for the Americans when it comes to next road Ryder Cup and the 2022 venue in Italy. The Europeans have no advantage there, at least not yet. The Marco Simone course north of Rome is still in the process of being renovated. The venue was originally scheduled to host the 2019 Italian Open, but it is scheduled to be played elsewhere.