Ryder Cup: How a WhatsApp ‘love-in’ and tattoo pledge inspired Europe

Le Golf National, France CNN  — 

In the end it was a demolition job, except the dream-wreckers weren’t the superstars of America.

The face of a dejected and tired-looking Tiger Woods told the story as the deflated USA team met reporters at yet another losing Ryder Cup media conference, this time near Paris.

It wasn’t supposed to end like this. They were supposed to be celebrating an historic Ryder Cup win in Europe. A first for 25 years, a hoodoo finally broken.

Instead, joking and laughing their way through their meeting with the media, it was the champagne-clutching European side who had dismantled arguably the strongest team in history.

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Tiger’s toil, ‘Moliwood’ magic

For Woods, the hero of golf for last week’s stunning comeback win, it was a seventh defeat in eight Ryder Cups.

The 42-year-old had been selected as a player for the first time since 2012, but the energy and emotion of a remarkable season took its toll and he lost all four of his matches at Le Golf National.

Despite his stellar career, the Ryder Cup has never been a happy hunting ground for Woods, and his performance in Paris took his record to played 13, lost 21, halved three.

“I’m one of the contributing factors to why we lost the Cup and it’s not fun,” he muttered from under the peak of his red cap as the incessant “Ole, ole, ole” chants from jubilant European fans rang out over the course.

The architect of Woods’ downfall was Italy’s British Open champion Francesco Molinari, who beat him three times in team play with partner Tommy Fleetwood.

The pair earned cult status during the week, fans created songs in their honor and devised a new nickname, “Moliwood,” or “Machinari” for being like a machine. Woods also lost to passionate Spaniard Jon Rahm in the singles on Sunday.

Picking the right partner for Woods – Patrick Reed and Bryson DeChambeau joined the list of unsuitables – remains one of golf’s great unsolved mysteries. Do they not ignite him, does he intimidate them, or do their opponents try extra hard because it’s Woods?

Golf - 2018 Ryder Cup at Le Golf National - Guyancourt, France - September 29, 2018 - Team Europe's Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood during the Foursomes REUTERS/Carl Recine
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Woeful wildcards

The four points Woods handed to Europe was part of the story, but the inquest will reveal the whole picture. And the recriminations have begun, from Reed anyway.

After a third straight defeat at Gleneagles in 2014, followed by Phil Mickelson’s public slating of captain Tom Watson, the USA set up its famous “task force” to address its Ryder Cup failings.

The commanding victory two years ago at Hazeltine suggested it was on the right track with a crop of powerful young stars.

But Europe’s victory near Versailles will send the task force back to the drawing board. One issue to address will be individual performances and the reasons behind them.

The 48-year-old Mickelson, handed a wildcard by captain and close friend Jim Furyk for a record 12th Ryder Cup, was a major culprit.

The fading left-hander misfired and contributed exactly zero points. It was his tee shot into the water on the 16th that sparked the concession that handed over the Cup. Very possibly the last shot he ever hits in the Ryder Cup.

Mickelson conceded he had struggled to find his game, but Furyk will be questioned for not choosing an in-form young gun, though he insists “Lefty” brings far more to the team than just his performance on the course. Somewhere back in Kansas, Watson must have allowed himself a wry smile.

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson failed to ignite and added a single point. Reed, dubbed “Captain America” for top-scoring for the USA in 2014 and 2016, was out of sorts and scored just one point. Another of Furyk’s four wildcards, DeChambeau, was also pointless.

For Europe, Thomas Bjorn’s wildcards Ian Poulter, Paul Casey, Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson added 9.5 points between them.

The clinical Molinari won all five of his points to become the first European to go through a Ryder Cup unbeaten. And all 12 players contributed at least a point.

Phil Mickelson concedes the match that confirmed a European triumph.

Uncharted territory

As Europe won eight straight team matches across Friday and Saturday, including an historic session whitewash Friday afternoon to lay the foundations for its 17½-10½ victory, the USA came under fire for struggling to adapt to the set-up of the golf course.

The tight fairways, thick rough and plentiful water largely took the driver out of the hands of the US bombers, and played to the shot-making strengths of the Europeans. Europe has big-hitters too, such as Rory McIlroy, but the feeling is they just figured out better answers to the questions posed by the course.

One significant stat was that the USA team had played only eight competitive rounds over the course before the tournament, compared with Europe’s 236.

Only Justin Thomas competed in the recent French Open at Le Golf National. Furyk insists the practice days he organized with some of his other team members were well attended.

“We were prepared, we played our practice rounds, we understood the golf course. We got out played,” Furyk told the sombre news conference.

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Conscious uncouplings

Other questions remain for Furyk. Why play the wayward Mickelson in foursomes when the alternate-shot format requires accuracy off the tee?

And why, in the same session, leave out Woods, whose iron play can be exceptional?

Furyk’s decision to split up the Reed-Jordan Spieth axis that has proved successful in the past appeared to be a masterstroke as Spieth and best friend Thomas returned three points together and were USA’s most potent weapon.

However, Reed was apparently fuming in the news conference when Furyk explained his thinking. Masters champion Reed claims it was all Spieth’s doing.

“The issue’s obviously with Jordan not wanting to play with me,” Reed told the New York Times afterward.

“I was looking at (Jordan) like I was about to light the room up like Phil in ’14.

He added, “Every day, I saw ‘Leave your egos at the door.’ They (the Europeans) do that better than us.”

The USA is always criticized for a lack of team spirit compared with the more natural camaraderie of Europe, and Reed’s outburst hints at yet more discord. Furyk and others, however, suggested the team was tight.

“This is an awesome team and we had phenomenal leadership,” said Mickelson, who is likely to be USA captain in the future.

“Our captain is one of the best people in golf and somebody that I’ve always looked up to and I cherish our friendship.

“Some of you will question some decisions but everything was done with reason, input, thought through and then it’s up to us to execute. We just didn’t quite execute. And let’s be honest. The European side played some exquisite golf. I mean, it was some phenomenal golf. And they flat out beat us.”

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Great Dane

McIlroy also described Europe’s leadership as “phenomenal,” singling out Bjorn for creating the right environment in which to perform.

Poulter and Justin Rose spoke of the calmness, professionalism, single-minded focus and “relentless pursuit of excellence.” And fun.

The tight bond among the Europeans was fueled by a “love-in” on its WhatsApp group, according to McIlroy, while the players had extra motivation in a pledge from Bjorn that he would get a tattoo on a private area of his body should they win.

Like Furyk, Bjorn was questioned ahead of the event for picking veterans as his wildcards – and in the case of Garcia, a player struggling for form – instead of one or two players who just missed out on automatic qualification. They rewarded him in spades.

“I couldn’t have dreamed of what they brought on the golf course,” he said. “But in the team room they bring the experience. They bring the understanding.”

He added: “We worked as a team. We knew we were up against very strong opponents but we believed in ourselves and what we stand for as a team. These players carry the torch for what the European Ryder Cup team is all about.”

PARIS, FRANCE - OCTOBER 17:  Thomas Bjorn of Denmark, Captain of the Team Europe poses for a portrait with the Ryder Cup during the Ryder Cup 2018 Year to Go Captains Official Photocal on October 17, 2017 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
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French fanatics

Home advantage is always key in sport and the 270,000 who filled Le Golf National during the week made it a spectacle of color and noise as the vast majority roared on Europe.

“The crowds were amazing,” said Garcia, who won three matches to overtake Nick Faldo as the leading points scorer in Ryder Cup history with 25.5. “They always are but it was just unbelievable how supportive. I’ve never had so many big cheers like I’ve had this week.

“I think a lot of people thought the Ryder Cup was over before it was played. I guess, unfortunately, they picked the wrong team.”