Simon Briggs writes from Whistling Straits
Is history about to repeat itself in this rarely visited corner of America? The 2021 Ryder Cup feels like it could be 2008 all over again.
Wisconsin is no capital of fashion – its most famous attire being those infamous cheesehead hats – but Steve Stricker’s captaincy already feels as much of a throwback as the recent revival in 1980s-style crop-tops and stonewashed jeans.
Stricker has picked six rookies for his American team – the highest number for 13 years – in an attempt to overthrow Europe’s long-term dominance. Rugby fans might see this as a Will Carling moment: an underperforming team, which should really be making more of its wealth and resources, deciding to invest in youth.
Back at Valhalla in 2008, Stricker himself was one of the first-timers, along with Ben Curtis, Boo Weekly, Hunter Mahan, JB Holmes and the mercurial, fast-burning talent that was Anthony Kim. In the build-up, senior pro Phil Mickelson remarked that “I don’t feel as though there are any scars.”
Yesterday, the verdict from Tony Finau – not himself a rookie, but hardly a veteran either at 31 – sounded extremely familiar. “We have a team with no scar tissue,” Finau told reporters. “I see a change in culture. Hopefully we change the mould here moving forward, not just this Ryder Cup but many Ryder Cups to come.”
Those who don’t know their history, they say, are doomed to repeat it. So it would be interesting to know whether Stricker has spent much time raking over the ashes of 2008.
Anthony Kim, remember him?
Yes, Valhalla may have delivered a thumping 16 ½ – 11 ½ win for the Americans. But if you look at the bigger picture, it hardly delivered Ragnarok for the Europeans. Instead it was an aberration – their only loss in seven tournaments spanning 17 years. And much of the reason may lie in the mysterious disappearance of Kim.
The Korean American, then seen as Tiger Woods’s natural successor, made a compelling debut. On the course, Kim thrashed Sergio Garcia 5&4 in the matchplay. Around the fringes, he body-checked Ian Poulter in a symbolic territorial display. But he was racked by injuries, and left the tour in 2012 – aged just 26 – never to be seen again.
So what of this year’s crop? There is an obvious comparison between two luminous talents: Kim in 2008, and Collin Morikawa in 2021. Until Morikawa, no-one had ever made a Ryder Cup debut with two majors to their name. (Even Woods had only won a single US Masters before his own arrival at Valderrama in 1997, aged 21.)
As it happens, Morikawa – who won this summer’s Open championship at Sandwich – is another American golfer with Asian heritage, thanks to a Japanese father. But that is an incidental detail. The point is more that he is a generational phenomenon – golf’s very own Iron Man, thanks to his uncanny felicity with the mid-range clubs.
Morikawa has the potential to become the long-term scourge of Europe in the way that Woods and Kim both promised to be, but never actually were. Which makes his performances over the next few days all the more interesting. Many of Europe’s Dad’s Army (average age 34, as opposed to the USA’s 29) are unlikely to return in Rome two years hence. But their successors will thank them if they can keep an early lid on Morikawa.
New heavyweight rookies
Now we turn to two more heavyweights, in ability if not Ryder Cup experience. Both Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele were members of the famous “Class of 2011” – a group of half-a-dozen American players who dominated US college golf that year. (The same catchment also included two more seasoned members of the Whistling Straits group in Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas.)
Now 29, Cantlay was held back by personal trauma – the death of his friend and caddie Chris Roth in a hit-and-run car accident five years ago – and a lingering back injury, but broke through in style this autumn by winning the FedEx Cup. Schauffele is two years younger, and recently lifted the Olympic title in Tokyo.
Stricker’s six first-timers also include three slightly less obvious picks. Both 25-year-old Scottie Scheffler and 28-year-old Daniel Berger bring the aggressive, long-driving, pin-seeking, birdie-heavy game that Stricker sees as the blueprint for team-golf success. Finally, there is PGA Tour stalwart Harris English. At, 32 English is the second-oldest American here after Dustin Johnson. But even he doesn’t prevent this being the youngest American team since the inaugural Ryder Cup in 1927.
With neither Woods nor Mickelson present for the first time since 1993, this is the perfect moment to introduce the hottest six-pack of rookies that the Ryder Cup has ever seen. Should the bookies be right, Morikawa and Co will carry the USA to another Valhalla-style triumph, and leave “softie” Stricker sobbing in delight. But if such garlanded talents should fail, it raises an awkward question. Where the hell do the USA go next?