CHARLOTTE, NC – In the mid-2010s, when Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed formed Team USA’s most formidable partnership, they took an interesting approach inside the ropes.
They wanted to break each other’s brains out.
Unusual, to be sure, but Spieth once explained that neither player liked the idea of the other getting more credit for a win. And so they competed with each other, thinking that if they each played at a high level, their opponents would have to be nearly perfect to beat them. It worked, somewhat, with the duo going 8-1-3 before splitting up ahead of the 2018 Ryder Cup.
That ultra-competitive mentality has permeated this American team, but on a larger scale. And in a healthier way.
“It’s almost like we’re all going to compete with each other to get as many points as we can on our team,” Spieth said this week at Quail Hollow. “We want bragging rights on our own team.”
That’s why the talk of American complacency in this Presidents Cup is so misguided.
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Look at the makeup of this US junior roster, there’s no shyness here.
They are wired to crush their competition.
It’s all they’ve ever known.
Spieth is the most experienced member who has struggled in this format since his youth. His partner is Justin Thomas, who burns like anyone else on the Tour. Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele have proven to be cold-blooded killers, not only individually, but especially together as partners, unflappable, unwavering and unyielding. Billy Horschel and Kevin Kisner have built successful careers on the foundation of slights or perceived slights. And so.
“Everything is very different,” Schauffele said, “but we share the same kind of determination, fight and desire to win. So it’s really special for that.”
There is no doubt that the international team has been deeply affected by a wave of defections from LIV.
All the Americans have done is shrug their shoulders.
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Sure, they acknowledge, it’s unfortunate for international captain Trevor Immelman, who has pulled out all the stops for three years to build on the momentum of 2019, only to have his progress slowed first by COVID and then by the players who left. As a result, eight rookies have landed on this year’s team, perhaps the fresh start he needed after going 1-11-1 in this event.
But the US players don’t feel sorry for or downplay their opponents, nor do they approach this task any differently, even if oddsmakers see them as heavy favorites with a projected 6 ½-point winning margin.
“I think it’s going to be extremely competitive,” Spieth said, doing his best to stifle any pre-tournament narrative. “We are not complacent. I haven’t heard an ounce of complacency in the room from our team. I’m not worried about that one bit.”
There is also no one on the backroom staff at Davis Love III. It was Love, after all, who led the 2012 Ryder Cup team that gave up a 10-6 lead on the final day. Memories of that miserable day in Medinah still haunt the team members.
“We didn’t take enough time and we didn’t do the right things,” said Steve Stricker, who played in the 2012 team that tied for the biggest final matchday collapse in cup history. “We probably don’t think about it enough.”
And so when Stricker had his own turn as captain, at the 2021 Ryder Cup, he was determined to do things differently. Knowing that the Europeans would have no choice but to burden their lineup with a six-shot deficit, the Americans combined strength with strength. Tiger Woods texted the team to “step on their necks.” Even the normally reserved Cantlay stomped to the shooting range, reminding his teammates to “lock up” and try for 20 points.
The Americans quashed a European rally before it materialized, falling short of the 20-point mark but earning a historic 19-9 victory that ushered in a new era of American dominance.
That cruelty has carried over to Quail Hollow.
“There is no complacency here at all,” Stricker said. “These guys know that over the course of 18 holes, anybody can beat anybody at this level. There isn’t one of them who isn’t taking this very, very seriously.
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“That’s been Davis’ approach to this and the messaging: that we can’t think we can just show up and win this. We have to go out there and play well and take care of business.”
That’s where personal pride comes into play.
This is one of the strongest and deepest American teams on record (average world ranking: 11.8), and each one strives to be the MVP, earning bragging rights among this gleaming bunch. In contrast, no one wants to be remembered as the weakest link, as the player who scored the fewest points on what should be a dominant roster.
“Obviously we’re not playing against each other, but I think we take pride in our individual results,” Finau said. “These are guys you respect. These are the best of the best. I think all of us are looking to have a great record this week.”
Even if this Presidents Cup is short on juice for the weekend, those individual marks will still be vitally important. Some of these American stars are already destined for the Hall of Fame, but for others, who knows? – his sterling records could make all the difference in the future. Others, like youngsters Cam Young and Sam Burns, want to make their cup debuts properly. Veterans like Kisner and Horschel could be auditioning for next year’s Ryder Cup in Italy.
“These are the most competitive guys I’ve ever met,” Morikawa said. “All professional athletes are competitive, but when you put us, especially golfers who are so individualized, in a room together, we’re so self-sufficient that complacency really isn’t a thing. In our hearts, we all know that it comes within us, and we strive to be the best.”
Because the best in your own stacked team probably means the best in the entire event. Good luck getting over that.