No one threw Darren Clarke under the bus – “not yet,” joked Rory McIlroy – and there certainly won’t be any “task force” set up. Yes, of course, it was disappointing that Europe lost the 41st Ryder Cup and missed out on a chance of an unprecedented fourth win in a row in the transatlantic tussle. At the same time, though, there definitely doesn’t need to be a knee-jerk reaction to the 17-11 defeat at Hazeltine – our biggest loss since 1981 at Walton Heath.
Plain and simple, Europe’s enjoyable winning run in the event came to an end because they ran up against an American team that wasn’t just hungry for success but, most important of all, did what matters most on this stage by producing the better golf over three days. For a change, they were the ones who holed the crucial putts as opposition efforts slipped past on too many occasions, especially on that opening morning as the visitors suffered a 4-0 whitewash that left them with a mountain that proved too big to climb.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the guys,” insisted Darren Clarke, the European captain. “They did everything I asked of them. They tried their hearts out. But the bottom line is that Davis’s team holed a few more putts than we did, and they played better. The American team deserved to win this Ryder Cup, and we’re all gutted and disappointed. But we will be back stronger to fight in two years’ time in Paris.”
As is the case with any losing captain in this event, it would be easy to pick holes in some of Clarke’s decisions over the three days, especially when he didn’t get the performances he was looking for from his two experienced wild card selections, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer. On his 10th consecutive appearance, Westwood lost all three of his games, missing a short putt in the Saturday afternoon fourballs that allowed the momentum to shift back to the home team after Europe had won the second and third sessions to get within a point. Kaymer’s sole contribution – a singles win over Matt Kuchar – was too little, too late.
Eyebrows were also raised by Clarke, pictured right, leaving out Spaniard Rafa Cabrera Bello for the penultimate session after he’d gelled well for a second time with compatriot Sergio Garcia as they fought back brilliantly to secure an unlikely half point against Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth, as well as Andy Sullivan, who’d given a good account of himself alongside McIlroy on the first morning, not appearing again until the singles. It was a measure of the Ulsterman’s captaincy, though, that there wasn’t even a hint of displeasure in the European ranks as Clarke, his five vice-captains and the 12 players sat collectively in the giant media centre afterwards and displayed the team spirit that had been responsible for those three wins in a row and six in the previous seven matches, was still there even in defeat and can help Europe returning to winning ways at Le Golf National in France.
“It just wasn’t meant to be today,” said McIlroy after his first taste of defeat in the event. “But that will galvanise us. It will make us stronger to come back in Paris and I wouldn’t be surprised if you see a very similar team set up in 2018 and we try to get this thing back. There are plenty of positives to take. This group has got much closer over the past seven days and you could possibly see all of us again in the Ryder Cup in two years’ time.”
One of the positives was undoubtedly the performance by Thomas Pieters, the young Belgian vindicating his wild card selection ahead of both Russell Knox and Luke Donald by finishing the event as Europe’s most productive player with four points from five matches. It was the best return by a European rookie in the event and, with three of those points coming alongside McIlroy, that’s a pairing we can expect to see in Paris and beyond. “I’ve got a partner beside me for the next 20 years,” declared McIlroy. “I’m not letting anyone else have him [putting his arm around Pieters].”
While Pieters has nothing to prove on this stage – the same goes for Cabrera Bello, who picked up two-and-half points from his three games – the likes of Sullivan, Matthew Fizpatrick and, in particular, Danny Willett will all be hoping to do better if there is a second chance waiting for them down the line. “Shit,” replied Willett, the Masters champion, in reply to being asked to sum up his week – not helped by his brother making ill-timed and totally unnecessary anti-American comments – which saw him lose three matches.
“Sorry, would you like me to elaborate? Really shit,” he added to a chorus of laughter from his team-mates.
He was among four players who were unable to contribute – Westwood, Sullivan and Fitzpatrick were the others – whereas all 12 players in the American team weighed in with at least one point. In short, this was a contest where the tables were well and truly turned from recent years and the Europeans showed their class by taking that on the chin. While Phil Mickelson may have thrown his captain, Tom Watson, under the bus following a five-point defeat at Gleneagles two years ago, leading to the Americans then setting up a “task force”, McIlroy and his team-mates continued to stand “shoulder to shoulder” – Clarke’s motto for the week – and will be ready to do so again for whoever gets the job next time around.
“Some of the new blood that we have, they have got over their first Ryder Cup and now they know what it’s about and they know what they are going to expect next time,” insisted McIlroy. “We’ll go to Paris with a more experienced squad and a squad that knows what it feels like. We’ll have great leadership again, which is one of the great cultures of the European team. One of the big parts of our success is that we keep a core group of players and people in the team and around the team. They know; they have seen it all before and they have done it all before. This is disappointing. I wish we could have the feeling that we had in Gleneagles two years ago, but it will make it that much better when we have that feeling again in Paris.”