CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Every team has an identity, a collective personality often born from adversity and perseverance, but this U.S. team – with a core that’s travelled and won from Wisconsin to North Carolina – is difficult to quantify.
Early in the week at Quail Hollow Club, International captain Trevor Immelman said what many were thinking.
“We're up against maybe the strongest American team ever assembled on paper,” he announced.
The affable South African isn’t prone to hyperbole and, as he said, on paper this group has an impressive resume having won the last two international matches, including last year’s Ryder Cup and this week’s bout with the Rest of the World, by a combined 15 points.
Both U.S. teams were led by a foundation that includes Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele, and both teams began each week as overwhelming favorites.
It would have been easy for the Americans, a 6 ½-point favorite at Quail Hollow, to stumble into what was essentially a trap game. Few outside the International team room gave the depleted side much of a chance and for two days the American team played the part, rolling up an 8-2 advantage that felt even bigger.
Immelman’s praise hung in the air like a Tony Finau drive. If this isn’t the American’s best 12 ever assembled, then who is?
Saturday took a bit of the edge out of the conversation.
The International team tied the Day 2 foursomes frame, led by Adam Scott, Hideki Matsuyama and soon-to-be-household star Tom Kim, and pulled to within four points with three victories in the final fourball session.
“We've got a lot of pissed off guys that want to come out really strong tomorrow,” Spieth said in the Saturday twilight.
On cue, captain Davis Love III’s front-loaded lineup put red flags on the board early on Sunday.
Spieth made quick work of Cam Davis, 4 and 3, in the day’s second match and Cantlay closed out Scott on the 16th hole. By the time Schauffele held off Corey Conners for a 1-up victory to clinch the Presidents Cup, whatever drama remained was released along with no small amount anxiety.
The overwhelming favorites had been pushed harder than many had anticipated and instead of joy and jubilation, the celebration felt more like relief.
“If they didn't recognize that, then yesterday they found out because yesterday afternoon we came in strong,” Scott said when asked if the U.S. team understood the challenge.
It was a solid victory and one that should allow for Zach Johnson, next year’s U.S. Ryder Cup captain, to build on, but it was far from flawless or historic.
It didn’t sniff the record for largest margin of victory in the competition, an 11-point mark set by the U.S. in 2000. And the Sunday split, 6 ½ to 5 ½, in favor of the Americans, suggested more parity than some would have thought.
This team of young, fearless players who have obviously bonded, is the future of American team golf and a reason for fans to be optimistic for the future. But the best of all time?
“It’s hard to rank them, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be on the other side,” said Love, who has been part of cup teams since 1993. “When we left here [Saturday] night we just looked [at the singles matches] and were like, there’s no chance [for the International team to win]. Look at who they have to play, and those guys (the Internationals) really played well.”
The American team, riding high on victory and light beer and cigar smoke, wasn’t focused on historical context late Sunday at Quail Hollow. The final day had been a grind, which itself is a testament to how close the two teams are. But there was reason to rest in the assuredness that this success can travel from one competition to the next.
“The kind of team rooms that I've mentioned that we've had the last few years, it's going to stay that way, and I'm very confident in our ability to go over [to Italy for next year’s Ryder Cup] and win,” said Spieth, the undisputed Man of the Match with a 5-0-0 record, who improved to 8-2-0 in team play alongside Thomas in combined Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup play.
But none of that quantifies how this team – with a clear core and a promising group of newcomers – compares to others.
Good? Sure. Great? Maybe. Best ever? Probably far too early for that.
This U.S. team certainly has the foundation for that lofty status, but a closer examination of the last two victories creates more questions than answers.
Last year’s European team was very much a “tweener” group with the likes of Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Sergio Garcia in the mix and past their primes. The team was, according to longtime observers of the Continent’s side, a watered-down version of what it once was.
Similarly, there’s no ignoring the impact LIV Golf had on this week’s International team, with Cam Smith, Marc Leishman, Joaquin Niemann, Carlos Ortiz, Abraham Ancer and Branden Grace all deemed ineligible when they signed on to play the Saudi-backed league. Immelman largely took the high road when pressed about LIV’s impact on the matches, but an ill-timed tweet by CEO Greg Norman prompted Immelman to lash out with a simple reply: “LOL.”
“Any of you that have known me for the longest time know that I'm an extremely open and honest person. I pretty much say it exactly as I'm thinking it,” Immelman said. “What I said was exactly what I was doing when I read that tweet. I was laughing out loud. I learned long ago that lying is dangerous because you've got to have a good memory. So, I'd rather just tell the truth.”
The U.S. took some losses to LIV as well, most notably Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka, but they didn’t cut as deep as they did for the Internationals. It’s remarkable how LIV’s influence decimated the International team, but the U.S. team was in many ways a better version of itself.
Gone was the team-room conflict that was created by last year’s man-spat between DeChambeau and Koepka. And the looming presence of Patrick Reed, who alienated many with his comments following the U.S. Ryder Cup loss in 2014, is no longer an issue.
“You can’t really gauge it on this year. It’s not a fair year. Obviously, we missed a guy or maybe two, we lost veteran leadership, for sure, but they lost a lot of guys [to LIV Golf],” Love said.
The U.S. team was also dogged by some surprisingly pedestrian performances, particularly from world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, who posted an 0-3-1 mark and spent Saturday evening putting under the lights with vice captain Steve Stricker looking on. Sam Burns, a rookie who many expected to have a breakout week, played well but was also winless, going 0-3-2 record. The trouble with team events is they often promote a prisoner-of-the-outcome mentality without taking into account the vagaries of match play, but those two performances are certainly worth considering alongside any “strongest ever” conversation.
There’s no denying the U.S. team’s talent and depth and they’ve come by their optimism honestly, but this group – who are almost all still in their 20s – still has plenty to prove.