SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – The winner’s press conference at the Ryder Cup never disappoints, for somewhere amid all the revelry and the inside jokes and the rapidly deteriorating sobriety are some truths about victory, about the unmistakable power of leadership and camaraderie.
The United States won this 43rd Ryder Cup by a record 19-9 margin because they had the superior players, yes, but isn’t that always the case in this biennial clash? This all-star squad’s average world ranking was more than 20 points better than the Europeans, with eight of the top 10 in the world. It shouldn’t have been close. And yet that massive talent disparity has rarely mattered; the Americans entered this cup with just three wins in their past 12 tries.
What was different this week was that U.S. captain Steve Stricker properly unlocked all of that talent, allowed it to be unleashed in a way that hasn’t been seen in more than 40 years. He was the perfect captain for these modern times, his master strokes all over this American thrashing at Whistling Straits.
“Let’s be honest,” said Dustin Johnson, just the second American ever to post a 5-0 record, “Captain Strick did an unbelievable job putting us all in the best position we could be in to win our matches.”
“Attaboy, Strick,” Xander Schauffele said.
“Our guy,” Tony Finau said.
Stricker’s brilliance was on display long before the Americans and 40,000 fans descended on his home state.
With the worldwide schedule in flux because of COVID-19, Stricker successfully lobbied for more captain’s picks, not fewer, wanting to rubberstamp those select few who played the best over the past year while also allowing himself some flexibility to create the roster that not only he wanted, but that his analytics team would approve.
“I was impressed by the amount of work and effort that went in by the captain and the vice captains,” Phil Mickelson said. “I was blown away, actually.”
Lingering in the background, using his words sparingly, Stricker shattered the notion of how a successful leader operates. He didn’t have the raging fire of Paul Azinger. He didn’t have the hard edges of Tom Watson. He didn’t have the quiet confidence of Davis Love III. Stricker was the same gracious, polite, humble Midwesterner he’s been his entire career – and yet he remained unflinching in his plan for this delayed captaincy.
After all, it was Stricker who ended Mickelson’s record run as a Ryder Cup player, and then convinced the lefty to swallow his pride and join the team as an assistant.
It was Stricker who snubbed Patrick Reed, moving on from the highly successful player who was also a toxic presence in the team room.
It was Stricker who resisted the calls to take a hot hand like Kevin Na, or a match-play ninja like Kevin Kisner, or a bulldog like Billy Horschel, all because he was banking on the winless, second-year player Scottie Scheffler.
And what of the storyline that has dominated the summer, the simmering feud between Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka? Stricker called each of the stars separately, gaining assurances that their pettiness wouldn’t cause a rift in the locker room. So unifying was Stricker’s reign that by the time Ryder Cup week arrived, the squabbling stars actually told Stricker they wanted to be paired together. Instead, they settled for a post-victory hug in the media tent, the cameras all rolling.
Typical of his soft-spoken demeanor, Stricker’s impact was as much about what he didn’t do.
In his recent eyebrow-raising Golf Digest interview, Koepka pulled back the curtain on the various demands of players during Ryder Cup week. Koepka may have quibbled with how he was portrayed in the media – “Y’all spun that negatively; I said it was different” – but his truth-telling had a purpose, and he likely spoke for many of the egomaniacs in the team room.
One of Koepka’s chief complaints was how differently Ryder Cup week compared to a major, and so Stricker made this high-stakes competition feel like a major. He kept team discussions brief. He invited the caddies into the team room. He made the wives and girlfriends part of the extended family. He cut out many of the players’ unnecessary obligations that distracted them from the overall goal: playing their best golf.
“It felt like a player-friendly environment,” Jordan Spieth said. “There were no big speeches; it was, Hey, you guys took care of business today, so go get your rest and take care of business tomorrow. He knew this team was playing phenomenal golf coming into this event and put us in position to stay out of the way. They did a lot of work setting this up ahead of time and then taking the back seat and the guys really took over.”
Added Stricker: “That was my style, both teams that I captained.”
It’s hard to argue with his success.
The Americans so thoroughly dismantled their competition at the 2017 Presidents Cup that they nearly clinched the title a day early. This group took a 11-5 lead into Sunday singles, and for about an hour, seemed destined to hang an unfathomable 21 points on the board. The Americans settled for a record 10-point margin.
“They obviously got it right this week. A very strong team,” European captain Padraig Harrington said. “But I’m happy for Steve Stricker. He obviously got his plan right. Whatever their prep was, they did a good job, and they came out and started well and kept the momentum going. It was just a tough one to overcome.”
Naturally, there have already been calls to bring back Stricker for another run, in 2023. Adored by his players, lauded by his assistants, he might be just the piece that can help the Americans win on foreign soil for the first time since 1993.
On this glorious afternoon, he had the full support of his crew.
“One-hundred percent,” Dustin Johnson blurted out.
“That’s a yes from us,” Spieth said.
But Stricker said that he won’t seek a second term. That this is big business, that a succession plan is in place, and that although it was a career highlight – especially winning at home, in front of his friends and family – he’s ready to turn off the intense spotlight, to seize back control of his life.
“It was an unbelievable experience, don’t get me wrong,” he said, “but I’m glad it’s over.”
Still, the next leader of the U.S. would be wise to follow Stricker’s example.
These are the best players in the world, and like all the greats, they’re competitively selfish. They’re motivated by victory but enraged by defeat. They’re natural showmen with outsized egos. They’ve known each other for years, decades even, and they’ll understand what will work better than some personality quiz or analytics report.
And so here was Stricker’s leadership guide for the present-day player: Collaborate. Provide the depressurized atmosphere they need. And then step back and let their preternatural gifts take over.
All that’s done the last two tries is produce historic results.