Americans choke in losing Ryder Cup

My column on the U.S. Ryder Cup collapse appeared last night on Sympatico:


It is a simple word, but in sports it comes with massive implications.

But there is no other word that encapsulates the historic meltdown the American team experienced during the final day of the Ryder Cup.

Heading into the 12 singles matches, the U.S. lead of 10-6 looked insurmountable. Then it all came apart under the Chicago sun. One U.S. golfer – Webb Simpson – got the shanks. Two other major champions – Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk – lost their matches by dropping the final two holes.  And Tiger Woods continued his grim play while battling for Sam Ryder’s cup by eking out a half a point – over all three days.

In a tournament where everything is amplified, everything is larger than life, the American team managed to lose to the Europeans in spectacular fashion. When Woods’ final putt slid by on the 18th hole to give the Euro team a one-point victory, it was simply the finale of a disastrous afternoon. In many ways it summed up the entire American loss.

“It all went to plan,” said U.S. team captain Davis Love III. “We were four ahead.  The plan worked the first two days — it just didn’t work today.”

Now that’s an understatement.


The full column is here. 

Now I wasn’t in Chicago, but I’m pretty surprised neither the Toronto Star nor the Globe and Mail had a writer at Medinah for what is the biggest golf event of the year. Is that a comment on the state of golf journalism, interest in the game or the struggles of the newspaper business?

Either way, the National Post had Cam Cole (or should I say Cam Cole’s Vancouver copy got picked up in the National Post). Cole says it was the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history:

Bernhard Langer is still with us, but he can rest in peace, anyway. The demons from that six-foot putt he missed to lose the 1991 War on the Shore to the United States have been exorcized.

Pigs have flown, Hell has frozen over, the Cubs have won the World Series.

And if not, it felt that way Sunday, when Langer’s only German successor as a Ryder Cup player, Martin Kaymer, overcame the kind of pressure that makes eyeballs bleed and rolled a six-foot putt dead-centre into the 18th hole at Medinah Country Club to beat Steve Stricker 1-up and cap the greatest comeback in the 85-year history of the event.

From nowhere, with nothing in their body language or their golf games most of the weekend to indicate it was possible, Jose Maria Olazabal’s Europeans rallied from a overnight 10-6 deficit, won 8-1/2 of the 12 points available in Sunday’s singles matches and retained the Ryder Cup 14-1/2 to 13-1/2.

And there wasn’t a dry eye in the European mosh pit when it was over.


Similarly Tim McKay at the Toronto Sun did a nice job of covering the event:

CHICAGO – European Ryder Cup captain Jose Maria Olazabal said Saturday night, “I still believe.”

His players showed their leader that they believed, too.

Olazabal’s European squad defied all odds Sunday at Medinah Country Club, equalling the the largest comeback in the history of the event — 1999 at Brookline by the Americans — to retain the Ryder Cup by a score of 14 1/2 to 13 1/2.

“It means a lot, but just not for me, for all of Europe,” Olazabal said, tears in his eyes as he stood by the 18th green, chants of Ole, Ole, Ole erupting around him.

Europe won the first five matches of the day with stalwarts Luke Donald, Ian Poulter, Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose and Paul Lawrie silencing the crowd early. Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer brought it home as the Euros pummeled the U.S. 8-3-1 on the day.

The final two matches were not expected to make much of a difference but it came down to those four players, none of whom previously had earned a single point for their squads.

Kaymer, the former world No. 1 who didn’t play at all on Saturday for the Europeans, closed out Steve Stricker in the second to last match after a solid fairway bunker shot and two putts to win 1-up and clinch the Cup.

“I am disappointed that I let 11 other players down,” Stricker said.

What did the Globe and Star do? They ran wire copy from the Associated Press’ Doug Ferguson. Doug’s a great writer, but how does a paper separate itself by running wire copy? Why would I pay for that when I can read it anywhere online the night before I get my paper? Confounding.I fail to understand how papers expect to remain relevant by running yesterday’s news. As a reader I want perspective and educated opinion. Oh well.

That said, the Globe Golf Canada ran a column from Lorne Rubenstein about his perspective on the final day:

Sunday singles at the Ryder Cup provided one signature moment after another. It was an epic sporting event as Europe overcame a four-point deficit heading into the final day’s matches to generate the biggest comeback on foreign soil in Ryder Cup history.

Europe’s captain Jose Maria Olazabal had told his team on Saturday night that they had to believe in themselves, and that, if they did, they could wipe out the big U.S. lead. His and his team’s hopes had been buoyed when Europe took the last two four-ball matches Saturday afternoon to stay within four points, and with an admittedly long chance to retain the Ryder Cup that it had won in Wales two years ago.

I’m sure I wasn’t alone in not leaving my couch for the six hours of play during the singles matches. Twenty-one years ago I was sitting with fellow media behind the 18th green at the Ocean Course in Kiawah Island, S.C. as Bernhard Langer stood over a six-foot putt. Had he made the putt, Europe would have retained the Ryder Cup it had won two years before. A tie in the overall Ryder Cup allows the previous winner to retain the trophy.

Langer missed. He slumped. His face contorted. Now, 21 years later, Martin Kaymer, his countryman from Germany, and a golfer to whom Langer had offered advice during the competition, stood over a putt of the same length on the final green. If he could make the putt, Europe’s comeback would be complete because he would win his match over Steve Stricker and give his team the 14 points it needed overall to retain the Cup.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

23 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Lots of blame to go around on the American side…

    The match that really told the tale in my opinion was the Rose Mickelson match. The last few holes told the story…Mickelson’s almost birdie on 17 combined with Rose’s putts on 17 and 18 to take 2 points and the match.

    Sure, everyone will point to Stricker and Furyk and the putts they missed down the stretch as the goats on the American side but Rose stealing a point from Mickelson was the final spark for the Euro victory.

  • Rob,
    Blame and second guessing comes with the deal to the losing side. The Euro’s cohesion started when Poulter picked up his team by the scruff of the neck on Saturday afternoon when they looked like they were beaten… he lead like Churchill.
    Calling it a “choke” is an easy thing to do… not sure it’s the case. Yes both Stricker and Furyk blew it, but that doesn’t mean they “choked” just because they missed those important shots.

  • Zoke: Do you think — and I’m asking this seriously given that you played the game at the highest level — that missing shots one would normally make is the equivalent of choking? I mean, Furyk has not played well under pressure. Normally he’s a great putter, but he’s struggled under the gun. Now that’s not uncommon in aging golfers, but in his instance it has happened again and again. Stricker just looked like he couldn’t come up with the big shot — then again, he’s a guy without a major, a guy who has won some big tournaments, but also excels at places like the John Deere.

  • Stricker is clearly a great golfer and a nice guy. It seems he has struggled some in the past month- he could be tired or perhaps he is in a bit of a slump. But at one point he really struggled (2002 and 2003), I wonder if a good or great player who hits bottom ever gets over the mental aspect of truly struggling -like Duval, Baker Finch and others or does it matter more on the personality of the player (Stricker was close to this pt). Stricker seems to be a money maker, yet can never come through in the biggest events like majors and the Ryder Cup. Nonetheless, he seems to be an easy guy to pull for.


  • Guys like Furyk and Stricker are easy to like…Mickelson less so. But if one looks at this objectively, they choked. Sure the Euros played extremely well on Sunday but with the number of makable putts available to the American team and to consistently miss most of them (obvious exceptions like Stricker’s par putt on 18), any objective observer would say that they choked. Just look at Furyk’s expression when he missed his putt on 18. He knew it and everyone else did as well.

    And it was not simply the putts where there was an issue. Stricker’s approach on 18 with a perfect fairway lie on 18 with a short club in his hand is another example. In the fairway, he knew he needed a birdie but his approach denied him any realistic chance.

    Easy to be an armchair critic…

  • Rob,
    Your take on Stricker is bang on. Stricker is a great putter and he’s definitely great person, but he doesn’t hold that stone cold killer approach needed to win majors. Stricker’s chip & putt on 17 were not good at all when he needed to deliver and he didn’t. The pressure of the situation played a huge part of the difficulty and Stricker hit both his chip and his putt for par on 17 too hard. Just because those shots didn’t go in or if they weren’t struck the way he wanted doesn’t automatically mean it’s a choke. Should he have made the putt? Sure, but they aren’t automatic. They take strong character to make. Stricker completely misread his first putt on 18 then made a fantastic and very clutch putt for par putting huge pressure on Kymer.

    But I don’t think you can say that those “were putts that they normally make”. Those were not normal putts at all. Those were the most difficult putts in the history of the game. Choking is blowing a shot(s) completely and not being able to deal with the situation due to pressure of the situation, ala Calcavecchia at Kiawah.

    Furyk has played well under pressure but he has let key situations get away on him in critical moments that caused him to not win the US Open and Playoff event. That too doesn’t mean he choked. Yes, watching him analyze his putts is painful and he’s not able to figure it out. Love should not have picked him in the first place. Furyk is definitely losing his distinct skill set of being able to close. He’s not the player he use to be, he is aging, but I don’t think Furyk choked at all with his putt on 18, I think he executed a good putt… he just hit the wrong putt.

  • Enjoyed the back and forth between Richard and Robert. There is another perspective though. There was a systemic collapse by the US team on Sunday. Wasn’t just Furyk, Stricker and Mickelson that collapsed. There were at least 3 other players – Woods, Watson and Snedeker – that played large parts in the US loss. Bradley also imploded on Sunday. To blame 1 or 2 guys doesn’t tell the story.
    Think Sunday reflects the profound difference between sport in Europe versus North America. Over here, it is all about specialization. When you play football or basketball or baseball, you do one thing – offensive left tackle, point guard or second base, You learn it early and, if you are good, you get college scholarships that train yo to become even more specialized. In Europe, you have to be able to switch quickly from offense to defense. European university sport is nothing like the US athletic training model. Most of the American teams played US college golf, not the case with the Euros. Also believe that the European model promotes a far greater sense of “team” than the American model. European teams seem to be able to feed of of each other because they know that they can’t just do one thing well.
    In any case, for me this basic systemic difference makes the Ryder Cup compelling drama.

  • @Zokol:

    As you say “Just because those shots didn’t go in or if they weren’t struck the way he wanted doesn’t automatically mean it’s a choke”. Then respectfully, what does it mean?

    Here is Wikipedia’s definition of choke in sports:

    “In sports, a choke is the failure of an athlete or an athletic team to win a game or tournament when the player or team had been strongly favored to win or had squandered a large lead in the late stages of the event.”

    That seems to characterize the American team on Sunday. And if you put Stricker and Furyk with the same putt in a 100 different settings, one would argue that both would make those putts time and again.

    I agree that the pressure was huge that none of us (except for Zokol) has faced those types of pressure putts….but denying that the team didn’t choke is simply not facing the reality of the situation.

    And I would add that choking is not simply the process of executing a golf shot. It also involves the approach and strategy of the shot. If Furyk executed the wrong putt on 18, then his decision making was flawed. Just as bad in my opinion as not executing the right shot. If he executed the wrong putt on 18 at the Ryder Cup, would he have made the same decision in a less pressure packed situation? If the answer is yes, then the putt was not that easy in any situation and not likely to be made. I would suggest that was not the case with that putt. Was not Kaymer’s putt essentially the same line and distance?

    Choking is a terrible term and to refer to it is hard, especially for likeable guys like Furyk and Stricker. Sometimes the truth hurts and sadlly, this would seem to be one of those times.

  • I think “Northerner” has it right, there is a difference between the way Europeans and Americans treat Pro golf. I am now a Phil fan, loved his reaction when Justin Rose picked his pocket. Poulter and Luke should get Knighthoods, and SEVE, the real star, should become a Saint. Even the Brits who secretly have hated Seve for years, now love him!

    Not sure Choking is the word for some of the Americans, I think they just got beaten at their own game. It was brilliant.

  • Northerner is on the mark with his thinking describing the different character between the Americans and the Euros. Generally speaking the Euros are multidimensional in their ability to play and adapt whereas the Americans are less creative in ability. There is much more to the fall of the American side than just Sticker and Furyk, but they are the highlights of the American plunge.

    Weekend: It means there are other possible factors why a shot may not go in. To conclude that it not a choke if the putt goes in and a choke if it misses is short sighted. When it comes down to any shot there are two specific factors that are material, “assessing” and “executing” the shot. Both of these two factors must complete at a very high skill level and fuse together for a successful outcome regardless of the situation. Choking can influence both assessment but it is more problematic with execution. A player’s ability to assess and execute fluctuate moment to moment and day to day. If any one of these two factors which is immeasurably precise is not in sequence or is diminished in the moment or is off in the smallest of margins, in Furyk’s case on his par putt on 18, the putt doesn’t go in. We don’t know and in all likleyhood Furyk doesn’t even know excactly what happened. I claim that Furyk’s assessment was at fault, not choking. It appeared to me that Furyk’s “over analysis” in reading his putts contributed to him missing both his par putts on 17 and 18.

    Wikipedia isn’t the best source when looking for an answer to highly sensitive understanding of the human mind including chocking.

    Stricker and Furyk have never been in that exact situation before with that amount of pressure, that is the beauty of golf. We are not talking about a 100 different settings we are talking about arguably the single most difficult setting ever. What I am saying is that Stricker and Furyk did not specifically choke, they certainly didn’t show attributes of choking.

    Specifically, Stricker and Furyk missed important putts that contributed to the American’s lose. To simply say they choked just because they missed a shot is uninformed.

  • Zokol sounds like a guy I’d love to talk golf with – or any sport – over a beer or three. Blowing a big lead sure looks like a “choke,” but whether it is or it isn’t, the term is not very helpful in understanding why things play out as they do. Those guys were trying their hardest under immense pressure. Failure happens. To say they “choked” is to make it sound like a character flaw. It’s not. They just couldn’t get it done. It’s human nature, part of the package. And why the rest of us love to watch.

  • @Zokol:

    I take exception to your comment – “To simply say they choked just because they missed a shot is uninformed.”

    If you do not like Wikipedia, then perhaps Malcolm Gladwell is a source that is acceptable. His writings on choking in sports are well known. To quote Gladwell in his August 21, 2000 article in the New Yorker called “The Art of Failure”, he states “Choking is about thinking too much”. I would agree.

    And your statement above would also be consistent with what Furyk did with his putts on 17 and 18. As you said…” It appeared to me that Furyk’s “over analysis” in reading his putts contributed to him missing both his par putts on 17 and 18.”. Based on Gladwell’s article and perspective, this is choking….which is my point.

    And further…consider your comment – “A player’s ability to assess and execute fluctuate moment to moment and day to day. If any one of these two factors which is immeasurably precise is not in sequence or is diminished in the moment or is off in the smallest of margins, in Furyk’s case on his par putt on 18, the putt doesn’t go in.”. I agree with your assessment in the above statement. And I would suggest that stress, like what the players felt in the Ryder Cup, is the factor that can cause this to occur. Some players lose their ability to simply react naturally, begin to focus on technique and “thinking too much” leading to suboptimal performance / choking.

    The “choking” term has negative connotations. I understand that. But let’s face reality. Furyk and Stricker choked on Sunday at the Ryder Cup. They missed shots that in the absence of the level of stress they faced, they would more than likely have made time and again. As I said above, the truth hurts. And sadly for two great guys on the American side, they probably feel the hurt more than anyone else.

  • Weakend: Based on your argument, in the absence of that level of stress Stricker and Furyk would never miss and every 5 foot putt Stricker and Furyk missed was a choke… they are human… I will maintain uninformed.

    • Zokol:

      If you read my post as opposed to calling my position uninformed, you would see that I did not say that Stricker and Furyk would never miss a 5 foot putt. I said “They missed shots that in the absence of the level of stress they faced, they would more than likely have made time and again.”

      By your argument, every miss is simply being human and there is no relationship between the level of stress players feel and making putts. Really? Then choking never occurs at the elite level? When does choking occur? Under what conditions is a miss considered a choke versus simply being human.

      Gladwell has provided evidence of what happens to elite players in various sports under stressful situations. It is called choking and some players have a better ability to not choke than others. Loss of skill with age could be a contributing factor to choking. I would bet that the 2003 version of Furyk would have made that putt on Sunday at the Ryder Cup.

  • I was unable to follow the RC day by day and only caught up the following day. This whole debate about “choking” has me asking: you know where you are in your match, but how much do you know about where your “team” is, and how much, if any , added pressure comes with that? When you address your ball, are you thinking, heck, I have to hit this close, I have to drain this putt, or are you like every other golfer in the world, please let it be the right approach, please let me see that putt drop?
    After looking at all the results I cannot believe this was a “choking” matter. There were under-performers on both sides. Did they under-perform because they were looking at the overall scoreboard? I very much doubt it. This is the most individual game you can play, and every time you address your ball you are on your own, and nothing except how that shot will go really interests you. The “stress” comes from within and I don’t think it is ever much influenced by exterior factors.

  • But Zoke — Furyk does seem to make most putts when the tournament isn’t clearly on the line, but has truly faltered time and again to perform when he needs to at least do what would seem standard for him when he’s in the position to win. It has happened time and again this year — and in the past with him. What do you call that? Underachievement? I think choking can really be attributed to Furyk, who seems to really struggle to be even average when things are on the line. There are those that step up and perform better under pressure (see Tiger traditionally) whereas there are those who wilt under the same scrutiny. I see Furyk as faltering and unable to compete at his typical standard while playing at the Ryder Cup. Is that choking under pressure? Would seem so to me.

  • While Jim Furyk may have ‘choked’ (really dislike that term!) at the US Open I think it is harsh to saddle him with choking at the Ryder Cup. He outplayed Sergio and still lost. That is golf!
    No one was able to figure out the putt on 17 (Furyk, Stricker and Molinari all missed right from the same general area) and the 18th green proved tough to read throughout the event.
    A fired up European team came out fighting, played better than they had on the first two days and beat the US team.
    Everyone is looking for someone to blame which is sad (about as sad as NBC’s attempt at coverage) . Blame the European team for winning! They can handle it I’m sure!

  • Rob,

    Since this year’s US Open Furyk is proving he’s not the player he use to be. All players’ skill levels diminish at some point. As you said, he has absolutely faltered when he has been in position to win in what seemed standard for him. Love’s gamble in picking Furyk for the standard you are speaking of didn’t work out. I would now say what “use” to be the standard for Furyk. He seems to be a changed player now. We’ll have to wait to see if Furyk gets back his standard in 2013.

    Furyk faltered but that is not necessarily choking. I’d wager those putts on 17 and 18 weren’t the only putts Furyk missed last week!

    Tiger’s skill level has diminished too, so has Weir’s, so has Nicklaus’. Would you call the short putt Tiger missed on his 18th hole against Molinari a choke? …or Weir’s poor play a choke?… I wouldn’t.

  • I’m not sure what I’d call Tiger’s putt on 18. Lack of attention or focus? Something I’m not used to seeing from him.

  • Hadn’t thought of the age issue.
    Given the faltering performance (don’t want to use the highly charged word choke) of Furyk, Stricker and Woods, suggests that the American team met the thief of time. Haven’t done the math on the average age of both teams, but clearly the Americans play on the third day would indicate that the older members buckled. Could be way wrong, but wonder if there is an age issue – that a younger, less fearful team won out over an older, mentally fatigued team.

  • Weekend,

    In what you said key words, “more than likely”, still means you don’t know and it is still speculation on whether the player would make the proper assessment and also make the proper execution or whether choking actually played a role or not. To truly know “why” a shot is missed is still even more speculation. I too would bet that the 2003 version of Furyk would have made that putt, but you cannot conclude that Furyk choked. Nobody really knows, even the subject player likely doesn’t know… to label it choking from a couch is short sighted.

    From my perspective Gladwell does not provide evidence, he provides his theory and not a strong one at that. Gladwell’s answer?…“Choking is thinking too much”… too many people say that, “stop thinking too much”… in my mind anyone who says this doesn’t understand the function of the mind. The mistake in this is accepting the premise that we have one singular thought process. They don’t understand the two distinctly different types of thoughts and which thoughts accelerate anxiety and which thoughts don’t. The awareness comes from the basic understanding of the left and the right brain hemispheres and the function of the corpus callosum.

    My comments on being human mean there are a multitude of reason why someone may miss a shot… it’s not just black & white… and every person is different on top of that. Choking does happen at every level. Players on the PGA Tour develop their skills to dealing with pressure on a daily basis, some better than others. Gladwell’s Outliers speaks to this in his 10,000 hours theory. Gladwell takes a very general view point on this subject and then he gives a typical and general white wash reaction in his article.

    The most knowledgeable sport psychologist in the game such as Dr. Bob Rotella, Dr. Richard Lonetto, Dr. Geno Valiente, Dr. Sol Miller, Dr. Joe Perante, Dr. Moe Pickens to only name a few don’t have “the” answers to choking either so I wouldn’t put too much weight in the Galdwell camp because he wrote an article.

    In order to determine whether a missed shot is in fact a choke or not the subject player would need to be hooked up to an fMRI (functional MRI) or a device like a Blood Flow Rate monitor the can measure different or drastic volume changes of blood rate flow that reproduces emotional (bio/neurofeedback) states that can inevitably be traced back to the different types of thought activity from moment to moment. If the data of a player prior to the choking showed a sudden and drastic change in thought process it will triggered a spike in emotion or a sudden drop that I call “thought shear”, that is choking. Thought shear can be compared to sudden change in air speed in “wind shear” that causes an aircraft to lose its lift and fall out right out of the sky or “muscle shear” that causes a muscle to tear if an exercise is not preformed in proper sequence.

    But one cannot know what in fact happens unless hard data can be captured from the player, let alone knowing what happens from a couch, until then its speculation.

  • Interesting read, particularly from Richard, who would know more than the rest of us about competition. Some great thoughts.

  • @Zokol:

    Thanks for your reasoned thoughts on this subject. I would agree with you that subject to hooking up machines with the subject at the time of the event, one does not really know whether choking occurred. Obviously that is unrealistic so it comes down to one’s subjective view and opinion. I have expressed mine which is that they choked and have outlined the reasons for me forming that opinion.

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