CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In the mid-2010s, when Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed formed Team USA’s most formidable partnership, they adopted an interesting strategy inside the ropes.
They wanted to beat each other’s brains in.
Unusual, for sure, but Spieth once explained that neither player liked the idea of the other getting more credit for a win. And so they competed against each other, the thinking being that if they each played at a high level, their opponents would have to be nearly flawless to beat them. It worked, somehow, with the duo going 8-1-3 before splitting up ahead of the 2018 Ryder Cup.
That ultra-competitive mindset has permeated this American team, but on a larger scale. And in a healthier form.
“It’s almost like we’re all going to compete against each other to get the most points we can on our team,” Spieth said this week at Quail Hollow. “We want the bragging rights on our own team.”
That’s why the talk of American complacency at this Presidents Cup is so misguided.
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Look at the composition of this youthful U.S. roster – there’s no timidity here.
They’re wired to crush their competition.
It’s all they’ve ever known.
Spieth is the most seasoned member who has been a tough out in this format dating to his junior days. His partner is Justin Thomas, who burns as hot as anyone on Tour. Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele have proven to be stone-cold assassins, not just individually, but especially together as partners, unflappable and unflinching and unyielding. Billy Horschel and Kevin Kisner have built successful careers on perceived slights or snubs. And so on.
“It’s all very different,” Schauffele said, “but we share the same sort of grit and fight and the want to win. So it’s really special because of that.”
There’s little doubt the International team has been profoundly affected by a wave of LIV defections.
All the Americans have done is shrug.
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Sure, they concede, it’s unfortunate for International captain Trevor Immelman, who has tried like hell for three years to build on the momentum of 2019, only for his progress to be slowed first by COVID and then the players who bolted. As a result, eight rookies have landed on this year’s team – perhaps the fresh start it needed after having gone 1-11-1 in this event.
But the U.S. players don’t pity or downplay their opponents, nor do they approach this task any differently, even if they’re viewed by oddsmakers as massive favorites with a projected winning spread of 6 ½ points.
“I think it’s going to be extremely competitive,” Spieth said, trying his best to quell any pre-tournament narrative. “We’re not complacent. I haven’t heard an ounce of complacency in our team room at all. I’m not worried about that one bit.”
Neither is anyone on Davis Love III’s back-room staff. It was Love, after all, who helmed the 2012 Ryder Cup team that surrendered a 10-6 lead on the final day. Memories from that miserable day at Medinah still haunt the team members.
“We didn’t take enough time, or do the right things,” said Steve Stricker, who played on the ’12 team that tied the largest final-day collapse in cup history. “We didn’t think through that enough, probably.”
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 frontload their lineup with a six-shot deficit, the Americans matched strength with strength. Tiger Woods texted the team to “step on their necks.” Even the normally reserved Cantlay stomped around the range, reminding his teammates to “lock in” and try to reach 20 points.
The Americans snuffed out a European rally before it ever materialized, falling short of the 20-point goal but earning a historic 19-9 victory that signaled the beginning of a new era of American dominance.
That ruthlessness has carried over to Quail Hollow.
“There’s 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’s not one of them that isn’t taking this very, very seriously.
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“That’s been Davis’ approach to this and messaging – that we can’t think we can just show up and win this thing. We’ve got to go out and play well and take care of business.”
That’s where personal pride kicks in.
This is one of the strongest and deepest American teams on record (average world ranking: 11.8), and each strives to be the MVP, to earn the bragging rights among this glittery group. Conversely, no one wants to be remembered as the weakest link, as the player who earned the fewest points of 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 that 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 lacks juice by the weekend, those individual marks will remain vitally important. A few of these American stars are already Hall of Fame-bound, but for others – who knows? – their sterling records could be future difference-makers. Others like youngsters Cam Young and Sam Burns want to make proper cup debuts. Veterans like Kisner and Horschel could be making auditions for next year’s Ryder Cup in Italy.
“These are the most competitive guys that 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-driven that complacency really isn’t a thing. In our heart we all know it comes within us, and we push ourselves to be the best.”
Because the best on their own stacked team likely means the best in the entire event. Good luck beating that.