But something nags at this American team, if not all American teams. The United States is the heavy betting favorite for obvious reasons: Among the 12 U.S. players, 10 are ranked among the top 13 in the world. The European side boasts only top-ranked Jon Rahm of Spain. By that measure, the next three days at Whistling Straits should be a raucous red-white-and-blue celebration, a performance that could unite Buckeyes and Wolverines, Packers and Vikings, Ds and Rs.
Except here’s Koepka, in an interview with Golf Digest, explaining that selflessness comes uneasily to players who spend 51 weeks a year in 12 separate silos. They are their own corporations, each with their own swing coaches, their own agents, their own endorsements — only themselves about which to worry. It creates a mind-set and a methodology that can’t simply be put on pause.
“It’s tough,” the four-time major champion told the magazine. “There are times where I’m like: ‘I won my match. I did my job. What do you want from me?’
“I know how to take responsibility for the shots I hit every week. Now somebody else hit a bad shot and left me in a bad spot, and I know this hole is a loss. That’s new, and you have to change the way you think about things. You go from an individual sport all the time to a team sport one week a year.”
Oh, brother. No wonder the U.S. record in Ryder Cups this century is 2-7. Shoot, go back to 1985, and the American side — so often more talented, so frequently more torn and tortured — is 5-12.
None of this makes sense. All of it is why the next three days are so enthralling. It’s not just the eye-rolling, social media-trolling Koepka-DeChambeau dynamic that somehow threw a shadow over much of the PGA Tour season. It’s Patrick Reed in 2018, blowing up captain Jim Furyk and teammate Jordan Spieth after a blowout European win in Paris. It’s Phil Mickelson in 2014, openly questioning the decisions made by captain Tom Watson following another laugher for Europe. Long ago, it was the alpha-on-alpha dynamic of Mickelson and Tiger Woods.
Drama. There’s always drama. This American team spent the days leading up to Friday’s first match trying to articulate how close they are. The outsiders spent those same days cocking an eyebrow.
“It’s quite possible, when you get beaten every time, that you go into that event dreading it,” said Paul Azinger, the former pro who will serve as an analyst on NBC and was the victorious Cup captain for the United States in 2008. “What if Brooks Koepka, deep down, if he’s thinking, ‘My reward is I have to go play the Ryder Cup because I played so well’? It’s possible.”
It’s completely possible because Koepka already has drawn the distinction: I play an individual sport. Now I’m being asked to shift to a team mentality. Koepka has been quite clear that his motivation lies in the majors. Why, look at his results in the last three of those this year: tied for second at the PGA Championship, tied for fourth at the U.S. Open, tied for sixth at the British Open. His three most recent non-majors: tied for 54th, tied for 31st, tied for 22nd, before a withdrawal at the Tour Championship.
And now this? Where my partner might dump an approach shot to an impossibly short-sided pin in the nasty rough? That’s fun?
“I’m not sure he loves the Ryder Cup that much,” Azinger said. “If he doesn’t love it, he should relinquish his spot and get people who do love the Ryder Cup. Not everybody embraces it, but if you don’t love it and you’re not sold out, then I think Brooks should … consider whether or not he really wants to be there.
“Then if you add the Bryson dynamic to that, that would be an easier decision for him.”
This all seems silly, right? The team that sings “Kumbaya” together won’t win the Cup. The team that plays the better golf will. And yet team dynamics and attitude dominate the conversation before every single one of these things. And often during them. And certainly after them.
“The European side seems to take this underdog role and mentality and use it to their advantage, whether they’re playing at home or in the U.S.,” said Justin Leonard, the hero of the American victory in 1999, an NBC analyst now. “With that comes a sense of freedom, of, ‘Well, we’re not really expected to win, so let’s go out and play freely.’ ”
“Look, I’ll believe this forever,” Azinger said. “The Europeans are bonded by blood. They’re bonded naturally. This means everything to them.”
Which is weird. All 12 Americans were born in the United States. The European team boasts six Englishmen, two Spaniards, and one man each from Norway, Northern Ireland, Austria and Ireland. The United States plays under the stars and stripes, which, at least when it comes to sports, can still be unifying. The Europeans play under the circle of stars that represents the European Union. Wait, didn’t Brexit happen? That’s the more together squad?
It all makes for such intrigue — in lineup decisions, in pretournament dinners, in captain’s choices that are now weeks old. Stricker, for instance, left off Reed, Captain America himself. In three Ryder Cup appearances, Reed has a 7-3-2 record — including 3-0 in singles. The stated reason for his omission was health and form; Reed has just one top-five finish since February and missed time during a harrowing bout with pneumonia last month. But it’s lost on no one that Reed’s absence leaves out a potentially volatile presence on the course and in the team room.
The team room: Why does it matter? There is no offensive chemistry to create, no need to communicate on defense. There is only the shot at your feet, the hole in front of you, the match at hand.
And yet there is heightened curiosity about the inner workings of the American room. Who plays whom in ping-pong? Who engaged whom in conversation?
“Just the brotherhood, the camaraderie,” American Justin Thomas told reporters at Whistling Straits. “The moments spent in that team room, it’s hard to explain. … You’d think that all of us are best friends the entire year. … Obviously, it’s not like all 12 of us are just sitting cross-legged around a circle on the floor just talking about life. But we’re all just kind of bopping around the team room and catching up here and there.”
Which means they’re going to win? Or it makes no difference at all?
On Sunday evening, the Ryder Cup will be awarded to the team that plays better golf. And if it’s the United States, we will be left to watch and wonder: Will Bryson and Brooskie hug?