QUAIL HOLLOW, NC — You should have seen Davis Love III standing there in the aftermath of last autumn’s Ryder Cup, smiling like a gambler knowing the fix is in. As heir to a profound fortune of talent, his only job was to assure everyone knew what was coming next.
“I’ve been talking to guys about Charlotte for the last half-hour, reminding them — we’re going to Charlotte first, then back to the Ryder Cup,” Love said that afternoon, standing outside the media tent as the American team filed in for a post-round news conference, some strolling along with an arm tossed over a teammate’s shoulder.
It’s difficult, in hindsight, to describe the feeling of that Sunday afternoon at Whistling Straits. An American team that began the week being compared to the underachieving Ryder Cup teams that preceded it answered with the ultimate counter. It whooped the Euro team. Ran it off the course. Made a joke of the whole matter.
Then that US team came together in a laugh-filled, champagne-soaked celebration. They basked in self-satisfaction. A group baptism along Wisconsin’s eastern coastline. We told you so.
It was a moment with all the earmarks of a new beginning. And that’s how it was discussed, how it was written about. Behold, the boundless future of American professional golf! No team in modern Ryder Cup history had ever tallied 19 points. None had ever won by a 10-point margin. The US team did both. Not only that but, more importantly, the whole lot looked proudly united in doing so. Even Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau put aside their mutual disdain for a half-hug.
Love, an assistant captain for that US team, was set to inherit a freight train.
Maybe some young up-and-coming US talent would snag a few spots in the Presidents Cup lineup, but all in all, that Ryder Cup roster presented a portrait of the post-Tiger Woods world for international play. Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele, Collin Morikawa and DeChambeau were all under 30, had all won at least one match and wielded the kind of talent that can only be disrupted by injury or an ill-advised swing change.
As Koepka said: “It’s a lot more fun than years past. It’s a very close-knit group of guys. Everybody is a bit younger, and everybody has known each other for 15-plus years, it feels like.”
One year later, golf, as a whole, is unrecognizable. At the professional level, the sport has evolved into a charred landscape of lawyered-up professional leagues jockeying for a stronghold. It’s the PGA Tour versus LIV. It’s tradition and power versus money and ambition. It’s the DP World Tour desperately trying to figure out what the hell to do next. It’s fans stuck in the middle — those who hate LIV, those who love LIV, those who are checking out entirely. Money is the centerline of every conversation.
The game is in disarray, and this week will offer a prime view of the aftereffects.
This US team will have to act like Dustin Johnson, the 5-0-0 hero of last fall’s Ryder Cup, doesn’t exist. It will have to go about its business as if it’s normal that Phil Mickelson isn’t along with it as an assistant captain. DeChambeau, who we thought repaired his image at Whistling Straits, said last week he “couldn’t be more happy” to play for LIV. Koepka, who boasted last year about how much international play means to him and said the media misunderstands his intentions, is gone, too. Would DeChambeau or Koepka have made this Presidents Cup team despite their recent struggles and injuries? We don’t know. But we do know the point is moot. They’re uninvited.
And there are others. Talor Gooch could be making his Presidents Cup debut this week. It’s fairly clear he’s one of the 20 best players in the world. Never mind him, though.
And don’t even get me started on the poor international team. Cameron Smith, Joaquin Niemann, Louis Oosthuizen, Marc Leishman and Anirban Lahiri. All of em — persona non grata. Let’s just act as if they don’t exist.
It’s like Marty McFly’s family Polaroid. Fading faces.
Question is, will the event feel any different? Will this week at Quail Hollow feel feigned or fake or forced?
Because if it does, this will serve as a preview for what could be ahead: a world where majors and the Ryder Cup are played in a chasm of reality.
In a conversation with The Athletic earlier this summer, Love was asked: If international competition does not amount to our best 12 versus their best 12, is it truly valid?
“No, it’s not,” he said. “Look, the Presidents Cup is going to be huge, exciting and fun. But is it really going to be the best 12 versus the best 12? Clearly not. But that No. 14 guy who gets moved up to 11 or whatever is still a really, really good player. And they’re going to give a trophy away. And guys are going to be on the winning team.”
He paused and thought about it.
“Hey, in the Super Bowl, is it always the two best teams that make it? Probably not. There are other good teams.”
The difference is, as Love knows, every NFL team has the chance at the beginning of the season to make it there.
That’s no longer the case in golf. Not right now, at least.
“Look, a year from now, when we’re getting ready for the Ryder Cup, it’s going to be a different landscape, one way or another,” Love said. “If LIV wins and our business goes downhill and the top players aren’t allowed to play, then yes, the Ryder Cup also goes downhill. If it gets to that point, then they’re going to have to come up with something.”
That doesn’t seem plausible anytime soon.
Factions of that US team now stand in direct opposition. The future eligibility of players competing in the Presidents Cup and the Ryder Cup might eventually be a matter for the courts to decide. But is that how anyone wants these teams to be built? A judge can rule on players being allowed to compete, but he or she can’t mandate camaraderie.
Justin Thomas began last year’s Ryder Cup by saying, “I’d go to war with these 11 other guys.”
This probably isn’t what he meant.
The good news for the American side is this year’s US team remains exceedingly young (average age: 28.8) and absurdly talented (average world ranking: 11.6). Anchors such as Scottie Scheffler, Tony Finau, Spieth, Thomas, Cantlay, Schauffele and Morikawa remain. Cam Young, Max Homa and Sam Burns are joining the party, making this group seemingly stronger, which feels absurd. These players can and will still present a united front. They can still high-five and fist pump and spray some Moet come Sunday. Billy Horschel and Kevin Kisner will be treating this like the Super Bowl.
But we all know the prevailing thought that will linger. DJ should be out there with his guys. Mickelson should be green-side in a golf cart with a headset. The two have combined to take part in 34 iterations of the Presidents Cup and the Ryder Cup.
The other stigma blotting out the sun in Charlotte? This international team is playing with half a deck. It feels tad silly treating this as mano a mano.
The hope is it’s still a great week at Quail Hollow. Massive crowds are expected. The weather looks beautiful. Plenty of stars are still playing. All that good stuff.
But there’s going to be that nagging voice in the back of the head. It’ll be wondering whether we should all be quietly resigned to the fact that the luster of international team play is set to deteriorate quickly, and this week is only the first page. If the story at these events continues to be about who isn’t playing, the fight will be lost. This week, for the Americans, it’s really only Johnson as the impact absence in the lineup. But the international team has been decimated, and there’s a genuine possibility a colossal rout is on the horizon.
If that comes, we’ll be wondering, what’s the point?
And even if it doesn’t, considering the state of the game, we might be wondering such regardless.
(Illustration: John Bradford/ The Athletic; Patrick Smith/Getty Images)