Rivals on the golf course and friends off it: camaraderie between America's top players makes them favourites at next year's competition.
Bond between Spieth and Co good for Team USA ahead of 2018 Ryder Cup
There they were, just off the final green at the US PGA Championship on Sunday as Justin Thomas secured his first major title.
First, Rickie Fowler congratulated the victor, then Jordan Spieth, the next in line to share with Thomas a warm embrace.
It was the same when Spieth sealed a first Claret Jug last month at the British Open. Thomas had hung around, despite missing the cut. Fowler was there, too. Ditto Zach Johnson, the 2015 champion.
Fowler greeting Thomas with trophy
Fowler has made a habit of it, in fact: greeting Bubba Watson alongside the final green at the 2012 US Masters, celebrating with Jimmy Walker at last year’s PGA Championship.
The camaraderie among the Americans is undisguised, it is sincere. Many have queried this week if such obvious and indisputable friendships are good for the game. Can the #SB2K guys really return from partying together on yachts and fishing boats, hit a tournament and suddenly ratchet up the rivalry?
American team golf, though? It can only benefit.
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At the Ryder Cup, comradeship used to be Europe’s trump card. Irrespective of the world rankings, or the amount of major championships accrued on either side, the Brotherhood of The British Isles and Beyond was routinely cited as one of the main reasons for Europe’s recent dominance. Until last year’s defeat at Hazeltine, they had won eight of the past 10 contests.
On the other side, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were famously frosty. The 2014 loss led to mutiny and even the introduction of a task force. All the while, the Europeans joked and japed, using their clear bond to clear themselves somewhat of the pressure. The ability was there, no doubt, but the affection helped beat down their opponents and swing the Ryder tide in their favour.
Woods poses with Thomas
Yet that began to turn again last year. Emboldened by Spieth, Fowler and most noticeably Patrick Reed, the Americans triumphed 17 points to 11. There was a clear team ethic. Woods and Watson were brought along as vice-captains. A United States united.
This season has only strengthened that bid to retain the trophy in France next year. Three of the four majors were won by Americans: Brooks Koepka, Spieth and Thomas. Three young Americans. Koepka is 27, Spieth and Thomas 24.
At 28, Fowler claimed another two top-five finishes in the majors this year and is widely expected to have a win once the Ryder Cup rolls round next September.
Maybe so Reed. The shushing, screaming, strutting embodiment of the Stars and Stripes registered on Sunday his first top 10 in a major, with a tied-second at Quail Hollow. He turned 27 earlier this month.
Thomas in competition for Ryder Cup spot
Meanwhile, Daniel Berger, another member of the “Class of 2011” alongside Thomas and Spieth, is fourth in the President’s Cup standings. Like his good buddies, he is 24.
Throw in Dustin Johnson, who may be 33 but is the world No 1. Much to 2018 US Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk’s delight, the team looks both fresh and formidable.
Thomas Bjorn, his European counterpart, would therefore be right to feel a little concerned. Especially given a look at some of his 20-somethings.
Rory McIlroy is so out of sorts as he seeks to overcome fully a rib issue that he may take off the rest of the season. Since last year’s Masters victory, Danny Willett’s game has deserted him. Matt Fitzpatrick and Tyrrell Hatton, who both finished 2016 strongly, each failed to make the top 30 in any of the game’s four main events. Hatton missed the cut in all four.
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Admittedly, it is not all bleak. Tommy Fleetwood leads the Race to Dubai courtesy of two standout wins, a runner-up at a WGC and a fourth at the US Open. Masters winner Sergio Garcia is second and, finally, a major champion. Jon Rahm, the year’s breakout star, sits third. Thomas Pieters excelled last year on Ryder Cup debut and has an incredibly bright future.
Yet it is hard not to feel Europe sit behind the eight ball. Yes, there remains a long way until the opening shot is struck at Le Golf National and, yes, professional golf is a fascinatingly capricious pursuit. But at the moment the Americans have stolen a march.
Form and friendship? It is a potent mix.