Watching Francesco finish up 5 nil for the weekend against Mickelson on 16 was an awesome moment. Jon Rahm releasing his emotions after fighting off Tigers back-9 comeback was an awesome moment. Europe winning 8 matches back to back through Thursday afternoon and Friday morning was as well. The Ryder Cup is full of awesome moments (for the Americans as well… probably) and it appears to me the game is designed to create these. I thought I would highlight two of the aspects that make one of sport’s greatest events a particularly interesting game to me.
Matchplay – damage limitation
The format of the modern Ryder Cup has been fixed since Great Britain & Ireland was extended to include Europe in 1979. For the uninitiated: on the Friday and Saturday of the Ryder Cup, 8 players from each team will face off against each other in pairs playing both the Fourball and the Foursomes formats – both are Matchplay. Let’s unpack some of those terms:
- Fourball – both my team mate and me play a ball on every hole. The best score amongst us is our score for the hole.
- Foursomes – only one ball is shared between my team mate and me. We take turns hitting the same ball and therefore only have one score at each hole.
- Matchplay – whichever team gets the ball in the hole with the fewest number of shots wins the hole. If both teams use the same number of shots, the hole is halved (tied).
I think the matchplay is a central reason to the Ryder Cup’s awesomeness. The tournament would have to be structured completely differently if we were counting shots or stableford points (I’m sure nobody would watch it). As well as being very simple to pick up, it also encourages ties more than other formats. For example if Casey had a diabolical 1st hole against Koepka, he would just be one hole behind him. If Casey won the 2nd hole, they would be tied again. This actually happened today. If they were not playing matchplay, a double bogey could be a huge setback for the match. Because score is tracked as a series of bouts, it is more likely the competition will be tight so every point is hard-fought. Victory will never fully be out of reach until the late in the back 9 when the golfers will be in front of a crowd, waiting for an awesome moment.
Matchplay – tactics
Matchplay also encourages you to think carefully about how the other player is playing a particular hole. If Phil is on the green in two here and has a sniper rifle for a putter, Francesco might as well have a cut no matter how risky. Or conversely, if Jordan is in the rough, I just need to play conservatively and aim for par. Le Golf National was repeatedly commented on for having holes favouring accuracy and tactical placement over pure distance. This definitely emphasised an interactive (or at least dependant) approach to shot selection. When these crazy shots come off, they are certainly awesome moments.
Matchplay – strategy of emotion
The above two points are of course true for any Golf matchplay but I think the Ryder Cup has a special layer of strategy for emotion. Teenage me would have reacted with “wait… theres no strategy in golf! you just do your best to hit the ball closer and closer to the hole until you can go home, right?” – absolutely wrong teen John! These golfers are not robots. They do not just passionlessly ping the ball along the grass. Playing in the Foursome pairs on the Friday and Saturday, the players undoubtedly feel some form of responsibility for where they leave the ball. This may manifest itself as pressure when it doesn’t come off and camaraderie when it does. Therefore it is important to put together players who will gel well and compliment each other’s skills. Furthermore, when selecting the order of the golfers, the captains are not aware who will be facing who. But it is common to put out strong golfers first on the Sunday to either consolidate a lead or ignite the comeback. This weekend, both sides put out 3 veterans ahead of their rookies. This would in theory take some of the pressure off the new players taking to this emotional stage. While it may not be for everybody, Rory kicking off the Sunday, matching the American attitude and swagger was very cool to watch.
Singles on the Sunday
So you might have noticed or already know that not all players have to play on the Friday and Saturday. On the Sunday, everybody plays. Nowhere to hide. 12 pts up for grabs on the Sunday. I guess in theory, the Ryder Cup could be won by the Saturday evening if one side had won all 16 of the matches. Did the designers just decide this was extremely unlikely? In any case, having 42% of the points up for grabs on the Sunday means the dream is always alive. It also means the game is asymmetrical! Taking this weekend as an example, every halved match in the singles was (in theory) a victory for Europe. The USA would have to do better than half hole and matches to win the trophy. That of course doesn’t mean that Europe were taking the foot off the gas. It just framed the game in a different way and as long as the score is not tied on Saturday evening, this will always be the case for the Sunday of the Ryder Cup. It creates an underdog and a potential comeback scenario. Beautiful!
I wonder what it would be like if the ratio was different and how they arrived at this particular number. Would comebacks be more or less likely if the ratio was 50/50 for example?
What do you think about the design of the Ryder Cup? Good game? Just more golf? I haven’t even commented on the sense of identity the Ryder Cup brings to the sport, giving us something more to cheers for than the name on a betting slip (or Rory I guess). It’s always a very exciting weekend for me and I appreciate it even more now under the lens of a designed game. Thanks for reading!