The way Justin Thomas tells it, Dustin Johnson’s one frustration was that he didn’t win even more points in the Ryder Cup. “Poor guy went out there, tried to get six points, but all he could do was five,” Thomas joked. Of course there are only five points available, but Johnson is a man who once missed a key putt by six feet because he was holding the green-reading book upside down, and who blew a one-shot lead at the US PGA in 2010 because he didn’t realise he was standing in a bunker.
One anonymous fellow pro was repeatedly quoted describing Johnson and his brother as “dumb and dumber”. Over the years, as Johnson peeled off all those weeks at the top of the world rankings, his victories at the US Open and the Masters, and his clean sweep of all five matches in the Ryder Cup last week, you started to wonder who the joke was on.
As Johnson’s coach, Claude Harmon, put it: “Dustin doesn’t like to have too many thoughts in his head because he’d rather just go out and play.” Harmon says it makes Johnson “the living embodiment of everything we try to get players to do from a sports psychology standpoint. It’s very much ‘one shot a time – focus on the shot you’ve got, not the one you’ve just hit’. The ability to see the game like that is one of the things that makes him great.” Keep it simple and trust your swing, stupid.
There’s something to be said for under-thinking things, especially in golf, which has a way of twisting the players minds inside-out. You almost wonder if it was invented to fill a hole in the lives of the well-off by giving them something else to worry about. Just watch Rory McIlroy’s extraordinary interview after the singles was over last Sunday, when he broke down in tears, barely able to speak, because he was distraught about how badly he had played that week. I hear that on Dutch TV the commentators were so taken aback by it that they wondered aloud if he was recently bereaved.
Europe, so often the underdogs, need the edge that sense of team spirit gives them. The one clear thing that came out of McIlroy’s interview was that they still have it. Much good it did them. There was a fine example of Johnson’s way of thinking about the game in Team USA’s press conference after the Cup was over. Their captain, Steve Stricker, was struggling to come up with a good answer to a question about the one thing he’d done that had made the most difference, until Johnson cut in with: “Let’s be honest, captain Strick did an unbelievable job of putting us all in the best position we could be in to win our matches, and I can’t thank him enough.” There was nothing complicated about it.
Which is no good for the consultants in the cottage industry explaining what you and your business can learn from the Ryder Cup, and won’t help with the lists of six crucial lessons, seven key takeaways, about how we can build better teams. It’s not much good for the press, either, for that matter. We fetishise the captaincy, too, love to talk and write about all the tricks and gimmicks used by the winning teams.
Over the years, the USA have spent a lot of time obsessing over those, to little effect. In previous years they brought in the former fighter pilot Major Dan Rooney to talk to the team, they tried Michael Phelps, Michael Jordan, and the legendary basketball coach Mike Kzrzyewski too. Stricker, though, didn’t bother with any of that. He did not have a guest speaker, and did not make any big speeches. It’s not his style. In fact what he had done, he said, “was take away a lot of the fluff”.
It’s worth turning back to look at what Brooks Koepka had to say in that interview with Golf Digest that drew so much criticism the week before the Ryder Cup started: “We’re just so individualised, and everybody has their routine and a different way of doing things, and now, it’s like, OK, we have to have a meeting at this time or go do this or go do that. It’s the opposite of what happens during a major week. If I break down a major week, it’s so chill. You wouldn’t even believe me. I go to the course. I play nine holes. I go work out. Other than that, I’m sitting and watching TV, taking my mind off golf with relaxing stuff.”
No doubt Major Rooney is a fascinating man, but you do wonder exactly how much use his insights into air combat are going to be when you’re standing over a 10-foot putt. Stricker’s trick was to realise that all this stuff, “the fluff”, was actually getting in the way. He cut back on the galas, functions and meetings, encouraged the players to have dinner together and get to bed early, and then, like Johnson said, let them get on with doing what they do best. “Every one of those players has a better résumé than I do,” Stricker said. “We just tried to make sure that they had a good time.”
Rather than trying to turn them into something they’re not, Stricker’s approach was to let them be who they are. And given the talent of the squad, with every single player ranked inside the world’s top 21, and the fact that plenty of them, like Thomas and Jordan Spieth, Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele, Koepka and Daniel Berger, were already friends, that was enough. Whether it will be again in Rome in two years’ time, is another question, but given how well it worked at Whistling Straits, you wouldn’t bet against it.