Lynch: Ryder Cup won’t be unscathed by golf's new world order. Radical change is coming

Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

ROME — Every Ryder Cup offers a masterclass in provincial myth-making, somehow convincing the credulous that Europe’s team room is always friction-free and that only American fans are guilty of boorish behavior. This week in Rome, one of the Cup’s most enduring fables was exposed — the utopian notion that it exists on a patriotic plane entirely unsullied by something as vulgar as money.

That’s not because some team members feel they should be paid to play (a position that’s neither new nor entirely unpardonable). The finances matter enormously to Ryder Cup organizers, who depend on its proceeds to operate for the years between “home” editions. Widen the lens beyond individual players or even individual Cups, and it becomes apparent that this is the major event most vulnerable to radical change in whatever ecosystem emerges from the cash arms race disfiguring golf.

The Ryder Cup reliably showcases the sport’s greatest theater and passion. That’s the user experience. The apparatus around the Cup and its inner workings are strained, and demand a rethink that’s more pressing than any ideas we’ll see emerge from the post-mortem analysis of Team USA’s latest defeat.

Some of the issues are owed to the ownership structure. Europe’s half of the Cup is mostly held by the DP World Tour, with minor slices owned by a couple of regional PGA associations. There is no asset of remotely comparable value that the European circuit can bring to the new for-profit entity it is creating with the PGA Tour and, negotiations pending, the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (plus sundry investors who don’t have a side hustle abusing human rights).

Yet as vital as the Ryder Cup is to the books of its various owners, it is commercially isolated. Business types gripe about its limitations in terms of opportunities and partnerships that global sponsors will pay handsomely for. Eventually, some enterprising corporate cipher will see a means by which it can be plugged into a bigger commercial platform to increase profits. Any such platform must be built around the world’s best players, so it seems ordained that wherever the major tours go in the coming years, the Ryder Cup must follow.

And that involves major changes to what we know now.

The qualification system in Europe has been modified more frequently than Cher’s face, but every tweak has had the same rationale: accommodating stars who mostly compete in the U.S. while preserving a pathway to the team for guys who ply their trade at home. Leveraging the Ryder Cup to reward loyalty to the DP World Tour is parochial but necessary. On the opposite shore, the PGA Tour has no ownership stake but is the means by which players qualify. These systems (mostly) work now, but what happens if top players one day commit to a lucrative global schedule of tournaments elevated above the current American and European circuits? The Ryder Cup qualification system will immediately become unfit for purpose.

The fix for that is something that should be considered now: go to 12 captain’s picks and dispense with the points system entirely. Such a move would certainly have opponents, but plenty of pros. It would be tour-agnostic and grant skippers the latitude to choose on form and compatibility, and to do something that’s impossible with automatic qualifiers: leave at home those openly ambivalent about being here. It would also restore authority to captains, particularly future U.S. leaders, and not leave them hostage to the preferences of the automatics, which is what Zach Johnson essentially admitted has been his situation.

(If the team is to be drawn from whatever strata exists, why not the captaincy too? Former players are by disposition and circumstance myopic and deferential to their colleagues. Why not a captain from outside the traditional golf sphere? Someone recognized for their ability to get the best from the best. While the captain hits as many shots as the spectators, playing status need not be a consideration. Make it a position for proven performance specialists, not past their prime players.)

For all the pablum about continental rivalries, the modern era in the Ryder Cup has always been tour versus tour, PGA against Europe. The old legends — Ballesteros, Faldo, Woosnam — felt disrespected when they traveled to the U.S., which only fueled their determination to stick it to the Yanks every two years. Now, at least half of the European team lives stateside and both Scandinavian standouts this week — Viktor Hovland and Ludvig Aberg — spent their formative years in U.S. colleges. The old enmity is being diluted, and that will only accelerate as the lines between tours are blurred. What the Ryder Cup cannot lose or imperil is its heartbeat, the thousands of spectators who bring the noise regardless of what side of the ocean it is held on.

The concerns voiced in the aftermath of the 44th matches in Rome will be short-term in nature — what went wrong for the U.S., who is to blame, what must be done. However entertaining these recriminations may be for onlookers, those of us who love the Ryder Cup must grasp that the years ahead will bring challenges even more daunting than trying to beat Europe at home.

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