You can't blame them for being in shock.
When the American Ryder Cup team made their way into the giant media tent tucked in the trees between the clubhouse and Medinah Road on Sunday night, each one of them looked as if he’d just walked away from a plane crash. Some were numb, others jumpy and raw, still others so unsure how to feel that they lapsed into oddly inappropriate giggles. Phil Mickelson wore the disappointed smile of a man who had been there too many times. He also offered comforting solace, sotto voce, to Brandt Snedeker who sat next to him at the inquisition table. Snedeker nodded and drew his facial muscles tight, fighting back tears.
Jim Furyk looked like Joe Pesci in "Goodfellas," his barely contained fury a signal that you were one ill-timed comment away from being beaten with a tire iron and tossed in a trunk. When the inevitable – and quite appropriate – question about how this collapse compared to others came up, Furyk berated the questioner and won himself no new fans in the process.
Passing days have dulled the ache as shock has given way to anger, then depression and, finally, acceptance. But as more information comes to light and more questions are answered, there are some takeaways from this Ryder Cup, some things that can be learned and some mistakes that can be avoided in the future.
For starters, as tempting as it is to blame the captain in these circumstances, Davis Love III did almost everything right. In fact, the more we learn about Davis’ strategy, the more brilliant it seems. Not only did he pair off his players before they arrived in Chicago, he let everyone know two things from the outset: The partners they had at the beginning of the week were the partners they would have at the end. They were like dive buddies or wing men: in it for the duration.
Secondly, they were all told that they would sit out a session. Nobody would play all five, not Tiger Woods who had never sat down in a Ryder Cup, and not Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley who played only 12 holes of alternate shot on Saturday (effectively six holes worth of shots per man).
Armchair quarterbacks are already giving Davis jazz about sitting Phil and Keegan, but the job of the captain is to put his players in the best position to perform.
By laying out the plan ahead of time, the players could focus on hitting the shots and holing the putts without having to think ahead and without worrying about who their next partner might be. They could sell out for the men next to them and pour everything into the matches at hand.
For two days it worked like a charm.
But then something happened. On Saturday night in the team room, the players exchanged gifts – a Ryder Cup tradition – and told stories about what the Ryder Cup meant to them. Both Presidents Bush came in, as did Michael Jordan along with all the wives and girlfriends. It was a big bonding session, a "Kum Ba Yah" moment for everyone.
But it wasn’t intense. It wasn’t a night where anyone told the guys they needed to put their big boy pants on and prepare for the toughest day of golf they would ever experience. It wasn’t a "put your knee in their throat until they stop squirming" night of preparation.
It would take a record-setting performance for the Europeans to win, so everyone went to bed Saturday night assuming that, with an average Sunday performance, the matches would be over.
Unfortunately, when things turned below average, there was no backstop, no emotional dig left in the players. They weren’t prepared for the kind of across-the-board charge the Europeans made. And it cost them.
In the end, Team USA lost on a couple of putts that probably couldn’t be holed again if the Euros had 10 mulligans. But the Americans also beat themselves by making one of the oldest mistakes in the book.
They thought it was over before it was over. They let a wounded opponent get up off the mat. And in doing so, they made the kind of history no American Ryder Cup player or captain ever wants to see again.