Today is the last day of the Ryder Cup 2014, and the score is 10-6 (see update below for the final score). We have been here before. In the past, this score has been overturned on the last day twice (in fact, every time, see footnote).
Each sport has its super-events which evoke significantly more emotional energy than other events, often inspired by national rivalries. Cricket has The Ashes, golf has the Ryder Cup (see footnote) for men and the Solheim Cup for women, and there are many super-events in other sports. However, the Ryder Cup, unlike the vast majority of professional golf tournaments, is a team event. This raises the question of how their performance depends on collaborative behaviour within the team.
Game or business
During the BBC commentary on this event, Nicolas Colsaerts was asked about the two sides and the differences between the approach to the game on the two continents. Colsaerts is a Belgian golfer, who played in the Ryder Cup in 2012 (see this interview with him at this year’s event). Most people comparing the teams speak about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the individual players. He chose to focus on the team behaviour.
His main point was that the Europeans treat golf as a game, whereas the Americans treat it as a business. The life of these players involves huge amounts of travel, as it does for tennis players and many other sports people. They spend large proportions of their time away from home, competing against each other, individually. They do not even have doubles events, as tennis does. For many weeks of the year, they are in far-flung parts of the world, and top players operate their own aircraft to make travel easier and quicker.
Individuals or teams
So when they come together for a team event, it is a very different experience. Colsaerts described that the Europeans operate as a team, whereas the Americans operate as a group of individuals. He described the huge difference in social arrangements. For example, at the hotel, the European team would all be chatting with each other, sitting together in big groups, supporting and joking with each other, eating together with wives, friends and, maybe, children. The Americans, he said, were probably all eating at separate tables. What a difference! No wonder the Americans have had fallings out between team members. And no wonder, when asked about the strengths of the American team, Phil Mickelson somewhat jokingly, but pointedly, chose to say that they do not litigate against one another (because there is a court case in progress between two of the European team members). But this seems unlikely to prevent the European team members from playing well together, because of their fundamentally different approach: that the game comes first and the business flows from that.
Team models: vertical and horizontal
For a team to perform well, it is important to operate collaboratively. The hierarchical (“vertical”) models of the two teams are almost identical in terms of their structure and behaviour: there is a non-playing captain and vice-captains; of course, they play exactly the same format of games; and the captain ultimately decides who will play and when. But this is not so for the “horizontal” models, the peer-to-peer interaction within the teams seems to be very different, with the European team collaborating far more than the Americans.
Today, the last day, may be different
The contrary factor is that on the last day, they play games individually. This is much more similar to their normal mode of competition. The question is to what extent the team spirit developed during the first two days is important when playing individually on the third day. A total of two out of two times that a 10-6 score has been overturned might not have statistical business significance, but it might have emotional game significance.
Update: Europe won 16.5-11.5, and another theme emerged
During the last day of 12 singles, USA were initially doing well. However, Europe regained ground in several of them which many commentators attributed to the spirit of collaboration and mutual support in the European team. However, afterwards, another theme was prominent in the discussions by the players: the quality of the team captaincy and leadership. So, there’s a topic for another post!
Footnote: the Ryder Cup and the history of the 10-6 score
The Ryder Cup is the biannual golf match between the USA and Europe, each fielding a team of 12 players, who play against each over three days. The scoring scheme makes a total of 28 points available: 8 points on the first day, 8 points on the second day, and 12 points on the third day. So although we are two thirds of the way through the time, we are only four sevenths of the way through the points: 16 points have been scored, and there are 12 more points to play for.
This time the 10-6 score is in Europe’s favour, previously the lead has been overturned twice once in each direction. Europe overturned a USA lead at Medina in 2012 and USA overturned a European lead at Brookline in 1999 (which significant surrounding controversy). Indeed, whenever the score has been 10-6, it has always been overturned! [Update: until this time.]