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Column: Stricker shows US players how to win as a team

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. (AP) — Of course he cried. The odds of Steve Stricker not having tears running down his face after leading the U.S. to a dominating Ryder Cup win were about as long as the chances of Europe roaring back on Sunday to beat the Americans.

He cried before a shot had been hit and cried again when there were no more left to be hit. Later on, he cried some more, and a lot of people at Whistling Straits cried tears of happiness alongside him.

This wasn’t just a win but a rout. The Ryder Cup was safely back in American hands and the way this U.S. team performed, it looks like it may stay for a long time. It may not have happened if not for a hometown captain who showed a supremely talented group of players how to win the way the Europeans always won — as a team.

“Without him, who knows how this week would have went," Collin Morikawa said. Just how much did players want to win it for their captain? Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka offered to put aside their feud and play with each other if it would help get a few points.

“That’s how much it came together,” Stricker said. “That shows a lot about this whole team.” It shows even more about their captain, a popular and self-effacing 12-time winner on the PGA Tour who didn’t need a Ryder Cup captaincy to validate his career. He got one anyway and delivered the biggest blowout ever in biennial matches against Europe in the 19-9 win.

Sure, the U.S. came in favored because it had the best players, though in past Ryder Cups that never seemed to matter. The Europeans were usually better as a team because previous U.S. coaches and players never seemed able to figure out what it meant to be a team.

Not this time. Not when they were led by a captain who had a couple of beers before the opening ceremony so he wouldn’t start crying when he introduced his wife and two daughters to the assembled crowd.

Stricker cried anyway, but that just made them want to win for him even more. “He’s so passionate. He’s a softie, he cares so much," Koepka said before play began. “It’d be nice to see him cry on Sunday."

Stricker spent three years getting ready for three long days, believing more than anything that the Americans' chances would be even better if they were better prepared than the Europeans. That meant adding a half-dozen assistant captains to look after every detail, and making sure that even Tiger Woods, recuperating in Florida, had a voice on this team.

But there were no rah-rah speeches in the team room like at past Ryder Cups. The 54-year-old didn’t create pods of players based on psychological evaluations or bring in celebrities to have their say.

Instead, Stricker and his assistants had a simple plan: Put your best in the best position you can and let them do the rest. “This is the greatest team of all time right here," he said. “These guys are unbelievable."

That showed almost from the opening tee shot on Friday, when the U.S. jumped out to a quick 3-1 lead in alternate-shot play. Two more 3-1 sessions followed and by the time play ended Saturday evening, the Americans had a commanding 11-5 lead.

It was as good as over, though the short message Stricker delivered to the team was that it wasn’t quite over yet. He sent them out to dominate one last day and they did just that, winning the points 8-4 and sending a message that there was a new world order in team golf.

“They obviously got it right this week, a very strong team,” European captain Padraig Harrington said. “But you know, I’m happy for Steve Stricker. You know, he’s one of the good guys in golf. If you’re going to get beat by a captain, that’s a good captain for sure."

The blowout win was actually the second for a team under Stricker, who led the U.S. Presidents Cup team to a 19-11 win in 2017 that paved the way for his selection as the Ryder Cup captain. He played in three Ryder Cups himself, though his 3-7-1 record now probably won’t be discussed much when there is talk about his legacy in the team competition.

After a week that went nearly perfectly, Stricker could have taken credit for orchestrating the rout. But that’s not his style, and he went out of his way to thank almost everyone from the players to Woods to the Kohler family that developed the rugged course on the shore of Lake Michigan.

While he wasn’t ready to take a bow, he was more than eager to join in the celebration. “I never won a major,” he said, tearing up yet again. “This is my major right here.”

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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