Europeans blast Americans at the The Belfry
Best thing you can say about the Americans’ performance on the final day of the Ryder Cup is this: They sure can play out of that left bunker at 18.
Other than that, Europe did the blasting.
Early and often. Especially early.
“A European butt-whipping,” U.S. captain Curtis Strange called the 151⁄2-121⁄2 beating at The Belfry.
That, of course, is hardly new. The Europeans, those biennial 2-1 underdogs, have won Samuel Ryder’s 17-inch-high trophy in six of the last nine meetings. Favorites might be a safe tout at Lakers games and in Chicago politics, but not in the tense arena of international match play. Even if Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, Nos. 1 and 2 in the world, are riding shotgun.
The final score, then, isn’t nearly as surprising as Europe’s 71⁄2-41⁄2 dominance in Sunday singles. The United States, relying on superior depth, had won more singles points than Europe in six of the last seven meetings and nine of 11. Since 1987, each side had accumulated 98 points overall, but the Americans had dominated singles, 491⁄2 to 341⁄2.
So one might have surmised that the U.S. of A. was in good shape entering the last day tied 8-8. They needed 14 points to keep the valuable 4-pound ornament, the Euros 141⁄2 to wrest it away. But on this autumn sabbath in the British Midlands, history and odds and world rankings and players’ recent form and all things paper were worth as much as a share of Enron stock.
The U.S. collapse Sept. 29 was such that it won only two of 12 individual matchups. Two. Because just David Toms (1-up rally over Sergio Garcia) and Scott Verplank (2 and 1 over Lee Westwood) delivered victories, the outcome was decided before Woods’ match against Jesper Parnevik in the final pairing could matter.
“They have one Tiger and we have 12 lions,” European captain Sam Torrance said.
The hosts not only outplayed the Americans, they outstrategized them, as it turned out. Momentum swung quickly to Europe as it led all of the first six matches early on the back nine. That early success energized the partisan crowd of 40,000 and the rest of a 12-man team comprised of men from eight different countries.
European leads were posted in blue numbers. It follows that the top of the scoreboard was nothing if not a sea of blue.
Or blues for the Yanks.
The positive vibes for Europe actually started Saturday night when the singles pairings were announced. Torrance front-loaded the lineup with his best players: in order, Colin Montgomerie, Sergio Garcia, Darren Clarke, Bernhard Langer, Padraig Harrington and Thomas Bjorn. By contrast, Strange wanted his best last in case the Cup was on the line, so he back-loaded his pairings with Mickelson and Woods at 11 and 12.
Europe in front, U.S. in back, that’s how it ended, too, thanks to the early routs by Torrance’s stars and late heroics by his Cup rookies. Montgomerie (4 and 3 over Scott Hoch), Langer (4 and 3 over Hal Sutton), Harrington (5 and 4 over Mark Calcavecchia) and Bjorn (2 and 1 over Stewart Cink) gave Europe a commanding 121⁄2-91⁄2 lead.
Then newcomer Phillip Price of Wales stunned Mickelson with five birdies and no bogeys in a 3-and-2 upset, and fellow first-timer Paul McGinley of Ireland made a 9-foot par putt to halve Jim Furyk and clinch the Cup at 141⁄2-111⁄2. Moments earlier, McGinley had made a 12-foot birdie putt at 17 to pull even for the first time since the first hole.
“Out of the shadows come heroes,” Torrance said, “and that’s where McGinley and Price came from.”
Hindsight and British reporters’ inquiries being what they are, Strange’s lineup order might be the most-questioned move in the Ryder Cup since, say, Strange was a captain’s pick in 1995. Especially since the U.S. captain said he anticipated Torrance would lead off with his so-called show ponies. Especially since the European players said sight of the pairings gave them an emotional boost. Especially since 1991 was the last time the 12th match impacted the securing of the cup.
“Very few times has the last match counted,” said Montgomerie, who made six birdies in his 16 holes and finished as leading points-earner with a 4-0-1 record. “We felt Tiger Woods’ match might not count, and it didn’t.”
“It looks like we got outmaneuvered,” Verplank said. “I guess it was a great move by Sam.”
Strange, though, bristled when a British writer asked, “Everyone is saying, Curtis, that you handed the Ryder Cup to Europe by not putting your top players at the top out first. Do you agree?”
The American captain responded by saying, “I think Scott Hoch can play a pretty good game of golf. And I think David Toms is a pretty good player. And I think David Duval is a pretty good player. So obviously if somebody says that, it shows me that – well, I won’t say that. I would tend to disagree, as simple as that. I think it’s an insult to those three players, quite frankly.”
Torrance’s bold plan of power first was similar to the one employed by U.S. captain Ben Crenshaw at the 1999 Ryder Cup at Brookline, Mass. Down 10-6 and in need of a spark, Crenshaw sent out horses Tom Lehman, Davis Love III, Mickelson, Hal Sutton, David Duval and Woods in the first six singles matches. All of them won. Red numbers went up on boards all over The Country Club. A boisterous Boston crowd added to the adrenaline. And suddenly the United States was ahead against a European team that trotted out three unused rookies early.
This was a reverse Brookline. Aggressive defeated cautious again. Torrance, an assistant captain to Mark James there in 1999, learned from that. And on Saturday night here, some of his enthused players sensed what was coming.
“When Monty and I saw the pairings on Saturday night in Brookline, we looked at each other and said the same thing: ‘We are not going to win a match,’ ” Parnevik said. “This time it was just the opposite. (Saturday) night we looked at it and said, ‘We’re going to win every match.’ We were very, very happy when we saw the draw.”
Strange and even some European players, though, asserted afterward that Torrance’s move was something of a dice roll.
“Sam took a risk and it paid off,” said Montgomerie, now 16-7-5 overall and 4-0-2 in singles in Ryder Cups.
“I thought he took a hell of a gamble by front-loading his team,” Strange said. “Because if they don’t do well, in my mind it was over. But they went out and played well and . . . it turned out to be smart. They got blue on the board in the first four matches early. And then the crowd got into it and it inspired the rest of the team. That’s exactly what he wanted.”
Torrance’s take? “All I did was lead them to water,” he said, “and all they did was drink copious amounts.”
True on both accounts. But Torrance also made other decisions that seemingly helped his team. The greens were slower than U.S. players are accustomed to. And the course setup, as at Valderrama in 1997, didn’t suit the Americans’ power game. Woods and Mickelson usually hit two drivers a round. In fact, in the opening four-ball session, Woods teed off with 4-, 5-, 6- and 7-irons on par 4s during the first 11 holes.
“The whole course setup neutralized our power as a team,” Paul Azinger said. “The fairways are squeezed to around 15 and even 11 yards wide (in landing areas) and our power hitters had to squeeze iron shots in short of that. (Europe) didn’t play the real Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and David Duval. They played guys hitting irons off tees.”
Bottom line, though, is Europe produced the final day, and the Americans didn’t. A singles breakdown is telling. Europe led decisively in holes won (52-36), birdies or better (45-38) and bogeys or worse (20-29).
The old saw about 18-hole matches is that anything can happen, that a lesser player can beat the world’s best. Once more that proved true. Woods went 0-2 in doubles the first day. And of the six U.S. players ranked in the top 12 of the world, only Toms won in singles.
This is 18-hole match play: Price entered play No. 119 in the world, just one spot ahead of 55-year-old Jumbo Ozaki, but he dusted No. 2 Mickelson. In fact, none of Europe’s four oft-maligned rookies lost in singles.
Even so, the Americans still had a chance late, thanks partly to some sharp sand play from that left greenside bunker at 18. Duval got up and down for a halve against Clarke. Remarkably, Azinger holed a bunker shot for birdie to win 18, halve his match against Niclas Fasth and keep the U.S. team alive at 14-11. And, 10 minutes later, Furyk almost holed out from the same trap. Meanwhile, Love and Woods had chances to win the remaining matches.
Problem was, seconds later, after Torrance told McGinley to “do it for me,” the Irishman made the 9-footer that tied Furyk and reclaimed the cup. Thus, like American Justin Leonard in 1999, the clinching Ryder hero was someone who didn’t even win his match.
Not that McGinley or any European cared. Teammates threw McGinley into the pond at 18, and he draped himself in a wet Irish flag. Fans serenaded him. Torrance sprayed him with champagne. American players showered him with praise.
“What a putt!” Azinger said as he passed McGinley after the closing ceremonies. “You can’t make that putt.”
McGinley smiled. And he likely won’t stop any time soon.