2004: Perspective - A cupful of camaraderie

Bloomfield Township, Mich.

They sat next to one another on the dais, passing around that little 17-inch Ryder Cup chalice, playfully bantering and clowning like fifth-graders on lunch break. One by one, Frenchman Thomas Levet introduced his teammates the way ring announcer Michael Buffer might introduce a heavyweight boxer.

“To my far left,” the Frenchman bellowed, motioning to Colin Montgomerie, “Mr. Ryder Cup, the mean machine . . . ”

His teammates, some drinking beer, a few sipping champagne, roared with laughter, like a family reunited for holiday. Hey, this isn’t to say the U.S. team is the old Boston Red Sox – 25 players, 25 cabs – but it’s evident the European Ryder Cup team has a special, cohesive bond. It seems unlikely one could throw Irishmen, Spaniards, Frenchmen, Scots and Englishmen into one tall martini glass and ask a stoic man from Germany to stir, but the resulting cocktail truly was something to behold.

If you’re convinced golf is not a team event, think again. One week every other year it is. Meet the Euros, golf’s merry band of brothers, a powerful concoction in which the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. As the U.S. squad continued to grope blindly to find suitable pairings and tried once again to solve the Ryder Cup riddle, Europe marched on, a 12-man team with a singular goal: To get that tiny little cup back on a plane heading across the Atlantic.

Is anyone surprised that Europe once again prevailed, embarrassing the Americans by a record nine-point margin, 181⁄2 to 91⁄2, at Oakland Hills? You ought to be more surprised to see the moon in the night sky. Victory by Europe once was viewed as an aberration, but now it’s a genuine trend. Europe, the little train that could, now is 6-3-1 in the last 10 Ryder Cups and has prevailed in four of the last five.

Let’s be honest. Who’s the real underdog here?

“They just seemed to play more relaxed than we did,” said U.S. rookie Stewart Cink. “We came out a little tight and a little tentative, and it’s hard to explain why. We need to probably take a look in the mirror here and figure this out before the next one. They seem to be coming more ready than we are. And it’s happened a lot lately.”

The latest edition was a proverbial march to the woodshed. Europe broke fast, building a record 5-point lead the opening day, staved off a brief U.S. rally on Day 2, then went out and won the Sunday singles session for good measure. Man of the Match? How about Men of the Match? Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Darren Clarke, Padraig Harrington . . . and oh, almost forgot. That Monty guy showed up, too.

A few months ago, it appeared Colin Montgomerie might miss his first Ryder Cup since 1991, if that’s even fathomable. He was nowhere in sight in the qualifying table and trying to cope with a pending divorce with his wife of 14 years. (It became final the week before he left for Detroit.)

Anointed a captain’s pick by Bernhard Langer, Montgomerie seemed to emerge draped in a superhero cape from some phone booth nearby. He struck the first shot of the matches, birdied the first hole, helped lead (with Harrington) an opening victory over the U.S. “Dream Team” of Tiger Woods-Phil Mickelson and did everything but rid Detroit of street crime.

“He’s a class act,” said Harrington of Monty. “When he turns up at Ryder Cup, he puffs out his chest and stands tall.”

As much as the U.S. team rolls its collective eyes and hates to hear it, the Euros have a chemistry the Americans simply don’t possess. It’s not that they have more passion to win the cup, but they truly play for one another. They walk the fairways side by side, read putts together. If the U.S. team is soul-searching to put its finger on something that is amiss, here’s one tip: Go spend a couple of weeks on the European Tour.

It has become somewhat of a cliche to say the Europeans simply spend more time with one another, but it’s true. They play practice rounds together, eat lunch together and often gather at the end of a round at the same hotel for a pint of lager. When the World Match Play Championship visits La Costa in California early each year, while U.S. players are individually dialing up room service, a pack of European players can be found in the resort restaurant, swapping stories and dining together. Just as they do in Europe.

“These guys are together all the time,” says Chubby Chandler, a former European Tour player who now manages players, among them Clarke and Westwood. “The U.S. doesn’t do this 103 out of 104 weeks.”

That extra closeness brings with it a competitive edge. Paul McGinley, who grew up near Harrington in Dublin, knew just how to push Harrington’s buttons when his partner got off to a sluggish start in Saturday foursomes. They’ve known one another for 20 years.

“There was a certain element to me,” Harrington said, “that I felt I owed it to Paul.”

Clarke and Westwood have played together for more than a decade, and there’s more to the relationship than knowing what to say at the right time. Said Westwood, “We also know what not to say at the right times.”

When Montgomerie holed his final putt on 18 to win, he didn’t know he’d just clinched the Ryder Cup for Europe. He celebrated simply because he’d helped the team by winning a point. That’s all. There was nothing individualistic about it. He’s won seven Order of Merit titles in Europe, but Monty is far more proud of his seven Ryder Cups. As he approached Langer, the captain told him, “You’ve done it.”

They all had. Twelve men and their captain, from all over the place. They sang. They celebrated. The plane home was off the ground at 8 the next morning. Sleep wasn’t an option.

A band of brothers departed Detroit possessing something the Americans probably wished they had. And we’re not just talking about that little 17-inch chalice.

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