2004: Ryder Cup - Motor City takedown

Bloomfield Township, Mich.

The Europeans clearly have found something that works and have bottled it. What’s in the container is unclear, but it’s probably some sort of light hair dye. For the first time in Ryder Cup history, amazingly, there were more blonds on the 12-man European team than among the U.S. wives. This Cup was all about blond highlights – provided by their hairdressers and their golf clubs and televised in 218 countries.

“There’s a lot to be said for peroxide, isn’t there?” Darren Clarke said.

Clarke laughed as he talked, yet another sign blonds have more fun. But then everyone on the European team frolicked after the 35th Ryder Cup Matches, not just Clarke and fellow faux blonds Padraig Harrington, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald and Ian Poulter. All were in the mood for wine, whatever and song because they had dealt a more heralded United States side its worst defeat in the 77-year history of the biennial matches, 181⁄2 to 91⁄2.

Europe’s previous best margin was 161⁄2-111⁄2 in 1985, when it ended a 28-year victory drought and raised awareness in a widely overlooked series that has escalated into golf’s version of the Olympics. This 9-point deficit at Oakland Hills is shocking by any measure, especially when considering it matched the margin in the last seven Ryder Cups combined.

“I don’t think we even in our wildest dreams expected to (win by nine),” grayish-blond Colin Montgomerie, the soul of the Euro team, said after going 3-1 for a 14-3-3 record in his last 20 matches.

The Americans have failed to win in seven of the last 10 meetings, and its lone victory in the last five was that remarkable, Ben Crenshaw-inspired, “I’ve got a feeling” Sunday comeback from a 10-6 deficit in 1999. This, of course, constitutes a perplexing U.S. trend that lends itself to various theories, including a prominent one that the Europeans care more about the matches.

The outlooks of Sergio Garcia and Tiger Woods perhaps symbolized the disparity in passions. Garcia, the winners’ most potent player at 4-0-1, said, “This whole team and myself, we live for this.” On the other hand, Woods had taken pains to note that Jack Nicklaus is known more for his 18 major victories than his Ryder Cup record.

Asked to explain the Euro roll, U.S. captain Hal Sutton extended his week of entertaining quotes sprinkled with Louisiana-drawled y’alls and fixin’s by saying, “I think their hairdresser has the answer we’re looking for.”

So we’re back to the notion that it must be the hair. People laughed, but Sutton wasn’t kidding.

“They are very secure with themselves,” he said of the winners. “I could not dye my hair blond or another color. I’m not criticizing them. I admire people who are very secure with themselves.”

So there you have it. Team Peroxide came in comfortable in its own skin, or under its own scalps, and free-wheeled against an admittedly tight and tentative U.S. team.

We’ve seen this movie before, though not with as much Stephen King fright. As usual, the Europeans arrived somehow as 21⁄2-1 underdogs and with more guys the casual golf fan had never heard of. As it happened, this tournament had an underdog and a dog. The Europeans made more putts and showed more spirit. They got momentum early and didn’t relinquish it for more than a two-hour stretch. They made the Americans, again, look more like featherweights than heavyweights. They would have won even if world No. 1 Vijay Singh, of Florida by way of Fiji, had stood on the par 3s and hit tee shots for the Americans, corporate-outing style.

“They have that intangible,” Sutton said.

Americans routinely dominate the Europeans in major championships. Outside of Poulter’s Union Jack trousers, the 12 Europeans hardly made a splash at this year’s majors. No European has won a major this millennium. This U.S. team consisted of five major winners, the Euro side none. This U.S. team entered with 10 players in the top 25 of the World Golf Ranking, the Euros four.

But none of that matters every other September, when the men from across the pond bond and master match play. The Americans have trailed by at least 4 points entering Sunday singles in three of the last four meetings, including a record deficit of 11-5 here. Four-ball is a culprit, for the United States has been outscored 49-31 in that format starting in 1985.

“We’re a closer-knit team,” said Montgomerie. “It’s amazing how well we play for each other, and that’s huge. I’m not saying the Americans don’t. They play for country or whatever. But we really do play for each other.”

Montgomerie performed superbly despite having finalized a divorce the week before and shedding 36 pounds since the British Open. (He uses a belly putter even though he no longer has a belly.) Through Day 1, he hadn’t trailed in 144 consecutive holes, dating to 1999. He called this his most memorable Ryder Cup because “it’s the first one I’ve gone to bed on my own at night.” But while he might have been in something of a love funk, that didn’t keep him from helping to beat Love-Funk (Fred) in foursomes.

The U.S. players, meanwhile, unanimously bristled at the notion they lack team chemistry, even though Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson hardly looked like they were on a peace march in losing two matches together. And despite their glossier dossiers, the Yanks questioned why they are always the favorite, placing misplaced blame on the media instead of on oddsmakers or the IMG-created World Ranking.

“If they keep bringing the Cup back on their airplane, we are the underdog and they have a half-point lead starting off next time,” Davis Love III said.

Not so fast. The Euros hadn’t even started their party when at least one British bookmaker installed the United States as a 7-4 favorite for the 2006 matches in Ireland.

Favorites or otherwise, the Americans will need improved production from their top guns next time. Woods (2-3-0), Mickelson (1-3-0) and Love (1-3-1) — Nos. 2, 4 and 6 in the world, respectively – combined for only 3 points in pairs, whereas four Europeans scored at least that many. The big three finished 4-9-1 overall. Woods, 28, the Americans’ youngest player for the fourth consecutive time, is now 2-11 in his last 13 four-balls in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup. Mickelson is 1-10 in his last 11 Ryder-Presidents matches.

“If (those three) don’t lead this team, it’s hard for the next three or four guys to do it, and it’s hard for the rookies,” Love said.

“We want to win this thing so bad, and we are under constant scrutiny and ridicule,” Mickelson said Saturday night. “We just fight it. And we don’t play loose, we don’t play upbeat.”

Not that Sutton didn’t try to motivate. He came across all week as the tough-minded football coach missing only a whistle around his neck. He tried everything but Dale Carnegie tapes. He put a photograph of Payne Stewart in the team room for inspiration. Michael Jordan joined the team for dinner Monday night. After the Americans fell behind 61⁄2-11⁄2 on Day 1 (“Woe is U.S.,” one headline read), they watched videos featuring comedy by Bill Murray and highlights of each player holing putt after putt over recent years.

On Saturday night, while facing their largest deficit ever at 11-5, they watched a clip of European captain Bernhard Langer (yet another blond) saying he expected 2 points out of the first three singles games against Woods, Mickelson and Love. They watched tape of the ’99 rally and got emotional when each player talked about what the Ryder Cup meant to him. The experience reduced rookie Chad Campbell to tears.

The next afternoon, their uphill quest for 141⁄2 points started nicely and provided hope. Sutton front-loaded his singles lineup, filling out the 1-12 card based on the order of the Ryder Cup points qualifying list. At one point, they were up in six of the first seven, and they were tied or ahead on the back nine in all of the first eight matches. But the momentum didn’t last.

Garcia birdied Nos. 9-11 to go from 2 down to 1 up on Mickelson. Love lost Nos. 16-17 to birdies and halved Clarke. Kenny Perry lost a 2-up edge through seven and fell, 1 down, to Westwood. And David Toms missed a 2-footer on No. 4 and lost the clinching point, 1 down, to Montgomerie. Like Garcia, Westwood went 4-0-1; never before had two players from the same team scored 41⁄2 points.

Once again, Europe scraped out the close ones. It had a 81⁄2-21⁄2 points edge in matches that went 18 holes, and since 1985 has a 651⁄2-461⁄2 advantage in such matches.

“They have a lot of heart,” Langer said in that Arnold Schwarzenegger accent.

Their start was more significant than their finish. Sutton greeted his team on the first tee wearing a black cowboy hat, but the U.S. mood quickly went black. The Europeans won the first morning’s four-ball session 31⁄2-1⁄2 and never trailed in any match. Montgomerie and Harrington set the tone with birdies on six of the first eight holes in a 2-and-1 victory over the so-called “Dream Team” of Woods-Mickelson.

Sutton coupled his country’s top two players for the first time because he said history, fans and the two men themselves needed it. But the pairing lacked chemistry and the experiment was scrapped after they blew a 3-up lead and lost 1 down to Clarke-Westwood in alternate-shot that afternoon. Mickelson had chosen not to practice on Oakland Hills’ South Course the two previous days, and figuratively his outstanding game of 2004 didn’t show up on Friday, either. He attributed his problem to “steering the ball.”

“You could have owned me today,” Sutton said. “I would’ve bet the ranch they wouldn’t lose twice.”

Earlier in the month Mickelson had switched equipment companies for considerably more money. His change of woods and ball before such an important tournament raised eyebrows and invited suspicion of selfishness. It didn’t help that his drives put Woods in spots of bother on five holes in foursomes, most notably when all square coming to No. 18. His sliced-blocked 3-wood tee shot ended up by an out-of-bounds fence some 40 yards left, leaving a stunned Woods with a drop in the rough behind towering pine trees, 259 yards from the hole. The marketing bang Callaway Golf, his new company, had hoped for at the Ryder became a thud.

“We’ll all be left scratching our heads on that (equipment change),” Sutton said Friday night. “We’ll all want answers to that. But the most important person that’s going to have to wonder about that is Phil Mickelson. It’s not going to cause us any grief in the morning because he’s going to be cheering instead of playing.”

Mickelson called his night “brutal,” saying he didn’t sleep at all, saying he felt he had let everyone down. “A miserable feeling,” he said.

The next day was better – for a while. The Americans had a chance to sweep Saturday morning four-ball, but Jay Haas-Chris DiMarco lost a 2-up lead and halved Garcia-Westwood. And, in the Cup’s key swing match, Jim Furyk and Campbell dropped the last two holes to lose 1 down to Englishmen rookies David Howell and Paul Casey. Howell produced the shot of the week, a 210-yard 6-iron that set up a 7-foot birdie putt on the par-3 17th. Casey clinched with a two-putt par at 18, where both Americans failed to get up-and-down.

Momentum swung back to the Europeans. Instead of trimming the deficit to 1, 2 or 3 points, the United States trailed 8-4. Moreover, it went into Saturday afternoon foursomes without rookie Chris Riley, who had helped Woods to a 4-and-3 four-ball rout. Curiously, Riley, 30, asked out of the lineup, citing fatigue and lack of alternate-shot experience, and Sutton didn’t demand he play.

“Everything went our way,” Langer said.

That would include the peroxide bottle.

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