2006: Green, but gung-ho

By Rex Hoggard

It’s become good sport on both sides of the Atlantic to bash the new-look American Ryder Cup team, particularly the squad’s quartet of fresh-faced first-timers.

Detractors pan the four rookies the United States dredged up from the bowels of the PGA Tour as too inexperienced, too unseasoned, too nondescript to stand a chance against a European juggernaut that’s latched onto Samuel Ryder’s chalice.

The United States needs a team of assassins to wrench the coveted cup from the Euros, the naysayers sneer, and the PGA of America’s new points system delivered amateurs with little or no match play experience and dubious credentials.

The group’s team match-play experience is nearly nonexistent, with J.J. Henry the only member to have played in any sort of team event (1998 Palmer Cup). Their individual match play credentials as pros are limited to two starts at the WGC-Match Play Championship (Zach Johnson, 2005 and ’06). As amateurs, the group predated the AJGA’s Canon Cup and Henry (1997 and ’98 U.S. Amateur, three-time Connecticut Amateur champion) is the only one to have played in the match play portion of any U.S.

Golf Association or state golf association championship.

But late last month in a no-frills eatery called the Diamond Grille, just off Market Street in Akron, Ohio, the four U.S. Ryder Cup rookies were served another message. Tiger Woods had summoned the American newcomers to the impromptu meal at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in an attempt to prepare them for the rinse cycle that awaits at The K Club.

“He said, ‘You’re going to get juiced. It’s going to build on you and you’re going to get amped. Just relax and enjoy it,’ ” said Johnson, who – along with Henry, Vaughn Taylor and Brett Wetterich – will arrive in Ireland as green as the County Kildare countryside.

What Woods could have told the group some dismiss as a “Forgettable Four” was that history, if not the general public, is on their side.

Rookies are as much a part of the biennial grudge match as bad team shirts and jubilant Europeans singing endless choruses of “Ole, Ole, Ole.”

Just twice in the last 12 Ryder Cups has the U.S. side fielded a team with fewer than three rookies (1999 and 2002); the ’04 European squad that lapped the U.S. by nine points at Oakland Hills featured five first-timers.

“It’s been a lot more amplified this year, but there are always rookies,” said Loren Roberts, one of Tom Lehman’s assistants, who went 3-1 as a rookie on the ’95 team. “Rookies usually do well because they are so happy to be there and they want to do whatever they can to add to the chemistry.”

Roberts’ faith in untested players is more than wishful thinking. Since 1981, American Ryder Cup rookies have nearly matched the overall team’s winning percentage point for point, posting a 63-73-17 record (46.7 percent) compared to the American’s 217-242-69 (47.6 percent) total in the last 12 clashes.

The class of ’95 – which included Roberts, Lehman and Phil Mickelson – was the most prolific, going 11-6 in America’s one-point loss at Oak Hill. Five times since ’81 the rookies have outperformed the rest of the team.

Rookies from either side of the pond seem to arrive on the game’s most pressure-packed stage blissfully unaware of the pressure that awaits them when cup and country are on the line.

“We have no memories of failure so we could come in with fresh minds,” said Taylor, who will tee off at The K Club in his first organized match-play event of any kind. “It’s golf. The same game we’ve played our whole lives. We’re all ready for it and willing to take it on.”

This particular group of rookies also brings a healthy dose of competitive moxie. Call it the “X factor.” That unquantifiable element that makes a player such as Chris DiMarco a match-play maestro gives this group of Gen Xers an edge.

Johnson is a pickup basketball junkie who, at 5-foot-11, is rumored to be the Tour’s scrappiest shooting guard. Henry was a team sport standout growing up before shifting his competitive juices to golf. Taylor was dubbed “Ninja” by one Tour caddie. “He hides in the bushes, plays along quietly, nothing fancy. Then all of a sudden he puts a dart in your throat,” the looper said.

“I’m not the kind of guy who wears it on his sleeve and fist pumps all the time,” said Henry, who has the most extensive match-play experience among the rookies.

“But I’m as competitive as any guy out here. I hate to lose whether I’m playing my wife in a card game, or if I’m playing choo-choos with my 2-year-old son. You can’t be at this level and not be a competitive SOB.”

Maybe the most telling sign the U.S. rookies are being underestimated is their performance on the greens. Of the four first-timers, only Henry ranks outside the top 70 in putting average, but the New England native makes up for a sometimes balky putter with a refined iron game.

“The last four or five Ryder Cups have been decided on the greens,” Roberts said. “A good putter is a match for anyone.”

Taylor, with a 1.737 putting average (seventh on Tour), has quietly become a top putter, while Wetterich – the least known of the four rookies who last year at this time was bound for Q-School – is a long-ball specialist (fourth on Tour in driving distance) with a soft putting touch (45th in average).

Although Johnson’s putting has dipped slightly this year (68th in average), his game is made for match play. He ranks in the top 30 in both greens and fairways in regulation and advanced to the semifinals of this year’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, only the second match-play event of his career.

“In medal play, you don’t have a chance to make something special happen very often,” Johnson said. “But match play is a different animal. You can have a few bad holes and still have a chance to do something big at the end and pull it off.”

Of course, there are no ShotLink categories that will gauge how the rookies will respond to life in the Ryder Cup fish bowl, a white-knuckled existence that has buckled some of the game’s most stoic psyches. But Roberts has some advice: follow the lead of your most vocal critics, who have had little trouble taking shots at America’s untested newcomers.

“For some reason, you have a tendency to try and be someone you’re not when you get to the Ryder Cup,” Roberts said. “I’d tell them to get on the first tee and just swing as hard as you can.”

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