2006: Ryder Cup
The team billed on paper as perhaps the worst in U.S. Ryder Cup history played like it on grass. And when it comes to paper, grass and American teams, there’s a common thread: We’re used to seeing all of them get cut up.
The latest shredding, oddly enough, came by the same lopsided score as last time, 181⁄2 to 91⁄2, and ushered in yet another champagne-drenched European chorus of “Ole! Ole! Ole!” Now that Europe has matched its largest margin of victory, the question is begged: How do you say, “The back of the woodshed is blood-splattered again” in Gaelic?
Just like the old days – but in reverse – the outcome of the Ryder Cup has become something of a foregone conclusion. Europe has won five of the last six meetings, three in a row for the first time and has walked off with possession of the 17-inch-high trophy eight of the last 11 times.
So, heading into the 2008 matches at Valhalla in Louisville, Ky., American lips, remarkably, will have consumed adult refreshment from the famed cup just once in 15 years. You might say the Yanks will be thirsty if not hungry. You can expect they’ll be underdogs, pending oddsmaker sanity, and perhaps outmanned. A deeper-than-ever European side knows how to do this and has reloaded with young stars, most notably the animated Sergio Garcia, whose play (4-0 in pairs) and enthusiasm lifted his mates. Given all that, and the unlikely routs of the new millennium, perhaps the Ryder committee should adopt a so-called mercy rule, the equivalent of the 10-run slaughter provision of youth baseball.
The task figures to be uphill and into the wind for Paul Azinger, the likely choice to lead America against a Euro dozen captained by his wry television sidekick Nick Faldo. That’s provided, of course, Azinger wants to answer his telephone if and when the PGA of America calls. After all, would Joe Torre want to manage in Kansas City or Pittsburgh?
Unclear is whether the next U.S. team will play loose like an underdog or tight, feeling even more pressure. Certain is that this 36th Ryder Cup – the first in Ireland and at a K Club course designed by two-time U.S. captain Arnold Palmer – again confirmed that Europe clearly is better in match play. The superiority used to cover just pairs, but in winning all five sessions for the first time, the Euros ruled singles for the third Cup in a row. The count was 81⁄2-31⁄2, its best ever.
“I just don’t know if there’s been a European team that’s played better,” U.S. captain Tom Lehman said. If he doesn’t, then Hal Sutton, the last U.S. leader left shaking an aching head post 9-point pounding, does.
The compelling one-word question is the same after the matches as before: Why? Why does Europe dominate the Ryder Cup? Why do the Americans – this time right in front of famous former Washington chief executives George Bush, Bill Clinton and Michael Jordan – keep losing an event it owned for about six decades? Why did the U.S. win only six of 28 matches?
“I don’t think there’s one guy up here that can give you that answer,” said Jim Furyk, flanked by his teammates.
Many of the theories are the same, from the clip-and-save folder: The Europeans seem more passionate about the matches. Top U.S. players such as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, despite what they say, are more interested in winning individual majors April-August and aren’t into the September international team play as much as most Europeans. Like, say, Paul Casey. The Englishman, who closed out a match with a hole-in-one, moved captain Ian Woosnam by saying he’d rather win the Ryder than the £1 million he had hauled in the previous week.
Europe, so the notions go, has feasted on performing as a free-wheeling underdog with low expectations. The Europeans always putt better, for some reason, perhaps because they don’t play not to lose. The Europeans have better camaraderie because they socialize and travel more together on their tour. The Americans don’t appear as joyful on the course. Nor do they dress as playfully as their counterparts, who wore lime green blazers to the opening ceremony and salmon sport coats to the closing. Who dresses these guys, anyway? Jesper Parnevik?
“I don’t hole a putt for me,” said Colin Montgomerie, who tied the Ryder record for most singles victories (6-0-2) and pulled within 11⁄2 points of Faldo’s record 25 points. “I hole a putt for Ian. I hole a putt for Darren (Clarke) or Lee (Westwood) or Padraig (Harrington). . . . We play for each other.”
Another trend that held form is that the Americans came out of the gate like donkeys against thoroughbreds. For the fourth time in the last five Ryders, the U.S. was down at least 4 points entering Sunday singles. The tally was 10-6 this time because the Euros won each of the two morning four-ball and two afternoon foursome series by 21⁄2-11⁄2.
“We always seem to play like we have something to lose,” said Stewart Cink, America’s second-leading producer, a half behind Woods’ 3 points. “And they always play like they have nothing to lose.”
In each pairs session, the Euros got ahead early in three of the four matches. Singles was more of the same, with blue on the scoreboard and on U.S. faces early.
“It’s unbelievable we got off to a fast start every time,” Woosnam said.
“It’s very difficult when you get down like that in match play,” said Furyk, who outperformed Woods in their 2-2 partnership, particularly in the two four-balls, when Woods had as many water balls (three) as birdies. “We kept getting stuck in a hole. I have no answer as to why. It will take a lot of reflecting. The whole team will try to figure out what’s missing.”
Then there are reasons specific to this blowout. Europe had more depth of talent than ever before, as evidenced by the fact Woosnam sat out three players ranked in the world top 13 the first morning (Luke Donald, Henrik Stenson and David Howell). Montgomerie, among others, called this the best Euro team ever. Conversely, though boasting the top three players in the world ranking, the U.S. roster was less pedigreed than usual. Only four U.S. team members have more than four career victories. None of the four rookies has finished better than 17th in a major championship, and between them they won one match here, thanks to a birdie spree by Zach Johnson.
In a case of role reversal from years past, the Americans leaned on a so-called Big Five. And the U.S. lost largely because they did not deliver. Woods went 3-2, Furyk 2-3, Phil Mickelson 0-4-1, Toms 0-3-1 and Chris DiMarco 0-3-1. Factoring that several of them teamed together, that’s only 4 points out of possible 15.
“We needed to do better,” Furyk understated.
Particularly Mickelson. He is 1-9-1 in his last 11 Ryder matches. Looking like the pre-2004 Masters Mickelson, he hasn’t had a positive result since he blew the U.S. Open on the last hole in June. His swing appears longer and looser than the controlled butter-cut action that helped him win three majors in 2004-06.
“Obviously I thought I’d get more points than a halve,” said the lefthander, who might not play again on the PGA Tour until mid-January. “It will make me work harder on putting in the offseason. I didn’t make anything this week.”
Like Mickelson, Woods has played on only one winning Ryder team, in 1999. Like Mickelson, he cited the Euros’ better putting as the culprit again this time. Unlike Mickelson, he rebounded to win his last two matches after struggling with the timing of his swing.
“I’m not real happy,” said Woods, 10-13-2 overall. “It doesn’t sit well. Nor should it.”
Woods’ first shot set a bad tone and inspired the Euros. Woods’ opening drive found water at least 40 yards left of the center of the fairway. European leader Montgomerie said the errant strike “made us all feel at ease” and teammate Robert Karlsson said it “lifted a bit of pressure.”
Nor did it help the Yanks that Europe had home-heart, home-course and perhaps home-weather advantage.
Darren Clarke, a captain’s choice, inspired his teammates by playing five weeks after wife Heather died of cancer. He opened his emotional week with glassy eyes, went 2-0 in four-ball with close friend Westwood and then broke down crying after a 3-and-2 singles victory over rookie Zach Johnson. So Clarke went undefeated and might have prompted enough tears to overflow the River Liffey.
“Every single one of us dedicated this to (Heather),” Woosnam said.
Every Euro also had a working knowledge of The K Club, home to the European Open in 1995-2005. Furyk labeled as “very wise” Europe’s selection of tour courses as Ryder sites, such as The Belfry and Valderrama in the past and Celtic Manor and Gleneagles in the future. The Europeans, too, probably felt more comfortable in the sloppy conditions, in weather where rain might come down sideways at a moment’s notice.
It helps to have Garcia swirling about as well. The Spaniard smiled and arm-pumped his way to records – eight consecutive foursome victories and (tied) nine consecutive matches without defeat until his 4-and-3 singles loss to Cink. He’s now 13-1-2 in doubles.
Whereas Woods bemoaned “all the stuff we have to do” prior to actually playing, Garcia said he “couldn’t live without” Ryder week. Their records reflect that. Woods is a major man, the best golfer ever, a focused individual used to his own routine at big events rather than the organizer’s social schedule. Garcia is a Cup player who plays and putts better with the safety net of a partner nearby. Solitude seems his enemy.
“There’s nothing better than beating the Americans,” Garcia said. He would also say, “Hopefully we won’t get asked if the Nationwide Tour is the second best in the world anymore.”
Woods (12 majors) and Garcia (nonecq) become different players here; perhaps it’s a matter of the extrovert feeding off the energy of others and the introvert not. While Garcia grinned constantly, we rarely saw a frustrated Woods’ teeth during team play.
“He’s a big heap of energy swirling around in the team room,” Karlsson said of the Spaniard, accompanied here by girlfriend of late, Greg Norman’s 23-year-old daughter Morgan-Leigh. “He laughs and hugs people and lifts himself and the whole team.’
Here’s the way things went for the Americans: They had their first Ryder hole-in-one (by Scott Verplank on 14), but it didn’t matter outside of a possible bar tab because they were out of it in singles. Earlier Sunday, Woods’ caddie, Steve Williams, slipped on a rock while cleaning Woods’ 9-iron at the greenside pond on No. 7, and the club fell into the water and sunk. Woods, who smiled at the mishap, got the club back on No. 15 thanks to the work of a diver in a wet suit.
Mickelson made no birdies in his last nine holes Sunday, Johnson and Taylor in their last 11. Chad Campbell made two birds in 17 holes. Furyk made none on the front before heating up with four birdies and an eagle in a 2-and-1 loss to Casey and his eight birdies. Brett Wetterich made only two birdies in 30 holes, never reached the 17th tee and was the only player on either team not to score at least a halve.
“I saw two X factors,” said Tour veteran David Ogrin, one of Lehman’s unofficial assistants. “The competition is more important to the Europeans than it is to Americans, and there’s a ‘World against the U.S.’ sense that is in the background around the world. The other X factor is this gives their players a short format to beat our top guys like Tiger, Phil and Furyk.”
Facial expressions were telling.
“Furyk said everybody looked constipated,” Verplank said. “It’s hard to explain (losing in another rout) when we have the three best players in the world.”
So how does the U.S. reverse the slide? Perhaps changing the way the team is chosen would help. Maybe rely partly on the world ranking. Perhaps allow more captain’s picks. Maybe award points for top-10 finishes among Americans. Maybe go to Louisville, lighten up and party like rock stars.
“At the moment it looks like the U.S. might want to have Canada join them or have a handicap system or something,” European assistant captain Sandy Lyle cracked.
As he spoke, others on the victorious side were about to have something else. Namely, glasses of Guinness and champagne. There was no stopping in sight. They joked about who might be the last man standing.
“When I said we’re going to have a party,” said Woosnam, who chugged a pint of Guinness on the clubhouse balcony soon after play ended, “I meant we are going to have a party, boys.”
No one was doubting their thirst. Nor their golf.