Passionate play: Europe had it, and the U.S. didn't

Jim Furyk was 1 up heading to the 17th tee and lost his match 1 up after a missed putt on the 18th against Sergio Garcia.

Jim Furyk was 1 up heading to the 17th tee and lost his match 1 up after a missed putt on the 18th against Sergio Garcia.

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Jeff Rude’s “I Hate To Be Rude” column appears on Golfweek.com on Wednesday.

Perhaps more surprising than the stunning Sunday collapse is the fact that the United States has won only two of the last nine Ryder Cups. Going back farther, Europe has won or retained the trophy in 10 of the last 14 meetings.

This is mind-boggling stuff, really. Why has America, loaded with talent, been so bad in the Ryder Cup?

That’s easy to ask but harder to answer. Probably everyone has a theory. Ask 10 informed people and you might get as many different takes. Ask one person and you might receive 10 reasons, given the many variables. You can slice and dice and dissect forever and come up with something other than coincidence.

Your correspondent has kicked the tires on this topic at length and talked with some people who have been involved in the Ryder Cup for a long time. And the most sensible answer seems to be this:

Europe appears to play with more passion and killer instinct in these biennial matches.

When thinking of Ryder Cup grit over the years, which players do you identify? Seve Ballesteros, Colin Montgomerie, Ian Poulter and, to a lesser extent, Sergio Garcia come to mind. As it happened, Europe rallied around at least two of them last week for a 14 1/2-13 1/2 victory at Medinah (Ill.) Country Club.

Since Lanny Wadkins stopped playing and Payne Stewart left us in 1999, is there a U.S. player who fits that bill? The face of the Ryder Cup always seems to be a fiery European. The faces of Americans too often seem to be on milk cartons.

Or maybe the face of the American team is Grover Cleveland. He’s on a thousand-dollar bill.

“I made a comment that the Americans need to step on Europe’s throat and twist their foot,” said Wadkins, 20-11-3 in eight Ryder Cups and captain in 1995. “They got the throat part down but didn’t twist the foot. I’m talking about attitude.”

The tough Tiger Woods, arguably the most dominant golfer in history, could be that guy but hasn’t been. Eight years ago, he said he’d rather win a WGC event than a Ryder Cup and that nobody knows Jack Nicklaus’ Ryder record.

We’d rather see Woods pound his fist and talk about being hungry before the matches than go 0-3-1 in them. Maybe someday he’ll get ramped up and become an emotional leader, but don’t bet on it, because he hasn’t yet. Interestingly, the only Ryder Cup the U.S. has won this millennium is the one in which Woods didn’t play.

Woods sets a tone, whether he likes it or not.

Maybe Keegan Bradley will emerge as inspirational centerpiece. Who didn’t like the hiss and vinegar of Bradley, at least before he lost Sunday singles to an unprepared World No. 1? Clearly the U.S. needs more Bradleys.

This probably was the best U.S. team since 1981. For two days it showed. But, for whatever reason, killer instinct seemed to be missing Sunday, as it has been so often in the past.

Captain Davis Love III said he wanted his team to have fun. Often when players have fun and relax, they play better. But you can be intense and still have fun. Ballesteros had fun even though he looked like he might pop a blood vessel. Poulter looked like a crazed man making five birdies in a row, but he was having fun. Still is, as a matter of fact.

Perhaps the next U.S. captain should try to make sure his players have fun after the matches.

If Love is to be second-guessed beyond that, try these two things, given the advantage of hindsight: He should have been a bit more flexible with his pairings and should have front-loaded his singles lineup more.

When Phil Mickelson said he didn’t want to play Saturday afternoon, Love could have paired Bradley with Woods. After all, the young Bradley had played only 12 foursomes holes Saturday morning. How tired could he (not to mention Mickelson) have been? Considering the Ryder Cup seems to be a big deal, can’t players start resting on Sunday night? Is it really too much to play five matches, given the magnitude of this deal and the fact that golfers are in better shape than ever?

The guess here is that starved American fans would have liked it better had Mickelson, then 3-0, insisted, “We’re going back out,” rather than, “We’re sitting out.”

Did five-match player Justin Rose seem too fatigued on the last three holes when he was stabbing the Yanks with his putter?

What’s more, for the second time in a decade, Woods was put out 12th and stood in the 18th fairway watching Europeans celebrating victory. If Woods is on your team, it’s probably a good idea to make sure he matters.

Having covered every Ryder Cup since the 1980s, I do have the sense of this: Front-load at all times. Europe's Jose Maria Olazabal, like other past captains such as Ben Crenshaw and Sam Torrance, did so and won.

It helps to be aggressive in sports. Seizing or maintaining momentum is vital. You can let up Sunday night. When Europe won the first five matches Sunday, its bottom half of the order was energized and more pressure was applied to the Americans.

The introduction of the FedEx Cup playoffs in 2007 has been one of the best things to happen to the U.S. team. There are no layoffs and players are sharper now. Since then, the Americans won once and came close in the two others.

So if the players are more prepared, what’s missing? We’re back to the top: Europe seems to have more passion and killer instinct.

Why?

You can conjecture about that until the cows come home, or until the U.S. wins another Ryder Cup. What matters is the next captain, David Toms or whomever, and leaders after him would be best served to instill more of a “We are not going to fail” mentality.

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