2006: USa and the Ryder Cup

Lanny Wadkins beamed when he saw Tiger Woods having dinner with the four U.S. Ryder Cup rookies in Akron, Ohio. If smiles were incandescent, Wadkins might have brightened the entire Diamond Grille that Aug. 25 evening. Perhaps no one cares more about the Ryder Cup than the 1995 U.S. captain, and to him, there haven’t been many better Ryder moments over the past 13 years than the Woods-newcomers gathering.

“I think this team is going to be better because of what happened that night,” said Wadkins, who played on eight U.S. teams, five of them winners. “Tiger taking the rookies to dinner told me he wants to be a Ryder Cup leader and finally has figured out what this is all about. It’s his team. Tom Lehman is the captain, but it’s Tiger’s team.”

This is all delightful American golf news, of course, because the United States has won the biennial showdown only once since 1993. That is a bit alarming because a Yank victory used to be a foregone conclusion. But since losing only once in 1935-83, the Americans have lost the Cup in seven of the last 10 meetings, including an 181⁄2-91⁄2 drubbing in 2004. 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.

The recent record not only constitutes a perplexing U.S. trend, it prompts various theories about the decline, including one that the Europeans seem to be more passionate about the matches. The top two American players, Woods and Phil Mickelson, have been suspected of caring more about individual major championships than international team play. That notion owes in part to their Ryder records – Woods 7-11-2, including 5-10-1 in pairs, and Mickelson

9-8-3, including 5-7-1 in the last three meetings. Woods has as many losses in 20 matches as Wadkins did in 34.

For the United States to reverse its fortunes, Woods and Mickelson need to lead and win. It should help that both finally found partners when a loose, aggressive American team won the Presidents Cup last fall – Woods in Jim Furyk, Mickelson in Chris DiMarco. What’s more, Lehman is emphatic in saying his two guns are committed to taking charge, going so far as to say, “If I ever hear somebody question Tiger Woods’ desire to be a part of this team again, I’m going to go crazy. . . . He is looking forward to this Ryder Cup every bit as much as (the four majors).”

That, too, perks up Wadkins, for the ex-captain had wondered publicly whether Woods and Mickelson make so much money that they consider the Ryder more nuisance than honor.

“Maybe Tiger should’ve been taking charge at 22, but maybe he was being deferential to other players,” said Wadkins, now lead golf analyst for CBS Sports. “He’s been the stud since he turned pro. Tiger might be 30, but he’s 70 with all the things he’s won and the knowledge he has. Why all of a sudden is he being a leader? Maybe he’s tired of hearing about it. Maybe he wants his Ryder Cup record to be better.

“It’s better late than never. I think it’s going to make a huge difference. You don’t think these rookies will respond if they hear a compliment from Tiger Woods? When (captain) Jack Nicklaus said in 1983 I had the biggest (guts) he had ever seen, you don’t think that helped my confidence?”

Woods, for his part, says he always has cared about the Ryder Cup, that his heart has been into it every time, that “people don’t understand how hard I try,” that he’s “excited” about the Sept. 22-24 meeting at The K Club in Ireland. As for his record, he says he has lost matches even though shooting 63 and 65 on his own ball.

“We’re going to make him think this is bigger than any other tournament,” said a smiling Scott Verplank, a captain’s pick for a second time. “Actually I think he’s more excited about this one than I’ve seen him in the past. Maybe he’s comfortable enough and old enough to take the bull by the horns.”

To hear Woods, that is the case. “I think that I’ve earned my right to be one of the vets now,” the winner of his last five PGA Tour starts said. “When I first played on these teams, I wasn’t. I was still wet behind the ears and I hadn’t earned my stripes.”

Lehman maintains his best players are the least of his worries. Rather, he strongly suggests that the U.S. slide primarily has to do with lack of joy while competing. He says the Americans have played tense and anxious.

“I feel like we’ve had no fun inside the ropes,” he said. And as former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden advised him this year, “If you don’t have fun, you’re not going to love it and if you don’t love it, you’re not going to work hard enough to be successful.”

The fortunes of the team from across the pond improved in 1979 when its pool of eligible players expanded from Great Britain

and Ireland to all of Europe. Then came a superstar core on which Euro success was built: Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam, Jose Maria Olazabal and Colin Montgomerie.

“And they did what Tiger Woods is doing right now – taking control of the youngsters,” Wadkins said. “I’ll always remember Faldo and Seve taking guys under their wings. For the first time someone is doing it for us, and it’s our stud.”

The only nonmajor winner in the Euro group, Montgomerie has been the soul of recent teams. He’s 14-3-3 in his last 20 matches. What’s more – he’s in seven singles. Singles used to be a strength of a supposedly deeper American side, but Europe has dominated the last two singles sessions by a combined 15-9.

Americans aren’t winning as much, period, at all levels. Their stranglehold has gone the way of vinyl records. Of the 12 U.S. players, only Woods, Mickelson, Furyk and David Toms have more than four PGA Tour victories.

“It’s down to the college ranks and I’m concerned about it,” said Wadkins. “Nobody’s concerned about winning. Everybody’s happy with a fifth- or sixth-place check. They’re smiling jacks if they finish in the top 10.”

The Ryder playing field is further evened because four players sit out each team session and, as you’ll hear often again, anything can happen in 18-hole match play.

These days the Americans will rejoice if they somehow can get labeled a Ryder underdog. Several U.S. team members, most notably Woods, have clamored for that role, saying one reason Europe has performed well is because it has been a perpetual underdog that tries harder and plays as if there’s nothing to lose. Most U.S. players think a shift in mindset can only help.

“It’s always easier because people don’t expect so much from you,” said U.S. assistant captain Corey Pavin. “There is something to be said for being an underdog in that regard. . . . I think the U.S. team is the underdog now. I think we have to win to become favorites again. It’s very simple.”

Not that simple. Most casino oddsmakers have made the Americans a slight favorite again, in the 6-5 range.

Stewart Cink, a U.S. captain’s pick for the second time in a row, says the Americans need to act like a hungry underdog.

“We need to go into it with a ‘what do we have to lose’ attitude,” he said. “The last couple Ryder Cups it seems like everybody thinks we have everything to lose. We weren’t very loose.”

That might help explain why the Euros have made far more key putts since 1993. They are putts that change momentum, putts that ignite or quiet crowds. Golfers don’t tend to putt as well when playing not to lose.

“The Europeans have thrown ‘careful’ out the window and said, ‘We’re underdogs, we’re not supposed to win,’ and they’ve let it all hang out and they’ve played great together,” Verplank said. “They’ve done a great job of rallying around ‘We’re not even supposed to play with these guys.’ And they all step it up and enjoy each other’s company and they play very well as teammates.”

Lee Westwood, European veteran, agrees.

“Being the underdog helps,” he said. “There’s no expectation.”

Fred Funk, on the last U.S. team, says “media-generated pressure” hasn’t helped his country. It’s different from the Presidents Cup, where there’s little pre-tournament buildup, where players pretty much show up and play.

“But in the Ryder Cup if you play well, you’re supposed to win,” Funk said. “If you play badly, you’re a dog.”

And the U.S. team was a dog last time at Oakland Hills, largely because it won only one of the 11 matches that reached the 18th hole. The exception was Chris DiMarco’s 1-up victory over Miguel Angel Jimenez.

“Everybody says putting has been the difference,” Funk said. “I know we putted pretty poorly at Oakland Hills. We didn’t make clutch putts and they seemed to make them. We never got any momentum.”

Another theory is the Americans lag in camaraderie as well. Mark Long, Funk’s caddie, said the Americans drank about six beers in Detroit whereas he understood the Europeans had to replenish their supply nightly.

“I haven’t been to a lot of PGA Tour events, but I’ve been to enough to know the bar in the official hotel is not filled with players,” said European Ryder newcomer Robert Karlsson. “In Europe, we end up in hotels in the middle of Spain with absolutely nothing to do. We socialize, we become friends. You talk to each other. Europe has a stronger record in the team part. It might have something to do with the together thing.”

Deborah Graham, a sports psychologist who has worked with more than 300 touring pros, says such team bonding clearly helps, especially in golf, where pros aren’t wired to be group-oriented.

“When players are united around a cause, there’s a chemistry that’s created and a momentum that builds,” Graham said. “It brings out the best in players. I think Europe has an edge that way. It has something to do with traveling and eating together. Their tour is more like our tour was 40 years ago, eating together and driving together. It helps them unite. Our tour is more and more isolated and business-like.”

Though give Lehman this. The passionate U.S. captain somehow found a way to get his 12 multimillionaires to go to Ireland together for a couple of days of practice and socializing. The impression is the team is building on the unity from the Presidents Cup a year ago.

“The Ireland trip, that’s a good starting point,” Graham said. “That helps them unite to a cause, and that should bring out more skill.”

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