Americans enter Ryder Cup as underdogs

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson

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On paper, which is where every Ryder Cup is played many times before the matches transpire, the 2010 U.S. team will head to Wales as the most obvious underdog ever to tee it up for Old Glory. Such status is a distant cry from the heavy-favorite tag hung over recent American squads like a 15-inch collar on a 16-inch neck. It didn’t get any tighter than in 2004, when the superpower pairing of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson was beaten twice on the first day, creating a hole from which the Yanks never came close to recovering.

Team Capsules

Team USA

Team Europe

That was then, this is ironic: Because Woods is closing in on the poorest season of his career and Mickelson hasn’t done anything since winning the Masters, the U.S. doesn’t stack up to Europe in terms of sheer personnel. Too many questions at the top of the lineup, not enough depth at the bottom. This isn’t the type of squad you’d expect to end a 17-year winless streak on foreign soil. Just keeping it close could be a task in itself.

Entering the 38th Ryder Cup, the United States leads the series, 25-10-2.

When: Oct. 1-3

Where: Celtic Manor Resort, Twenty Ten Course, Newport, Wales

Par / Yardage: 71 / 7,378

2008 result: U.S., 161⁄2-111⁄2 (at Valhalla GC, Louisville, Ky.)

Format

Friday-Saturday: 4 four-ball matches (morning), 4 foursomes matches (afternoon)

Sunday: 12 singles matches

Television (times EDT)

Friday: 3 a.m.-1 p.m., ESPN

Saturday: 8 a.m.-6 p.m., NBC

Sunday: 7 a.m.-1 p.m., NBC

So the British bookmakers have installed the home team as a 4/6 favorite, give or take a quid, with the U.S. odds of winning at about 6/4. That’s a fairly substantial difference for an event such as this, and if the gap shrinks in the next couple of weeks, it won’t be by much.

“We’re looking at a lot of things we have to overcome as a team,” U.S. captain Corey Pavin said. “Certainly, I know we are capable of doing it, but I suspect we’re underdogs going in.”

There is more to Pavin’s mundane quote than meets the eye. If this unit suddenly were to maximize its potential over a three-day stretch, sure, it could pull off the upset. After all, the U.S. comes in with three consecutive victories in the team-match format, including Presidents Cups. Woods’ partnership with Steve Stricker and Mickelson’s inspired play led the way over the Internationals last fall, so there’s momentum to draw from.

“I think everybody is underselling the U.S. team,” ESPN analyst Bill Kratzert said. “Don’t undersell this team. They’re good players, and you’ve got these guys playing well at the right time.”

As for Team America’s Tigerless victory over Europe at Valhalla two years ago, it was huge. There is no overstating the psychological reverberations. That U.S. team wasn’t exactly a prohibitive favorite. Or even a slight one.

“We were going to be an underdog anyway, but when Tiger went out (with knee surgery), that made it clear,” 2008 skipper Paul Azinger said. “We never talked about winning or losing. I told them we had everything to gain and nothing to lose. That’s about as close as I came.”

It’s enough to make you wonder about the burden of expectations in a high-intensity environment where so many random variables come into play, the relationship between pressure and performance – and if all the talk about which team should win and which team shouldn’t is anything more than wasted breath. Is Pavin’s crew better off heading overseas as an underdog? Five U.S. players with Ryder Cup experience were asked that question. All five said yes.

photo

Paul Azinger was able to sell his '08 American team as underdogs, and the attitude paid off.

“Is it easier to play loose and free? Yes, but when you add Tiger to our team, it’s a lot tougher to sell the underdog label,” said Jim Furyk, who has qualified for every U.S. squad since 1997. “Of course, he’s been kicking our asses all these years as the favorite in every tournament he plays, so that kind of messes up the theory.”

More than one player talked about how Woods’ presence changes the team dynamic – not just in terms of motivating the Europeans, but as an in-house distraction that the other 11 guys can’t help but notice. Says one veteran: “You’ve got all these PGA of America officials sitting in the front of the bus, and all you hear them say is, ‘Where’s Tiger? We can’t leave! Someone go find Tiger!’ Meanwhile, the rest of us are sitting there, like, huh? Do you really think we’re going to drive off without Tiger Woods?

“People drool over the guy. It’s obviously not Tiger’s fault, but it affects the chemistry a little.”

What does that have to do with favorites and underdogs? Plenty, at least in theory. The surprising 2008 U.S. team performed well from top to bottom without Woods, preying on the inferiority complex many prescribed to a team without its best player. If Tiger’s absence wasn’t a rallying cry, it wasn’t a big deal, either.

“We would miss Phil way more than we’d miss Tiger,” said another U.S. vet. “Phil is very much a team guy. Tiger goes straight to his room. You never see him. . . . it’s not like Tiger actually hangs out.”

Still, as Mickelson pointed out after the victory at Valhalla, beating the Europeans in Kentucky is one thing. Beating them in Wales is another thing altogether, and anyone who thinks it would be easier without Woods is delusional. The U.S. won just six of 28 matches at The K Club in 2006 – Tiger claimed three of them. He went 5-0 at last year’s Presidents Cup, when his partnership with Stricker took flight, so Pavin’s selection of Woods as a captain’s pick qualifies as a no-brainer.

Winning over there is a tough job, but sooner or later, somebody has to do it.

“I never mentioned it once and never really thought about (favorites and underdogs),” said 2002 U.S. captain Curtis Strange, whose team went to The Belfry as a slight favorite and was beaten. “If you’re a legitimate underdog and going to the opposing team’s home court, I think it has to be addressed, pure and simple. Corey’s certainly aware of it. I definitely think Azinger used it to good advantage.”

Nobody played in more Ryder Cups (11) or won more points (25) than Nick Faldo, whose career spanned from the five-decade stretch of American dominance to Europe’s back-to-back victories in the mid-1990s. Underdogs, anyone?

“It’s just a word, isn’t it?” Faldo said. “Maybe you can get a little bit of help out of it, but it’s not like the favorite just shrivels up. The last 25 years of the Ryder Cup have been so close, I don’t think it really has a significant effect on the play.”

photo

Tony Jacklin and Seve Ballesteros were two of the forces that helped turn the tide for Team Europe.

Try telling that to Tony Jacklin, the godfather of Europe’s emergence from doormat to dreaded foe. The U.S. had won 19 of the previous 20 meetings when the PGA of Great Britain asked Jacklin, winner of the 1969 British Open and 1970 U.S. Open, to right the ship in 1983. Four years earlier, Ryder Cup rules had been amended so that the old GB&I teams could use players from the entire continent, but the 1981 U.S. team was the strongest ever – 11 of the 12 members would win major championships – and the Yanks crushed the Euros at Walton Heath.

Jacklin wasted no time removing the mutt’s mindset from the perennial underdog. “There were a number of issues behind the scenes that I felt needed to be addressed,” he said. “The way we traveled as opposed to how they traveled, the way we dressed – we wore whatever we were given. We just weren’t approaching it in a professional manner, and all those things truly mattered. We used to huddle in a corner of the locker room for meetings, then go our separate ways.

“I got them a team room, a place where we all could gather without any officials hanging around, and filled it with all the food and drink they could ever want. We wanted to make it so that there was no place else they would rather be. We had been the underdogs for quite some time and had decades of losses to (atone for). I told them in our very first meeting that all egos belong outside the door.”

After losing by one point in ’83, Jacklin’s squads held the cup for the rest of his tenure, which ended with a tie at The Belfry in 1989. With Faldo, Seve Ballesteros, Ian Woosnam, Bernhard Langer and Sandy Lyle composing the strongest nucleus in European history during his captaincy, Jacklin – with his assertive personality – proved to be the right man at the right time. In Ballesteros, he had a commanding presence whose fearlessness and fire reshaped the Ryder Cup’s competitive balance like no man before or since.

“Being around Seve made you believe,” said Peter Oosterhuis, who played in the six Ryder Cups before Jacklin’s arrival. “We had never gone into a Ryder Cup thinking it was a lost cause. You knew you were playing against a stronger side, but in 1971, back when they played two rounds of singles on Sunday, I faced Arnold Palmer and Gene Littler, my two biggest boyhood heroes, and managed to beat them both. We never resigned ourselves to defeat, but Seve certainly changed the thinking.”

Ballesteros played the working-class hero to the hilt, employing the us-against-the-world angles that no American player could transmit to his teammates with a straight face. He was the ultimate champion to all underdogs, constantly at odds with golf’s governing bodies – he was even banned from the 1981 Ryder Cup for accepting overseas appearance fees in tournaments played the same week as events on the European Tour.

“He talked about how we got no respect from the Americans, how they considered themselves world-class players and we were something else,” Faldo said. “He brought a bite to the passion – that’s the best way of putting it. He made you realize that every point mattered, that playing for the win was the most valuable thing.”

Azinger, who performed admirably as Ballesteros’ chief antagonist in the glory days, comes closer than anyone to serving as the American equivalent, and those traits were put to good use in the ’08 triumph. Raymond Floyd was the most emotional captain of the four Strange played for, although Strange says now, “it gets way overblown, a lot of that stuff.”

Perhaps, but the landscape has changed considerably over the past 15 years, which have produced five European victories in seven meetings – only the miracle comeback at Brookline in 1999 prevented the U.S. from losing six consecutive Ryder Cups. The Yanks were expected to win all of those meetings, maybe because that’s the American way, but for the most part, golfers are human beings, and human beings are products of their cultures.

Beating the big, bad USA is almost indigenous to the Europeans. Until very recently, they had more to prove and less to worry about for those three special days in the fall, and the Americans often carried themselves as if they were playing on eggshells, not grass. This time, however, the underdog is the visiting team with the stars who aren’t shining and a captain in search of a silver lining. Competitively speaking, there are worse places to be.

“Players never talk about who’s favored and who’s not,” Azinger said. “There might have been a time when Calc (Mark Calcavecchia) and (Ken) Green and I looked at the matches on paper and said, ‘We should destroy those guys.’ Now, there’s a lot more mutual respect out there. There wasn’t a Golf Channel back then. There wasn’t 24-hour coverage, and guys like Peter Baker, most of us had no idea who he was.”

The unheralded Baker won three matches for Europe in 1993, the last time America won a Ryder Cup overseas. That was then, this is reality: The home team has become the side with the bull’s-eye on its back.

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