SI's plan was to assemble the finest minds in golf, have them analyze next week's Ryder Cup and predict a winner. When that fell through, we convened this panel of experts for a roundtable discussion: SI senior writers Michael Bamberger, John Garrity, Alan Shipnuck and Gary Van Sickle, plus a PGA Tour pro who participated on the condition that he remain anonymous.
So do the captains really matter?
Shipnuck: The captains are only important for the losing teams, because it's always their fault. That's the captain's role to take the blame and go down with the ship.
Van Sickle: I don't recall Hal Sutton doing that.
Shipnuck: Hal never fully embraced his role. Any of us could do the pairings effectively, and they have minions to plan the shirts and set the menus. The captains can help relax the team, like Azinger will, or stress them out, like Sutton obviously did.
Garrity: I'm in the not-very-important camp.
Van Sickle: You mean the captains aren't very important or you're not?
Garrity: [Laughs.] Remember Jack Nicklaus? His team got waxed in the Presidents Cup in Melbourne. I mean, just scorched [20 1/2 to 11 1/2, in 1998]. He got hammered because his philosophy was to let the boys play and have fun. Later he wins the Presidents Cup, and all the players and media credited the same approach as the reason for his success. I think Johnny Miller [on NBC] has a bigger impact on the matches than the captains. Miller's opinions reach millions of ears, and he actually scares the players. The captain runs around in a cart and waves the flag. He's a cheerleader when they're playing and a glorified press secretary when they're not.
Anonymous Pro: Nicklaus does it perfectly. He asks guys who they want to play with and who they don't want to play with. If one guy's name keeps coming up as a don't, Jack goes up to an individual and says, "Hey, do you think you can play with so-and-so?" You're always going to play better with your buddies or with someone you have something in common with. Golf is an individual sport. It's not like the New York Yankees trying to pull together. You're a team, but once you're on the 1st tee you're on your own except for your partner.
Shipnuck: Nicklaus said an interesting thing: that the captain's job is to reduce the pressure on the players. I think Zinger will do that. He has a light touch. Faldo is a remote, distant, forbidding presence that may intimidate some Euros.
Anonymous Pro: I really like Zinger. He has talked to darn near everyone who has a Tour card. He's really trying to form a cohesive team. He's a players' captain, more so than Sutton. Hal was a general in a ten-gallon hat.
Garrity: Since he became a TV personality Faldo has shown a real capacity for change and adaptation. He wants to do whatever works. For years in Europe he was a guy that the establishment and other players loathed. He was crusty, uncooperative and selfish. But he's found a way to change his personality to fit his TV role, and student that he is, Faldo may pick up on Jack's idea of taking the pressure off his players.
Shipnuck: When Nick was a player he had a protective bubble around himself, and he thinks that's what everyone wants. His approach is: I'm here if they need me, they can call me; I want to give them their space. Sunday night at last month's PGA, Zinger was in the locker room schmoozing, the star of the show. Zinger has a connection with the players. That doesn't come naturally to Faldo.
Anonymous Pro: I hate to echo Zinger's comments about Faldo trying to re-create his image now, but most players thought Faldo was unapproachable. I haven't seen Nick out there kicking up dust with any players, and I've played a lot of tournaments this year. Zinger is always mingling in the locker room and on the range. Their styles are glaringly different. I'm not sure the Euros will be comfortable with Nick, but they've won with Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam two distinct opposites so I'm not sure it even matters.
Valhalla:? good or goofy?
Anonymous Pro: Some people may think that Valhalla is a goofy course, but I'll give it one thing, it's going to be exciting for match play. One of the most dramatic tournaments ever played was Tiger and Bob May in the 2000 PGA at Valhalla. The best hole out there is the 15th, a driver or a three-wood off the tee with a mid-iron or a short iron to a peninsula-type green with water on the right side. It's strikingly similar to a lot of holes at Muirfield Village, also designed by Nicklaus.
Bamberger: It's match play. Who cares about the course? Valhalla's bland, but that doesn't matter.
Van Sickle: I forget which player nicknamed the green at the par-5 18th hole the Toilet Seat. It's like too many other holes at Valhalla totally contrived.
Anonymous Pro: Well, the 18th green is quirky. It looks as if it needs to be flipped upside down. Having said that, it's still a better finishing hole than the 18th at Oakland Hills. [At Valhalla] guys can make 3s, guys can make 7s. Look at the 2000 PGA finish Woods and May birdied 18 in regulation, then hit it into the crap in the playoff and struggled. It's not the ballbuster you usually expect for the Ryder Cup's finishing hole, but I like that. Can you imagine a best-ball match going to 18 with four guys all trying to make eagle? Now that would be exciting.
What makes the Europeans so special?
Anonymous Pro: The Europeans are freaking strong. I look at their lineup and go, He's a stud, he's a stud, he's a stud ... and they lost Luke Donald. With Tiger out, Padraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia are probably the best players in the world right now. Robert Karlsson could be a silent assassin. He could win three points without anyone noticing. Lee Westwood has been playing fantastic.
Shipnuck: Europe, top to bottom, is way superior as a group of ball strikers. Two or three players left off their team are playing better than anyone in the U.S. lineup. The depth of Europe compared with the U.S. is depressing.
Anonymous Pro: No offense to Ben Curtis and some of these new guys, but there's nobody on the U.S. team who scares anyone. The Euros walk in with their shoulders back like, We own this event. We walk in like, My God, are we ever going to win this thing again? The Euros expect to win. They know they have the secret formula. They all smoke the same peace pipe. They have it figured out. They relax and have fun and kick our butts.
Bamberger: The Euros won't be overconfident. You're never overconfident when you're playing a road game. Plus, it's simply not the European nature. Overconfidence might've been the Americans' problem when they started losing regularly in the mid-'90s. Just look at the personality of the best player in the world, Harrington. He's always saying, I suck, I need to get better, I need to work harder, and did I mention that I suck?
Shipnuck: Padraig missed the cut at the Barclays and spent about eight hours on the range there on Saturday. He keeps his head down, works hard and sets the tone for that team.
Bamberger: We should pause for a moment to remember the greatness that was Colin Montgomerie. He was a quote machine, and we'll all be a lot poorer without him there. But it's a new era.
Garrity: One thing the Euros lose with Monty is gamesmanship. The American fans picked on him, called him names. The Euros have always been able to feel self-righteous that their big guy is battling insurmountable odds. That was a nice card for them to play. They might miss that.
Here's how it turns out ...
Garrity: The pressure is off. Expectations are low. I say the Americans win, but it'll be close.
Shipnuck: I have to take Europe. The talent disparity is too great. I could see it being close going into Sunday and then the Euros take eight of 12 singles matches.
Bamberger: Don't the Americans usually play better in singles?
Van Sickle: That's because it's already over by Sunday.
Bamberger: The Americans win a close one. Azinger will make the difference, just like Nicklaus makes the difference in the Presidents Cup. There's something special about Zinger. He's an odd combination of a guy who's fun but really intense. The Americans haven't had a captain like that, maybe ever. Not Watson, not Curtis, not Lehman, certainly not Sutton. I think the captain does matter in the Ryder Cup, and Zinger will get the best out of his players.
Van Sickle: He also negotiated a little-known deal that if the matches end in a tie, the captains decide the winner by playing Foosball. Zinger's a mortal lock in that one. Seriously, I agree with Michael Zinger is worth four points. That enables the Americans to close the gap and create an exciting finish, and they lose by a single point. Europe keeps the Cup, America earns a moral victory and interest in the event is, thankfully, rejuvenated.
Anonymous Pro: People will lambaste me if I don't pick the U.S., but I honestly think Europe is too strong. It'll be closer than in years past, although how could it not be? It'll come down to the final three or four matches on Sunday or at least I hope it does. I still think Europe is going to do it and, man, I hate saying that.
Van Sickle: What if the Americans get clobbered again?
Anonymous Pro: We park the Ryder Cup bus by the practice tee, and the first 12 guys who get on are the new team. We've changed the points. We've given the captain more picks. We've tried everything else. Screw it.