This article first appeared in the September 27, 2004 issue of Sports Illustrated.
This was not an upset. It never is. The Europeans’ overwhelming victory at last week’s Ryder Cup was their fourth in the last five matches, and the seventh in the last 10. They were the better team, and they are the better team. Accept it. Believe it. The Euros’ superiority is no longer even debatable.
Sure, none of the dozen men responsible for Euro-trashing the U.S. have won a major championship, and only No. 8 Padraig Harrington is in the Top 10 in the World Ranking. The American team, by contrast, boasted five players who have won at least one major, and five of the top 11 in the world. None of that matters in the Ryder Cup’s match-play format. It is a different game altogether—more mysterious, unpredictable and seductive—and only the Europeans seem to truly embrace and understand its quirks. With their passionate, cohesive play at Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Township, Mich., Europe not only beat the lifeless Yanks but also embarrassed them.
Colin Montgomerie, the man who made the putt that clinched the outright victory, had no trouble explaining the 18 1/2 – 9 1/2 rout (the worst defeat suffered by a U.S. Ryder team). “We’re one of the closest teams in international sport,” Montgomerie said. “It’s amazing how well we play for each other.”
In the last few Ryder Cups, Montgomerie and Tiger Woods have become symbols of their teams, and they defined this Cup from the very first match on Friday morning. Monty, who has famously failed to win a major in his otherwise stellar career, was Europe’s unquestioned leader coming in, having in six Ryder appearances rolled up a 1675 record that was by far the best on either team. “He puffs out his chest and stands up tall, and everything about his manner just sweeps you along and fills his partners with a sense that you can’t lose,” says Harrington, a teammate in 2002 when Montgomerie went 4-0-1 and never trailed in any match.
Woods, on the other hand, is a rugged individualist who has spent a lifetime setting himself apart and nurturing the aura of intimidation that has served his career so well. In three previous Cups he had been a shocking 582, burning through eight different partners as befuddled captains searched desperately for anyone who could coexist with his isolationist vibe and grim determination on the course. For this Ryder Cup’s opening match—a better-ball event against Monty and Harrington—U.S. captain Hal Sutton couldn’t resist a Dream Team pairing of Woods and Phil Mickelson, even though the two stars have a complicated, distant relationship and had never played together in a Ryder Cup.
Monty set the tone on the 1st hole with a spectacular birdie out of a fairway bunker to send his team one up, and thereafter he and Harrington were relentless, birdieing six of the first eight holes. While they laughed and smiled and high-fived and read each other’s putts and consulted on club selection, Woods and Mickelson barely acknowledged each other’s presence, and the abject lack of chemistry was fatal in their 2-and-1 defeat. Mickelson described himself as “very tight, very stressed,” and that’s what having to endure Woods as a partner will do to you. It didn’t help that for golf’s most important event Mickelson was breaking in new Callaway products—ball, driver and fairway woods—having just signed an endorsement deal that will reportedly pay him up to $10 million annually.
That morning the two Americans’ dispiriting defeat was felt across the course. Europe won 3 1/2 of the four points in the better-ball session and never trailed in any match. Sutton, who trains cutting horses as a hobby and had turned up on the 1st tee that morning looking goofy in a cowboy hat, brought a macho tough love to his captaincy, and he sent Woods and Mickelson back out in the Friday-afternoon foursomes, spinning it as a chance for them to redeem themselves, even though it felt as though Sutton was trying to justify himself. In the alternate-shot format, in which teammates are even more reliant on each other than in better-ball, the Dream Team was a disaster. After Woods and Mickelson blew a 3-up lead against the dynamic duo of Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood, the match was all square on the 18th tee. Mickelson proceeded to slice his shiny new Callaway three-wood some 50 yards off-line, through the trees and hard against a boundary fence, a lie that would necessitate a penalty drop. Back on the tee Woods craned for a view of his fate. He had the pinched look of a babysitter who has finally run out of patience. The Dream Team lost the hole and the match, sending the U.S. to a record first-day deficit of 6 1/2 – 1 1/2 that all but sealed its fate.
How would Sutton rally his team? “I’m going to have to put that cowboy hat back on,” he said. “This time I may get the reins out, too.”
He should have taken a cue from European captain Bernhard Langer, who was low-key in manner and rhetoric. To help his boys unwind, Langer kept the European team room well stocked with red wine, fine cigars and even an espresso machine. In the weeks preceding the competition Langer had fostered team unity by consulting players about pairings, and during practice rounds he grouped his men in foursomes, in which money games honed their competitive edge and helped their camaraderie. Sutton, on the other hand, kept his pairings secret from his players until the eve of the match, imploring them to prepare individually.
It wasn’t until Saturday morning’s better-ball matches that the Americans seemed to grasp the team concept, and surprisingly, they were led by Woods. With Mickelson on the bench, Tiger was paired with amiable Ryder rookie Chris Riley, who has only one career PGA Tour win and is not a threat in any way to Woods ‘s domain. Finally letting his guard down, Woods was a fist-pumping revelation, and with the help of three late birdies from Riley the pair dispatched Clarke and Ian Poulter 4 and 3. For a while it looked as if the U.S. might get back in the ball game by sweeping all four morning matches, but Europe counterpunched on the strength of what Langer called “probably the deepest team we’ve ever had.” Two Euro rookies, England ‘s Paul Casey and David Howell, delivered the biggest point of the second day, winning the 18th hole to steal a key match from Chad Campbell and Jim Furyk and helping Europe take an 8 – 4 advantage into the afternoon’s foursomes.
The Euros got another lift when the 30-year-old Riley begged off from a foursomes pairing with Woods, saying he was “really tired”—despite having played only two matches in two days—and citing his inexperience in alternate-shot play. This didn’t sit well with old-school U.S. vice captain Jackie Burke. “The way to learn how to play alternate shot is to get your ass out there,” growled the 81-year-old Burke.
So Davis Love III was stuck with Woods, who went back to his usual brooding self in an ugly 4-and-3 loss to Harrington and fellow Irishman Paul McGinley. It was on Saturday afternoon that Spain’s irrepressible Sergio Garcia took his star turn, guiding rookie Luke Donald from England to a taut one-up victory over Furyk and Fred Funk. That gave Garcia three wins in partner play for the second straight Ryder Cup, and once again he displayed more game and spirit than any American. (Garcia and Westwood led the Cup with 401 records.) By taking three out of four in the afternoon, Europe pushed its lead to 11 – 5, meaning it needed only three points from the 12 singles matches to retain the Cup.
Sunday was fun for about two hours, as at one point Europe led in only one match. But the Europeans’ collective will and talent snuffed out the Americans’ rally. Batting leadoff, Woods was one of only four Americans to win his singles match, as Europe took 7 1/2 points. Alone at last, Tiger finally played his best golf of the week, not losing a hole while blitzing Casey 3 and 2. Woods credited his success to treating the match like the last round of a major championship, the lonely milieu in which he feels most comfortable.
Montgomerie may never taste the sweetness of a major victory, but he is happy to stake his legacy on his play at the Ryder Cup. This was his most emotional Cup yet, as he has been suffering through one of his worst seasons, on and off the course: He failed to qualify for the Ryder on points but made the team as one of Langer’s two captain’s picks, and he endured a divorce that played out in the British tabloids. Yet after clinching the win by defeating David Toms one-up, making him 502 alltime in Cup singles play, Montgomerie offered insight into Europe’s dominance. “Personally, it means nothing, O.K.?” Monty said. “This is all about the team. That putt was not for me at all.”