This article appeared in the October 02, 2006, issue of Sports Illustrated.
So it has come to this: The United States is now so incapable of winning the Ryder Cup that all it takes to impress the team’s captain is for his boys to try really, really hard. Last Saturday evening at the K Club, in Straffan, Ireland , Tom Lehman waxed poetic about a squad that had lost all four of the sessions over the opening two days and was trailing in points 10–6, having won only three matches outright. “I thought our team played with a lot of heart today,” Lehman said. “Very, very, very proud of the way they performed.
Obviously they didn’t get the result they were hoping….
The U.S. has to find solace in moral victories because actual wins are so elusive. After getting blown out in Sunday singles, the Americans have now lost three consecutive Ryder Cups, five of the last six and eight of the last 11. (One of the losses was a tie in 1989 that allowed Europe to keep the trophy.) After the U.S. ‘s record 18 1/2–9 1/2 loss two years ago it was assumed things couldn’t get any worse, but they did. The score this time around was also 18 1/2–9 1/2 but only because Paul McGinley magnanimously gifted half a point to the Americans by conceding a 30-footer on the final green to his opponent, J.J. Henry, a decision hastened by a pasty male streaker who interrupted play before Henry could putt.
“We’re going to have to start giving the Americans handicap strokes,” former European Ryder Cupper Sandy Lyle said when it was all over. “This is getting boring.”
Why can’t Johnny win? Maybe because the players on the PGA Tour get so rich with a few top 10s that they never learn how to close the deal. Maybe it’s because Europeans grow up competing in more match play, or that the far-flung logistics of their insular tour breeds more camaraderie. Maybe Americans’ obsession with making technically perfect swings has de-emphasized the art of scoring. Or maybe, Europe simply has better players: Coming into the Ryder Cup, eight members of its team were in the top 20 in the World Ranking, compared with just four for the Yanks.
These arguments, and others, have been kicked around for the better part of the last decade, but one point is indisputable–an event in which only pride is at stake brings out the best in their stars and the worst in ours. The Ryder Cup seems to have restorative powers for the Europeans. Mediocre putters such as Colin Montgomerie and Sergio Garcia turn into the second coming of Ben Crenshaw. Players who have spent an entire career trying to find the fairway, such as Jose Maria Olazabal, are reinvented as bilingual Iron Byrons. This European team was deeper and more experienced than the U.S. and for maybe the first time ever universally viewed as the favorite, but the Americans hoped they could pull off the upset behind the big three of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk, who were residing in that order atop the World Ranking. At this Ryder Cup they were mediocre, abysmal and disappointing, in that order.
The U.S. trailed after the first day of the previous three Ryder Cups, and the swoons owed everything to Woods ‘s baffling play. (In six Friday sessions over that span, he was 0–6.) For this year’s opening four-ball Woods was sent out with Furyk, a pairing that was supposed to make a statement. Woods surely did. He jacked his drive at the 1st hole so far left it found a pond that heretofore was not considered in play. “Tiger’s opening tee shot made us all feel at ease,” said Montgomerie, who was paired with Padraig Harrington in the leadoff match.
Meanwhile, Europe found plenty of inspiration when Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland arrived at the tee for the morning’s fourth and final match. His wife, Heather, lost a four-year battle with cancer in August, but Clarke, a captain’s pick, decided to come to this Ryder Cup for the brotherhood of his teammates and the warm embrace of the fans, who were celebrating Ireland ‘s first opportunity to host the Cup. The ovation for Clarke was so thunderous that “it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck, and I was two holes away,” said teammate Paul Casey. “I knew it was for Darren. Everyone did, and it lifted all of us.”
So, too, did the way Clarke played the 1st hole. He smashed a perfect drive, covered the flag with his approach and then buried the birdie putt to take the hole from Mickelson and Chris DiMarco, who would combine for a mere three birdies in losing 1 up.
Down 2 1/2 to 1 1/2, the Americans were looking for inspiration wherever they could find it in the afternoon alternate-shot competition. Paired again with DiMarco, Mickelson was in a dogfight with Westwood and Montgomerie when he walked off the 11th green and spied a distinguished older gentleman with an American flag on his hat. Mickelson gave him a sloppy high 10, awkwardly locking hands. “We need your mojo!” he enthused to the 41st U.S. president, George H.W. Bush.
The Americans needed more than that. This European team was so talented that for the opening session on Friday, captain Ian Woosnam benched three players in the top 13 in the World Ranking: Luke Donald (ninth), Henrik Stenson (11th) and David Howell (13th). They all played in a thrilling afternoon session in which every match reached the 18th hole. The frailty of recent U.S. teams has never been more apparent than in matches that go the distance. Two years ago the Americans won only one of the 11 matches that reached 18, and they didn’t do much better this time around. Woods and Furyk were 1 down playing the par-5 finishing hole when Furyk drowned his team’s second shot going for the green, handing a point to Donald and Garcia. “To beat their best team is almost like winning two points,” said Donald.
The victory was Garcia’s second of the day, and in just his fourth appearance he has become one of Europe ‘s greatest Ryder Cuppers, marrying Nick Faldo ‘s precision to Seve Ballesteros’s passion. Over the first two days Garcia would win all four of his matches, pushing his record in team play to 13-1-2. (After Sunday’s singles loss, his record overall was still a gaudy 14-4-2.)
Mickelson and DiMarco also lost the 18th hole on Friday afternoon, allowing Montgomerie and Westwood to steal a halve and push the European lead to 5–3. At the conclusion of play a half dozen U.S. players were milling around the 18th green, and Mickelson could sense the flagging spirits. Though to that point he had gone 1-6-1 in his preceding eight Ryder Cup matches, Mickelson tried to project a little leadership with an impromptu speech. It was impassioned enough that golf’s Eddie Haskell loosed a mild profanity, leading a couple of teammates to blurt “earmuffs,” a nod to Old School and the kids within earshot.
“We’re right there in every match,” Mickelson said. “We’re fighting so hard, and we just have to keep fighting until we turn this thing around.” Now his voice was beginning to rise. “All it will take is for a couple of bounces to go our way, and then the scoreboard is going to be nothing but red.”
But on Saturday morning Mickelson couldn’t walk the walk. He went out in a four-ball with DiMarco and made only one birdie in a 3-and-2 dusting by the Spanish armada of Garcia and Olazabal. Woods was even more feeble, failing to make a birdie on his own ball as he and Furyk lost to Westwood and Clarke. Carried along by the crowds, Clarke ended the match with a stylish chip-in on the 16th hole.
Down 7 1/2 to 4 1/2 midway through Saturday’s action, the U.S. team offered a familiar refrain to explain the growing deficit: “They just happened to make more putts,” said DiMarco. The Americans speak of putting as if it’s a black art and as if they have no control over the ball. The Euros make more putts because they have superior skill and confidence on the greens, at least for one week every two years.
Saturday afternoon’s foursomes offered the last chance to mount a rally ahead of the singles, but by then the Euros were merely toying with the Yanks. The highlight was Casey ‘s ace on the 14th hole to close out his and Howell’s 5-and-4 demolition of Stewart Cink and Zach Johnson.
Having won the singles at the last two Cups, the Europeans were trying, with limited success, not to appear overconfident on Saturday night. Said Montgomerie, “The last time the score was 10–6 was at Brookline in ’99, and we all know what happened there. So there’s no complacency on our side whatsoever.” With a knowing smile he added, “I will say that this is the best singles lineup we’ve ever had, one through 12.”
On Sunday, Lehman bunched his four rookies in matches six through nine, which meant that for the Americans to have any chance at victory they needed to win four of the first five matches, which had been weighted with most of their top players. That dream died early. In the leadoff spot Monty birdied the 18th hole to preserve a hard-fought victory over David Toms and run his all time singles record to 6-0-2. Furyk, off third, played the first seven holes in one over par to fall four down to Casey, a deficit from which he never recovered. (In the cleanup spot Woods beat rookie Robert Karlsson 3 and 2, lifting his record to 3–2, his first winning mark in five Ryder Cups.) When Donald beat Chad Campbell in the fifth match, the only drama left was whether Mickelson could get off the schneid. He wound up losing to Olazabal, dropping his record to 0-4-1.
In the end Lehman could only tip his cap to the victors, saying, “I don’t know if in the history of the Ryder Cup any team has ever played better than they did.”
And yet, victory alone was not enough for this powerhouse European squad. “I’ll be having a word with Paul McGinley later,” Woosnam said, with a nod to his player’s generous 18th-hole concession. “It could have been a record.”