Hearts will ascend toward throats on Sept. 18, when the combined Louisville and Kentucky marching bands play national anthems at the opening ceremony of the Ryder Cup. But it’s hard to picture Henrik Stenson getting all ferklempt. Sweden’s anthem — Du gamla, Du fria (Thou Ancient, Thou Freeborn) — is majestic rather than stirring, for one thing. Besides, Stenson was the cool customer who holed the winning putt as a Ryder Cup rookie in 2006.
Nor did Stenson flinch when asked in open court — a press conference at the recent Bridgestone Invitational — why Europe won big last time and why, lately, the Euros always seem to come out on top.
“We bonded together a little bit better in four-ball and foursomes,” said Stenson of his squad’s 18 1/2-9 1/2 dismantling of the U.S. at the K Club in Ireland. “I don’t know if it’s historical or cultural.”
The history can’t be argued. Colin Montgomerie recalled it a little dreamily, as if remembering a particularly delicious meal — or a series of them. “If not for some strange occurrences at Brookline [in 1999], we’d have won six in a row,” said Monty, on a break from putting downhill four-footers on the Firestone practice green. “Six in a row. That means we’re the favorites this year. Strange isn’t it: We’ll be the favorites in Kentucky.”
Yes, strange, but not all that crazy when you delve into the cultural part of the Stenson theorem. Without getting all macro about it — the American embrace of rugged individualism versus centuries of European pluralism — sportsmen with experience on both sides of the Atlantic keep saying the same thing: It comes down to dinner.
“Even at the highest level European basketball teams eat together after the game,” says Dallas Mavericks assistant coach Terry Stotts, who played in France, Spain and Italy for six years before beginning his NBA coaching career in 1992. “Hanging together off the court builds camaraderie, which relieves mental pressure. It’s definitely a cultural thing. For Europeans, the big picture comes before the small.”
Breaking bread with your mates on the European tour is hard to avoid. As England native-Chicago resident Luke Donald points out, players stay in one or at most two hotels at each stop on their country-to-country traveling show. Theirs is really a world tour, as indicated by its progression this fall from Hong Kong (China) to Melbourne (Australia) to Mpumalanga (South Africa). The Europeans play for more than £127 million. That’s a lot but “not enough to always bring your family, as so many do on the U.S. Tour,” says Donald. So European players pass their off-hours with one another, and maybe the resultant familiarity pays off at the Ryder Cup.
Would such a system have helped U.S. Ryder Cup rookie Vaughn Taylor in 2006? “I didn’t know some of the guys that well, like Tiger and Phil,” Taylor says. “I had the feeling of being a small fish in a big pond.” Although he played well in the Saturday afternoon foursomes, in which he and Chad Campbell halved with Montgomerie and Lee Westwood, Taylor had the unfortunate distinction of losing his only other match, and the Cup-clinching point, to Stenson in singles. Stenson won 4 and 3 and was three under par at the end.
Adding another layer of European comfort at the Ryder Cup is that the Euros play match play more than we do, especially at the junior level, and form themselves into teams more often than we do, especially in England, Scotland and Ireland, where county versus county competitions are an important part of the summer fun.
Same hotel, a table for 12, match play, a team: That’s all the Ryder Cup is.
The ’06 Ryder Cup followed a by-now familiar pattern. Europe assumed a lead — at 10-6, bigger than usual — after the first two days of four-ball and foursomes. Darren Clarke, widowed only a month before, went 3-0 while inspiring his side; Mickelson’s 0-4-1 depressed his. Meanwhile, the pairing of Furyk and Woods was reading each other’s putts, a complete break from their usual M.O. On the Tour both men make miles of putts while keeping their own counsel; neither Fluff Cowan nor stolid Steve Williams, their caddies, opined about line and grain and speed. Jim and Tiger won two matches and lost two.
When Montgomerie took the final day’s first match, 1 up over David Toms, Monty prevented the surge that U.S. captain Tom Lehman had prayed for and preserved his own remarkable record of never having lost a Ryder Cup singles match. He’s 3-0.
In the giddiness and spray of champagne at the end of the day, there was one more thing to consider about the ’06 Ryder Cup and all those yet to come: Europe’s deep-seeded love of beating the U.S. It’s a real advantage. Europeans think of us as the world’s children — too loud, too pushy and in need of a spanking, while we have no equivalent lust to defeat Irish and Swedes and Scots and Spaniards. Europe’s win at the K Club felt so good that even the stoic Stenson smiled.