Nick Faldo and his European Ryder Cup team should have a quick read of Macbeth before they tee it up this month, because there’s a good chance that Valhalla will be their Dunsinane and the sans-Tiger U.S. team their Birnam forest. Without Tiger, the U.S. team is in prime position to be the beneficiary of that inexplicable but irrefutably existent and mysteriously powerful force we’ll refer to as a Starless Burst.
The playing fields of Eton and every other field, arena, pitch, rink, court and stadium in the world are littered with the ghosts of Starless Bursts past. Depending on where you live in the U.S., you have your own edition(s) of the Starless Burst. If you’re from Boston, you know that when star quarterback Drew Bledsoe went down in 2001, rookie Tom Brady stepped in and led the Patriots to a Super Bowl win. New Yorkers know that they won the Super Bowl last season only after team star Tiki Barber retired. If you’re from Philadelphia, you know what it’s like to be on the wrong side of a Starless Burst, since in the 1980 NBA Finals the Sixers lost Game 6 and the title to the Lakers, who played the game without all-time great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In his place, 20-year-old rookie Magic Johnson started at center against a star-studded Philly squad and mopped the floor with them.
Why the Starless Burst occurs is open to endless theories, but there are two primary factors: the Star gets the bulk of the media and fan attention, and that might get under the skin of other team members; and Stars, by definition, require other players to sacrifice and/or become dependent upon them to shine, thus perhaps undermining overall team function.
Golf is only a team sport at the Ryder Cup (yeah, yeah, I hear you about the Presidents Cup, but give me a break). Tiger Woods can certainly not be accused of being the kind of selfish Star that would bring a team down, but he is unquestionably the greatest player in the history of the game, and for this reason alone his presence on any team has an unquantifiable impact.
All Starless Bursts have one thing in common: When the Star goes dim, someone steps into his place, and the other players rally around him, forming, perhaps for the first time, a genuine team. There is only one player on the U.S. team who can fill this role, one player whose own greatness languishes more than any other in the shadow Star Tiger casts over the rest of the game. So, Phil Mickelson, if not now, when? If not you, who?
And to Captain Nick and the Euros, it must be said: Be afraid. Be very afraid.