U.S. on wrong side of Ryder Cup fairway

Bond shown by Europe seems seriously lacking among American players

Golf

September 21, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. - The shift in power had been gradual, taking place over the course of two decades. Now it is complete, evidenced by Europe's dominating performance in the 35th Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills.

The United States is no longer the lead actor on golf's world stage.

Just as Vijay Singh pushed aside Tiger Woods as the game's No. 1 player, Woods and his 11 teammates who lost to Europe by the largest score ever since the competition was expanded a quarter century ago suddenly find themselves thrust into a new role.

When this biennial event returns in 2006 to The K Club outside Dublin, Ireland, the American team will be considered the underdog regardless of what it says in the much-debated world rankings.

"You can forget the Europeans being the underdogs in the next Ryder Cup," television analyst Johnny Miller, a former Ryder Cup player himself, said toward the end of NBC's telecast of the 18 1/2 -9 1/2 debacle. "You can throw that story out."

Davis Love III, the most experienced Ryder Cup player among the Americans, whole-heartedly agreed.

"If they keep bringing the trophy back on their airplane, we're the underdogs," Love said Sunday, a few yards from where the Europeans were celebrating amid their fans with songs and champagne showers. "We're a half-point underdog already."

Love was referring to the fact that the team that defends its victory only has to forge a tie of the 28 points in order to retain the cup. The Europeans have brought home the trophy after four of the past five competitions and seven of the past 10.

Perhaps the United States will play better in its new role than it has as favorite. Or maybe the United States will have to find players who can come together better as a team, showing a more united front for its next captain than it did for Hal Sutton.

The Americans can certainly learn something from their European counterparts aside from hitting the ball in the fairway or on the correct side of the green.

"We're a closer-knit team," said Colin Montgomerie of Scotland, a captain's pick, who won three of the four matches in which he played and secured the clinching point on Sunday. "It's amazing how well we play for each other, and that's huge.

"I'm not saying that the Americans don't. They play for the country or whatever, but we do play for each other from the word go, from the moment we get on the plane. It's amazing how our record here is. It belies our ranking in the world."

With only one player in the world's top 10 - No. 8 Padraig Harrington of Ireland - the Europeans also dominated the competition from the moment Montgomerie birdied the first hole of the very first match.

For the U.S. team, it was all downhill - or uphill - from there.

The problems actually surfaced long before the matches began. Phil Mickelson's decision to change equipment from Titleist to Callaway two weeks ago was the first of many moves that backfired on the Americans.

So did Sutton's madcap mixing of Woods and Mickelson, heated rivals whose coolness for each other could not be concealed in their two losses together on the opening day.

Each day brought a new question.

Why did Sutton break up winning pairs such as Woods and Chris Riley to forge losing teams such as Woods and Love? Why did he allow Riley, a Ryder Cup rookie, to talk him into sitting out during the alternate-shot matches?

"Second-guessing is a golfer's biggest problem," said Sutton. "We've got to live in the present. I made mistakes. I take full responsibility for the mistakes I made. Obviously, the pairings we set out there didn't create any charisma."

Then again, it's difficult to take players who lack personality and make them dynamic or expect players who barely know each other away from the course to suddenly become the best of friends.

This U.S. team was like the old Boston Red Sox, of whom it was once said had "25 cabs for 25 players." In this case, it was 12 separate courtesy cars or limousines.

Just as USA Basketball has problems with the selection process of the men's Olympic team, the formula for selecting the Ryder Cup team doesn't allow its captain much leeway in choosing his players.

Two Americans who didn't earn a single point this year, Fred Funk and Kenny Perry, had gained a majority of their Ryder Cup points last year. Stewart Cink was the only U.S. player to win since May.

Sutton said he doesn't believe the system should be changed, just perception of the opponent.

For all the respect golf fans seem to have for a Presidents Cup world team made up of the likes of Singh, Ernie Els, Retief Goossen and Mike Weir, there doesn't seem to be the same feeling about a European team led by Sergio Garcia, Harrington, Montgomerie and Lee Westwood.

"It's getting very hard for us to win either one of these type of events when the rest of the world other than the United States is getting bigger and better at golf," said Sutton.

The European team had its deepest, and one of its youngest, teams ever. Garcia, who went 4-0-1, is 24. Luke Donald (2-1-1) is 26. Paul Casey (1-1) is 27. Ian Poulter (1-1) is 28. David Howell (1-1) is 29. Only two players, Montgomerie and Miguel Angel Jimenez, are over 40, compared with Love, Perry, Funk and 50-year-old Jay Haas.

Perry doesn't seem optimistic that the trend of European dominance will change.

"We may just keep losing," he said. "We need to figure something out."

One thing is sure: Next time, the United States will have a new role on golf's world stage.

NOTE: Europe's victory produced the lowest final-day large-market ratings on NBC in the last three events. The audience was just over half that for the most recent American win. The final day was watched in 3.4 percent of the homes in the top 56 U.S. media markets.

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