"John's a fine player," Captain Crenshaw said, rubbing his chin sagely.
In that case, we sniggered, maybe Ben should ask Steve for his brother's phone number. With the United States down by 6-2 at the end of a torrid first day, a fine player was something he could surely use.
We were laughing a little less heartily at the end of the following morning, when Woods and Pate returned to the clubhouse with the scalps of the previously unbeaten Miguel Angel Jimenez and Padraig Hamilton hanging from their belts. And the lingering giggles were thoroughly stifled at the first hole of the afternoon four-ball, when John's brother stroked in a 20-footer from the edge of the green for a birdie that gave them an immediate advantage over Colin Montgomerie and Paul Lawrie.
The American pair were off and rolling, and Pate was relaxed enough to discuss the weekend's college football prospects with a spectator while he took a drink from the water cooler as the four players waited for the preceding match to clear the second green.
For both teams, this looked like a key moment. Perhaps Crenshaw, despite his apparently curious reasoning, really had discovered the right partner for Woods, one who could succeed where Tom Lehman and David Duval had failed in the task - as the captain put it - of "freeing up" Tiger's talent. If so, the consequences might be pivotal to the fortunes of the competition.
The Ryder Cup, we have learnt this week, is about taking an individual's confidence and using it to infect the collective. Woods, as we had been told countless times, is the best player in the world. He was going to lead the United States's golfers by example. But when the leader proved impotent in the opening exchanges, virtually the entire team wilted.
Even the captain succumbed, delivering his summary of the first day's play like Ronald Reagan in one of his less focused moods. When Crenshaw sat down to address the press conference, he literally didn't seem to know the score. "I think that. . . it's 6-2," he said, "is that right? Six-two . . . what's the. . . 6-2. I just don't think, at least from my position, that it indicates how well people played today. My team thought that they played very well. A lot of them felt wonderful about the way they played."
A lot of the Europeans felt wonderful about the way the Americans had played, too, and Crenshaw's decision to absolve his players from general criticism seemed as extraordinary as his willingness to bestow individual praise and blame.
"I think Hal Sutton continues to be inspired," he volunteered. "He's playing well. He's holed a bunch of putts.
"I know that Phil Mickelson was a little disappointed. We did talk, and he felt a little bit down about his putting." Mickelson must have been feeling wretched enough about missing from under five feet at the 16th and 18th in the afternoon better-ball without hearing his captain emphasising his culpability.
Crenshaw had broken a cardinal rule of captaincy, and it was not the only one. As early as Tuesday he was telling us that every member of his team was playing so well that to make the choice of whom to leave out was "excruciating".
Nothing in his subsequent behaviour suggested that he had managed to get things straightened out in his own mind, never mind those of the 12 players under his control. To be fumbling around for pairings on the second day showed not just a lack of tactical preparation but a major strategic flaw: the US captain clearly shared the belief of some of his players that, because they are the 12 best players in the world - "according to themselves," as Lee Westwood drily put it - the matches would somehow fall into their laps.
Mark James, Crenshaw's opposite number, was having none of that. He knew the value of the cards in his hand, he knew which ones were trumps, and he made sure they all got played.
His conviction was absolute. His only personnel change on Friday and Saturday was the alternation of Harrington and Jose Maria Olazabal between the foursomes and four-ball formats, at Olazabal's suggestion. "I know he's a very good four-ball player even when he's not driving the ball 100 per cent straight," James said. "And I'm quite happy with what Jose tells me.
He's an intelligent fellow, and there's no secrets about your game in that team room. It's an open book."
No secrets about your game in the team room. That's the sort of thing all coaches wish they could say, but few know how to achieve. James's players knew exactly where they stood. The three men omitted from the first two days' play - Jarmo Sandelin, Jean Van de Velde and Andrew Coltart - understood the scheme of things, and that they would nevertheless have a part to play, even if it meant being the lambs sacrificed to the Americans' opening broadside on Sunday morning. And those chosen for the Friday and Saturday matches knew that the captain's faith was invested in them, and all he expected was that they do their best.
With the temperamental Montgomerie, belittled and baited by Americans as a choker, James was brilliant. Before and during the tournament, the captain used his press conferences to emphasise Montgomerie's stature in the game and his role as the team's totemic figure, inspirational to the others and a trusted advisor to the captain.
"His contribution this week has been enormous," James said on Saturday night. "He's been someone the players look to, and that I and my assistants confide in."
On Saturday, with Woods and Pate looking to breach Europe's defences, Montgomerie rose to the challenge. He sank 15-foot birdie putts to level the match at the third and take the lead at the fourth, and another one to regain parity at the eighth after Pate's putting had taken the US ahead. On the 447-yard 10th, outdriven by the other three, he produced a sublime second shot to within inches on the hole for a conceded birdie that put their noses back in front.
By this time, Pate's putting had cooled off and Woods was struggling to strike sparks. But the Americans fought back to square the match at the 12th, and were preparing to make a final assault when Michael Jordan slipped inside the ropes on the switchback fairway of the 534-yard 14th, just at the spot where Woods's drive had landed, 50 yards in advance of the others.
As Tiger strode up to the ball, Jordan gave him an encouraging cheer.
Woods shot a sideways grin at his friend and fellow superstar before lifting a perfect four-iron to within seven feet of the hole, giving himself the chance of a second eagle at the hole in successive rounds.
"He got up there with a phenomenal shot," Montgomerie said afterwards, "and then he missed the putt. That gave me the confidence to go for it." Taking a more modest route, the Scot holed his own six-footer for a matching birdie before marching off to win the 15th from 12 feet, re-establishing a European lead in the match.
And then Paul Lawrie, an interested bystander for most of the afternoon, came into his own. The Open champion struck a beautiful six-iron shot off the 16th tee, leaving himself a two-foot putt for the birdie that extended the pair's lead, ensuring that a halved 17th gave them the match by 2 and 1 and added a priceless point to the Europeans' overall score.
"That point was huge," James said afterwards, momentarily abandoning his habitual ironic mode. "The USA had thrown a lot of good golf at us, and we were in the process of trying to put the wall up, to stop them breaking through. Colin's point was a very, very big factor in that wall."
The wall had been designed in the room where there were no secrets, and it had proved strong enough to give the Europeans an advantage in the part of the tournament where teamwork counted. But when James sent his players out on the final morning, it was to face a dozen opponents fired by the American virtue of individualism, in a contest in which each man would erect his own defences, alone in a hostile land.Reuse content