Golf: Ryder Cup - Strange renaissance of American spirit

Captain Crenshaw succeeds with his curious mix and match policy while James's novices are found wanting on their first and only appearance
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The Independent Online
WE LAUGHED, some of us, I'm sorry to say, when Ben Crenshaw sat down on Friday night to explain why he'd chosen Steve Pate to be Tiger Woods' third partner in as many matches. Apparently the reason was something to do with Tiger having once played a couple of rounds with Steve's brother, John.

"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.

Crenshaw had come into the press conference to deliver his summary of the first day's play like Ronald Reagan in one of his less focused moods, and his demeanour was inspiring hope that the US team might not be in any sort of shape to recapture the Ryder Cup. For a moment, he literally didn't seem to know the score. "I think that... it's 6-2," he said, "is that right? 6-2... 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, up to that point. And Crenshaw's closing words at his next press conference, on the eve of the final day, did little to suggest that his team's grip on the tournament was likely to grow any firmer.

"I'll tell you just one more thing," he said, wagging his finger like a benign schoolmaster. "I'm a big believer in fate, and I have a good feeling about this."

What no one could guess was that at their team meeting later on Saturday night, the Americans would indulge in a kind of collective motivational therapy that succeeded in putting their effort back on track. The speakers were not only the players and the captain's staff but also various wives and other guests. "We went around the room," Davis Love III said, "and everyone spoke. I can't believe how together these 12 players were." Robin Love, Davis's wife, had directed the players' attention to a favourite maxim of Harvey Penick, the late philosopher of the fairways: "Take dead aim."

Phil Mickelson described the contribution of Governor George W Bush of Texas, son of the former president, who did his chances of winning the Republican candidature for the next presidential election no harm with a speech to the meeting which drew on the history of his native state. "He read a very interesting quote," Mickelson recounted, "about a man who was standing at the Alamo and he was holding off a couple of thousand troops and it didn't look like he was going to make it, but he was going to fight to the end. It shows what a number of Americans have done for this country. We might not be soldiers who fight in wars, but this is something of its own and we needed to fight as if we were."

The scoreboards dotted around the course showed American gains in red numbers, the visiting team's successes in blue. Throughout the day's play the board slowly became soaked in European blood as player after player fell beneath the astonishing force of the American attack.

The Ryder Cup, we learnt this week, is about taking an individual's confidence and using it to infect the collective. Tiger Woods, as we had been told countless times, is the best player in the world, and was the team's nominated talisman. When the leader proved impotent in the opening exchanges, virtually the entire team wilted.

Even the captain succumbed, and Crenshaw's decision to absolve his players from general criticism seemed extraordinary. As early as Tuesday he had been telling us that every member of his team was playing so well that to make the choice of whom to leave out was "excruciating". To be fumbling around for pairings on the second day appeared to show 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 Cup 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, even though in the final accounting that value was not high enough.

His conviction was absolute. His only personnel change on Friday and Saturday was the alternation of Padraig 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."

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 Colin Montgomerie belittled and baited by Americans, 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."

When Montgomerie and Paul Lawrie beat Woods and Steve Pate in the Saturday afternoon four-ball, it seemed that they might have stemmed the US resurgence. "That point was huge," James said afterwards. "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 above anything. But when James sent his players out on the final morning, it was to face a contest in which each visiting players would need to erect his own defences, alone in a hostile land.

Finally, the Americans had learnt how to take their individual confidence and blend it into a collective force that blasted through the European wall.

On Saturday night there were no secrets in their team room, either. And it was David Duval, a man who prefers deeds to words, who held the key.

The quietest of Americans, criticised for his description of the tournament as "an exhibition" and for his belief that the competitors should be paid the going rate, found the words that finally unlocked his team's competitiveness.

"I told them I was sick and tired of everyone saying we weren't a team," he recounted. "I said I think we're the better team. Let's go out and show it."

At last, Crenshaw's faith in his team was repaid. When the Europeans came out for the final exchanges, it seemed that they were facing not just the dozen golfers who had confronted them on Friday and Saturday but also the Pilgrim Fathers, Betsy Ross, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Sixth Fleet, the Seventh Cavalry, Billy Graham, Michael Jordan, Sharon Stone and the Man from Laramie. And, not surprisingly, it was all too much.

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