Countdown to the Ryder Cup: American backlash

The US team are being swept along by a groundswell of Southern patriotism, writes James Lawton from Valhalla Golf Club, Kentucky
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The Independent Online

Somewhere beyond the increasingly edgy, high-profile sparring of captains Paul Azinger and Nick Faldo is maybe the most fascinating – and potentially decisive – question of all. It concerns the true strength of the American backlash we can expect here over the next few days of the 37th Ryder Cup – and who really is in charge of it.

On the face of it the on-course responsibility lies with Phil Mickelson, America's favourite and most talented golfer in the absence of the rehabilitating Tiger Woods, but here in the blue-grass country the 38-year-old Californian's profile is, frankly, not much higher than that of a raccoon anxious not to draw the attention of his hunting and fishing team-mate Boo Weekley.

In the course of six Ryder Cups Mickelson's record has dwindled from high respectability to almost complete meltdown – in the last two American debacles he has gleaned just one half point from a possible seven and here this week his stance was less than martial when he was asked if he was ready to lead from an embattled American front.

Mickelson said: "My only responsibility is to play well. That's something I've been working on – and all the players have been working hard on in the last week. We are all getting ready and hopefully we will be ready by Friday. Hopefully we'll be sharp and have our A-game because we know that our competition is very strong. I think Captain Azinger has been a wonderful leader for us; I think he has been a great captain and given us great direction. I feel the guys who have not played in this event [a total of six American rookies] are ready to play; I really think the leadership has come from the captain."

In fact you have to suspect that so far the most powerful American momentum has been provided by the "down-home" enthusiasm of a tract of southern heartland unfazed by a hurricane which still leaves nearly a quarter-of-a-million of the local population without power and in some cases water.

Here, the idea that their golfers may be heading for a fourth straight defeat by Europe is something that a few decades ago might have been placed before the House Un-American Activities committee.

The idea being pushed here by native Kentucky sons Kenny Perry and JB Holmes and fellow southerner Weekley, who swears solemnly that he spent part of his youth in the Florida panhandle wrestling alligators and as a 16-year-old was knocked out by an orangutan at a county fair, is that a groundswell of patriotism can most easily be marshalled here.

Azinger admits that he is toying with the idea of launching his team in Friday morning's foursomes with the pairing of Perry and the huge-hitting Holmes. '"There sure would be a lot of hootin' and hollerin'," says Weekly, "and that could provide some real momentum."

Azinger's fear to balance against the potential sight of such key Europeans as Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood being scattered into the trees and the bushes in a a golfing version of the Battle of New Orleans is the possibility of an American adrenaline overspill which might just bring a terrible deflation ... and the first giant stride to still another European triumph.

Yet when you look at Azinger's options the appeal of a charge of emotion to match, ideally with much less virulence, the crowd enthusiasm seen at Kiawah Island in South Carolina 17 years and Brookline Country Club in Boston in 1999, has to be compelling.

On both occasions the Americans were swept to wins which may have been flooded in controversy but were victories all the same. Here now, the mood is guaranteed not to be too fastidious about how the win is gained.

"I know it would be a riot if we were to play first," says Perry, "but I also know the captain has to consider a lot of factors. I would just love it, though, if JB and I and Kentucky could really help to get this thing back on track for America."

Weekley seems most engaged by the idea of a resurgent American team winning back its pride and long-held belief that as the home of such as Hogan and Palmer, Nicklaus and Woods, it has a birthright to be deemed the best in the world.

Weekley says: "I think the past has got to change. I mean, it's time for a new era. We're the underdogs, unfortunately, but that's all on paper. You don't know what you've got until you go out there and play. It's like getting a new pack of hounds when we were growing up and going deer hunting down in the country. You don't know what kind of dogs you've got until you run them. So let's run them dogs and let's see what we got."

In the 26-year-old Holmes America has potentially the catalyst of victory ... and, maybe, something of a mad dog. His fans say that he is the wildest thing on a golf course since the early days of John Daly. This week he stunned the galleries by flying 330 yards, straight as an arrow, to the island of the 13th green. "Man, it was just amazing to see," said one of his playing partners, Perry. "When he did it I just got this tremendous desire to be the first on the tee with him on Friday morning, and saying, 'JB, this is our great chance to be part of golf history' ."

Another witness was veteran US Open winner Jim Furyk, who after Mickelson must be expected by Azinger to bring some vital presence and a touch of gravitas. "It was certainly an inspirational moment and it made me feel that there is a lot of potential – and desire – in this American team," said Furyk. "The thing about the Ryder Cup is that everybody wants to win so darned bad, and of course the Europeans have had that desire and conviction for a long time – I know because in five Ryder Cups I've experienced one win and four losses. But looking round our team room right now, I have to be very impressed – and encouraged.

"I have the conviction that this time it can happen. I think the mood is right and we have some characters, people who want to win and believe they can do it."

They are American players, maybe it is so, who have not been nourished at the local country club on the belief they are among the most favoured of a privileged land. Players like country boy Holmes, who had an old club in his hand for the first time when he was barely a year old and who now says, "I came from a small town and it shows the people of Kentucky and in small towns that you don't have to be in a big city, you don't have to have the nicest golf course, you don't have to have the nicest stuff, you don't have to have everything perfect to be able to be successful.

"What happened to me when I was a kid was that my parents didn't have baby-sitters. They dropped me off at the little old golf course and I played 54 holes."

It is maybe not quite the American dream but then we are not talking fantasy here but the possibility of a backlash – and maybe the barking of some seriously trained dogs of sport.

Phil flop: His Ryder Cup record

6 appearances, 11 points:

2006: US 9 (Mickelson 1/2)

Phil Mickelson wins none of his five matches.

2004: US 9 (Mickelson 1)

Lost three matches, two when he was partnered with Tiger Woods, and won the Saturday Foursomes with David Toms.

2002: US 12 (Mickelson 2 1/2)

Two wins, one draw and two loses.

1999 US 14 (Mickelson 2)

Lost two and won two, beating Jarmo Sandelin in his singles match.

1997 US 13 (Mickelson 2)

Failed to repeat his '95 performance with one win, two draws and a loss.

1995 US 13 (Mickelson 3)

Rookie Phil Mickelson finishes as the only unbeaten player, winning all three matches.

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