Countdown to the Ryder Cup: United flakes of America
There was a time when America always won the Ryder Cup but, having been beaten in five out of the last six contests, they now struggle sometimes to lose by a respectable scoreline. James Corrigan in Louisville explains why golf's superpower has become so vulnerable
Tuesday 16 September 2008
Successful sporting teams are not in the habit of celebrating 25th anniversaries of defeats, but it would surely be remiss of Europe if they fail to find time at some point during this socially packed week to raise a glass to the pioneers of 1983.
The thrilling climax at Palm Beach Gardens may have left Tony Jacklin's brave boys rueing a one-point loss in Florida, but within a few hours their heroics were being viewed as a moral triumph; certainly by the golfers themselves, who were snapped out of their post-match gloom when Seve Ballesteros rose to his feet on the plane home.
As Nick Faldo remembers: "We were all dejected having just missing the chance of beating the Americans for the first time in three decades and Seve, seeing us with our heads down, got up and shouted, 'Hey, this is not a defeat, it is a victory – we should be celebrating.' Seve was right and in that instant we all realised it. It changed there and then."
Strewth, did it change. In the preceding 46 years America had only once; in the succeeding 23 they won just three times and lost seven times. If they do succumb once again this week, it will be a fourth humbling in a row. The turnaround has been Canute-like. And in the most recent two matches, America have all but disappeared under the European wave.
The record 181/2-91/2 defeat in Detroit in 2004 was described as a "one-off", but two years later in Ireland it became a "two-off" as Ian Woosnam's men repeated the Oakland Hills scoreline. Mark Twain might have commented that both were "a good walkover spoiled". They really were that one-sided.
So what caused this staggering reversal? Well, apart from the obvious one about Great Britain and Ireland becoming Europe in 1979, theories have abounded. Here The Independent sifts through the American wreckage in an attempt to discover the reasons for one of sport's greatest power shifts.
The Tiger Factor
May as well tackle the most contentious issue first. Has America actually suffered for having the greatest player ever in their number? Their captain, Paul Azinger, has almost fallen off his high chair whenever asked about the subject. "You can go looking for a positive if you must," he said recently. "But I cannot imagine you finding one."
Except it is not as straightforward as all that as Azinger himself showed, in the same press conference. "There's no doubt beating Tiger has given Europe a boost," Azinger said. "Maybe our guys have looked up at the scoreboard and said 'Oh gosh, Tiger's losing'." The story goes that the US visors then drop and the points soon follow. Colin Montgomerie swears by it. "It's like cutting the head off the snake," is his reasoning. However, this theory falls down somewhat in the fact that Woods did not perform that badly at the K Club in 2006 – he was top points scorer with three – but they were still stuffed. Here is where the "awe" factor comes in. Supposedly, his team-mates are in awe of simply having Woods (below) in their presence and cannot bloom in his shadow. Perhaps. With the big cat away, we will discover if the pygmies can play.
The Togetherness Factor (part one)
Ah, the grassy knoll of the Ryder Cup theorists. Europe has all the camaraderie; the US are a bunch of individuals with the bonding capability of axel grease. Europe eat, sleep and play together on their cosy tour; Americans play against each other in silence, before heading to their hotel room to order room service. In their team room, the Europeans go on the lash, sing and dance, and laugh and cry together; in the team room, the Americans play ping-pong and are embarrassingly made to sing their frat songs at each other. Europe get along; America get a pong. National characteristics, you see...
A lot of this is clichéd pocum, but some of it rings true. Padraig Harrington talks of the "spirit" of Europe, of "us all pulling together" but then describes the real depth of the camaraderie. "It's funny, just after we've won a Ryder Cup you see a team-mate at another event and run over to him to hug him. Within a week this becomes a nonchalant high five. A week later it's a hearty hello; a week after that it's a smile. Then it's a nod, and then, unless he is your good friend anyway, maybe just a grunt of recognition." But for those three days in fall they are inseparable brothers.
Why can't America replicate this? Well, they certainly do not enjoy the many social events they are forced to attend (although these have been dramatically cut back). A crude theory, perhaps, but Jacklin once said that to survive the Ryder Cup experience you have "to be off scratch in drinking" – which the majority of the opposition palpably are not. While they regard the "sip of the apple juice" receptions as a chore, the Euros take those "gulp of champers" receptions as a night out with the lads. Headaches for totally contrasting reasons.
The Togetherness Factor (part two)
On the course they plainly do not gel as well as their blue and gold buddies; which does not matter in the singles but does in the foursomes and fourballs. Playing with partners is not as integrally rooted in the culture of American golf as it is in Europe. Woosnam, the 2006 captain, observes: "When one American would be playing, the other would be 100 yards down the fairway," he said. "There are times in foursomes [the alternate shot format] when this is necessary and part of the etiquette, but I've seen it happen a lot in fourball too." Inevitably, the 2004 partnership of Woods and Phil Mickelson is always held up as the example in this regard and so, too should the partnership of Faldo and Woosnam (below). The Englishman and Welshman were never close but they proved almost unbeatable. "We gelled because we had to," said Faldo. Yet the same necessity is not enough to inspire the Americans.
The 'Do They Care?' Factor
Many would have it that Hunter Mahan's recent rant against an event the rookie had yet to play in says everything needed to know about the American attitude to the Ryder Cup. Among other things, he claimed the players were treated as "slaves that week" and were so bitter about not being paid while the organisers pulled in billions in profits that they might even consider boycotting the match. Furthermore, all those damned functions "sucked the fun out of it".
Yet Mahan's arguments could have been seen as stingily accurate in 1999, before the PGA of America gave each player $200,000 to donate to his preferred charity after those such as Mark O'Meara and David Duval voiced their objections. Then they cut the social demands on the players and tried to introduce some of the "fun things" the Americans claimed to enjoy in the Presidents Cup team room (ping-pong, mainly). But still only glum faces.
Why is this? Because the Americans are only interested in individual prizes, shout the critics, and the resulting dollars that go into their own bank accounts. Cue the Woods quote at a lucrative tournament before the 2002 Ryder Cup. "There a million reasons why I'd prefer to win this week," he said.
Meanwhile, all the Europeans maintain that they would happily pay to play in the Ryder Cup. And so the difference in priorities is elemental.
But is it? There is no doubt that Woods feels his career will be judged by the number of majors and not by the number of Ryder Cup points, and so it should be, but does that mean he – and the rest – don't care? Warning: do not dare ask an American Ryder Cup captain this as the response may be biblical. Even that fine gentleman Tom Lehman was wont to verge on the apoplectic whenever Tiger's Ryder Cup desire was broached. It is the theory the Americans dare not ask themselves. Surely their desire cannot be questioned this time. Can't it?
The Selection Factor
Azinger's hobby horse. America have not won, goes the captain's oft-stated belief, because America have not had their "hot" pros playing. In fact, a frankly daft selection procedure meant some decidedly "cold" pros have been on view. There is something in this but the problem for Azinger has been that, after he has overhauled the system, doubling the wild-card picks and putting the emphasis on recent form, very few American players happen to be in any kind of recent form. Alas for Azinger, his courageous revolution may well reap rewards for future American captains.
The Captaincy Factor
Hapless Hal Sutton – the three words to explain why America were drubbed in 2004. Or at least, that is what some "experts" – almost always American – will have you believe. An easily dismissed theory simply because Lehman's team fared just as badly as Sutton's and he, apart from a few pairing blunders, did seemingly very little wrong. The captain's influence is, of course, a factor, but the definitive one? Not unless any captain out there has a supernatural ability to govern the direction of his players' balls. Do not forget, it is an individual game even in a team setting. And as Sutton (right) says: "If guys are playing good you can pair them any way you want to. I don't think there are any 50 decisions at the captain's level that are going to change that."
The Putting Factor
There is a very good golfing reason for all this, one to which Woods himself subscribes. "They made more putts than we did," he said in 2006. "When it comes right down to it, in all of these cups that I've been a part of, it's whoever makes the most putts for the week." The stats do not argue. Tee to green, America have, by and large, competed with Europe. They have been flattened thereafter. But isn't this merely the manifestation of what we have been saying here and just down to ability, to nerve, to teamsmanship? Well, Harrington has an interesting take on this. "We've won the last three Ryder Cups on slow greens and Americans cannot adapt to slow greens," says the Irishman. "That's why I'm sure Azinger will instruction the greenstaff to give him lightning-fast greens at Valhalla and it will make it interesting if it levels it up."
The Crowd Factor
While Europe can motivate themselves, the Americans need a boisterous crowd to get them going, as proven in two of their three successes since 1983 (Kiawah Island '91 and Brookline '99). They have been the victim of their own raucous successes as successive captains have tried to keep a lid on galleries going "over the top". They would unarguably benefit this week from a hostile atmosphere and they may just get one, despite Azinger saying all the right things. Harrington believes "it's been all too nice recently" and Mickelson rather provocatively said to Graeme McDowell at a recent tournament: "They are not golf fans down there [in Kentucky]. They are Nascar fans. They will be drinking beer." Indeed, the Louisville lip has something of a reputation.
The 'Europe Are Bloody Good' Factor
Often ignored in America's great rush to find a reason for their own incompetence, as pointed out so passionately by Oliver Wilson in last Friday's Independent. "The American side are always looking for this golden answer, but there isn't one," Wilson said. "It's simply the fact they have been outplayed." It is probably fair to let Montgomerie (right) have the last word on the matter. "Why have Europe just won three in a row?" he said at the K Club. "Because we're bloody good, that's why."
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