James Lawton: Europeans must step out of comfort zone in a major way

McGinley said Europe's success is due to 'talent'. Plainly it is not. Why have the Americans 17 major titles between them to Europe's two?
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The Independent Online

Among his other achievements at the K Club Sergio Garcia scored a victory for candour. El Niño was more than happy to accommodate the stunned American groping for a reason why his compatriots, the hardest-eyed, biggest money-winners in golf, had once again been whipped beyond the point of humiliation. "Yes," he piped cheerfully, "it is always sweet to beat Americans."

Garcia's interrogator thanked him for the honesty of his answer - and was then told, "You're welcome". However, another question which now demands an answer from the brilliantly gifted Spaniard - and all his European team-mates - asks for a little more reflection, indeed maybe some considerable heart- searching, but it is not likely to go away.

It is the one which could not be suppressed even while acknowledging a superb team performance and marvelling at captain Ian Woosnam's faultless impersonation of the drinking god Bacchus.

Where is it at Ryder Cup time the Europeans find the courage - and the very the best of their games - that is so resolutely mislaid when they are obliged to stand alone in the battle for the titles which will always define a golfer's greatness? Why is it that when even the best of them are dwarfed by Tiger Woods whenever they collide along the major tournament peaks of golf, they are able to corner him once every two years and make his life for a few days some kind of open-ended purgatory? How is it that they rarely duff a shot or blink even once when there is everything to play for?

It may sound like heresy in the wake of the record-equalling performance in County Kildare, but the answer is unavoidable. Where they find their nerve is in the reassuring ground of shared responsibility, and this is a reality that was blithely side-stepped by Irish hero Paul McGinley when he pinpointed the basis of the latest European success. "It's talent," he declared. Plainly it is not. If talent was the decisive factor why is that the Americans who shuffled away yesterday had 17 major titles between them - against Europe's two?

The last time a European won a major was seven years ago on a tragi-comic rain and wind-scoured dusk at Carnoustie. Paul Lawrie collected the prize and promptly vanished in the mist.

The implication cannot be missed. Every two years leading European golfers flourish in a way that has proved so far beyond them - with the notable exception of Jose Maria Olazabal - since the days when such as Seve Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle and Woosnam showed they had the capacity and the nerve to win the big ones - and Nick Faldo made a habit of it.

It is in this phenomenon of glory in a comfort zone, of turning the most individualistic of sports outside of a boxing ring into a team game that has created a transatlantic imbalance which is now threatening the very life of the great Ryder Cup.

How long, for example, do we expect the Americans who so regularly triumph in the major tournaments to play the role of Ryder Cup fodder? You may say they have the remedy in their expensively manicured hands. They can steel themselves for the kind of commitment which Europe has displayed so powerfully in the last three tournaments, but to do that they have to care sufficiently, and there is growing evidence that in the year-long challenge they set themselves the Ryder Cup is an ever dwindling priority.

For any additional evidence we need only remember the source of the first pressure for players to receive a share of the vast profits generated by the old competition. Most publicly it came a few years ago from Mark O'Meara, the Masters and Open champion who has had so much influence in the thinking and the attitudes of Tiger Woods - the ultimate professional in any age of golf.

Woods has been at the centre of the criticism bearing down on the weakness of the American effort at the K Club, but when the shooting was over it was clear that much of it had been superficial if not conspicuously unfair. Yes, by his own standards, he played as poorly as it was possible to imagine over most of the first two days, but nothing in his body language said that it was because of indifference to what was expected of him as opposed to a bone-deep belief that for him matchplay will always be equated with the purchase of a lottery ticket.

Woods, at least by implication, has said here that he will play the Ryder Cup game, he will do his duty, but enjoying it, feeling comfortable and expressing himself fully while doing so, is quite beyond any accepted obligation. Not so long ago, while deflecting a new tide of attention flowing towards his mediocre Ryder Cup history, he asked his questioners if they knew the record of Jack Nicklaus. Like his own it, it lagged significantly behind his overall standing in the game.

The greatest irony of all here these last few days was that Woods finished the leading points scorer of his team. While the flak besieged Woods, it just happened that the man who has most seriously challenged his hold over the world game over the last two years, was gleaning a pitiful half point from a possible five. Phil Mickelson was so cold there were times when he seemed to be in need of resuscitation. But of course the Tiger is the man against whom all standards are now set and it may just be that his failure, whatever the root cause, to make an impact on the Ryder Cup is not ultimately his problem but the tournament's.

This is the most worrying aspect of the latest European cakewalk. We can rejoice in the brave images of the victory and the clatter of emotion and celebration but sooner or later there is a need to step back and probe the nature of it. How great a triumph is it when your opponents cannot feel the same imperative to succeed? In the end we have to go back to the basis of all disquiet in modern sport, the ascendancy of one calculation above all. It is the opportunity to make money, the greening that inevitably discards the old importance attached to such ageing concepts as national pride.

Some optimists at the K Club were talking about the cyclical nature of all success in sport, suggesting that the pain of the latest American failure will galvanise their effort in Valhalla in Kentucky in two years' time. Selection policy will be reviewed, new incentives considered, and maybe we will have again the kind of battles which aroused the competitive juices so sensationally at places like the Belfry, Kiawah Island, Rochester, New York, and Valderrama. But maybe we shouldn't hold our breath too long.

The gut feeling here is that despite the splendour of performances from old hands like Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood and Colin Montgomerie, and all the promise of Paul Casey and Garcia, something has gone out of a tournament which until so recently seemed to have touched a perfect balance of spectacle and hard-edged competition.

America's captain Tom Lehman seemed to enter a coma somewhere around the middle of day two and he was still deeply stunned while accepting defeat with notable grace. Lehman had tried to engender the old mystique of the Ryder Cup. He had talked in the language of Nicklaus and Ben Crenshaw but long before the end of Europe's eventually formal victory, it was clear both his language and his emotional pitch had become almost archaic.

Woosie had simply fanned the embers of the fire which so consistently spurts into new life every two years. Whether the new captain Nick Faldo will be able to do the same is, paradoxically, perhaps dependent on the individual success, or lack of it, of his leading players.

For Faldo the Ryder Cup was always an optional extension of his intense need to succeed on his own. It is maybe not insignificant that he was one of the least popular European players in the locker room - indeed when he was no longer part of it, a letter of good wishes he sent the team was thrown into a waste paper basket. Faldo was the least clubbable of golfers. He didn't slip easily into a new age of fraternal bonding. He was too busy trying to win majors. Maybe this is the root of the American problem.