Langer calls shots in a victory for European unity
Monday 20 September 2004
Langer goes down as the general who did not miss a single shot.
You might call Bernhard Langer the wolf of the Michigan woods. Or simply a genius. One thing, though, is certain after Europe's breath-taking annexation of the 35th Ryder Cup. There has never been such a piece of masterful generalship in all the 83-year-old history of a tournament in which America used take victory as much for granted as wild weekends in old Havana.
Yes, Tony Jacklin fought and even wept in his effort to make Europe competitive with the American masters of golf, and the tears flowed when Jose Maria Olazabal did his victory flamenco with the first win across the Atlantic. Bernard Gallacher, Seve Ballesteros and Sam Torrance all fashioned winning performances.
But this was different after the only serious crisis of the European captain's superb three-day campaign had been first absorbed, then swept away by such nerveless lieutenants as Sergio Garcia, Darren Clarke, Lee Westwood and, above all, the relentless Colin Montgomerie.
When Langer posted his singles line up on Saturday night and then saw that his American rival, Hal Sutton, had loaded up with heavyweight, if underperforming, talents like Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Davis Love, he coolly declared, "I still expect two points from the first three matches." In fact he got a mere one and a half, but then nobody is perfect . . . and it is also true that he would once again have lasered his way to stunning perception if Clarke's putt on the final hole had not lipped out agonisingly.
It was academically, also, as those fears of early afternoon - when the top half of the scoreboard was daubed entirely in American red - receded and Langer's strategy of spreading his strength across the last round paid the dividends he had confidently expected. As men at the front like Garcia, at times exquisitely, fought to push back the tide of red, there was growing evidence of the captain's insurance policy.
Irishmen Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley, like leprechauns lurking at the garden fence, built up commanding leads at the back of the field, though Harrington did begin to slip under pressure from the 50-year-old Jay Hass. For Langer, it was crushing confirmation of an approach aimed at creating new levels of spirit in the European team, and which received its basic reward half through the final day when Lee Westwood won his match with Ken Perry and guaranteed that the Cup would be brought back to Europe.
At the midday start of the final action there were, inevitably, ritual cries for Tiger Woods when he appeared alongside Paul Casey, one of the younger assassins in Langer's amiable and inspired hit squad. However, the frenzy of Brookline Country Club in 1999 was gone. In its place was patriotism by remote control. One fan wrapped in the stars and stripes did manage a hint of humour. "Tiger, we believe in miracles," he bellowed.
If you were American a sense of resignation was unavoidable, and nothing encapsulated the huge gap between the captaincy performances of Langer and Sutton than the collision of the embattled phenomenon and the rookie in the last act of what promised to be an American tragedy.
While Sutton clung desperately to the shot-through belief - at least in Ryder Cup action - that Woods is guaranteed to inflict terror on any opponent by his mere appearance, Langer was as he had been all week. He was as good as his word. He said he had absolute belief in his players, from the liberated veteran Colin Montgomerie to the youngest rookie, Luke Donald, who in the build up to the final battle had been superbly composed.
So there was Woods, in the middle of another Ryder Cup nightmare, facing another exposure of his psychological inability to play team sport with anything like the authority he brings to the stroke-play accumulation of stunning numbers - and income - lining up against a young European gun with a burning belief that he was as good as anyone, even the mythic Woods. It was one stunning result of Langer's supreme confidence that he had the knowledge, and the firepower, to mop up victory. The fact that Woods was victorious by three and one became a mere detail amid the debris of American defeat.
However, if Langer's generalship had been superb for two days, yesterday did bring a that haunting reminder of America's familiar strength. It comes on the last day of this tournament and is an announcement that in their American minds there is really only one way to play golf. It is on your own, exerting your rights of independent thought and action, and especially in the matter of fighting your way out of problems you have created for yourself.
Casey saw a classic example of this as he fought his nerves on the first few holes. He played with marvellous composure on Saturday but perhaps Langer's belief that he could fight toe to toe with the great man was something that required a little growing into, even after splitting the middle of the first fairway with a perfect drive as the Tiger once again hooked his tee shot.
For the next four holes, Woods was in similarly ragged form. Indeed, some here were inclined to remember the erratic play of another wayward genius, Seve Ballesteros in Rochester, New York, nine years ago. But the comparison, maybe not surprisingly, ended when you looked up at the scoreboard with all that seepage of red.
Woods was two up. There was other grim evidence of that America confidence that on the last day of the Ryder Cup all their players go automatically on to Alamo mode. Indeed, for a little while it was something of a reassurance for Langer not to even see the name of Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie up there in red.
Sutton, who had been so heavily ridiculed on both sides of the Atlantic all week, had received another burst of criticism when he posted his last line-up of the tournament. While Langer threw in rookies and lead players in a patchwork that he believe would inevitably suffocate the Americans, Sutton did nothing more intuitive than refer back to the Ryder Cup qualifying league table - then tag on his wild-card choices Jay Haas and Stewart Cink.
It may not have been the last word in golfing science but it did bring for the Europeans a chilling if brief sense of that great historic divide in the contest that seemed over all but for the graceful acceptance of the American surrender when they arrived at the course.
There it was, the confirmation that while Europeans know how to bond on a golf course, Americans know how to go for the jugular when they are required to depend on nobody else but themselves. After eight holes, Woods led Casey by two, despite an utterly brilliant recovery by the man from Gloucestershire when he found a bunker on the sixth after his opponent had, for once, fired imperiously on to the green.
Casey's sand shot was sublime, but Tiger, for the moment at least, was showing him how sometimes even a genius has to indulge in a little bit of street warfare.
That was the kind of combat which was also going to be the incorrigible Sutton's last chance and, for one last time, his blood pulsed a little fiercely when he surveyed the battleground after just less than two hours of combat. Woods led Casey, Phil Mickelson led Sergio Garcia, Davis Love led Darren Clarke, Jim Furyk led David Howell, and Ken Perry led Westwood.
It was a surge of red scores that brought back the devastating American comeback in Brookline in at least some of its horror. Though the fans cheered every failed putt and misdirected shot by the Europeans, there was not that hard and vicious edge from the galleries when the Americans overcame a 10-6 deficit on the last day in 1999.
For Langer, the first flicker of regained confidence came in the sixth game. It was supplied, almost inevitably by Montgomerie. He was a splash of blue, one up against former PGA champion David Toms
It was thus perfectly fitting that Monty, the man who first took the the battle to the Tiger last Thursday morning, should register the winning points when he finished one up on the 18th green. America once threatened to break Montgomerie's golfing heart. Now it recognises him as an authentic hero.
Langer is another matter. He goes down as the general who did not miss a single shot.
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