Sutton struggles to combat the sweet logic of Langer

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The Independent Online

Though it has always been true there is a fine line between genius and outright lunacy at the highest levels of shaping professional sport, Hal Sutton, America's Ryder Cup captain, almost did something astounding yesterday. He threatened to land on the right side of that vital division.

Though it has always been true there is a fine line between genius and outright lunacy at the highest levels of shaping professional sport, Hal Sutton, America's Ryder Cup captain, almost did something astounding yesterday. He threatened to land on the right side of that vital division.

However, as dusk came to another brilliant day of the American autumn, Sutton was back more or less where he has been most of the week - a man groping to match the brilliant sweep of his rival Bernhard Langer's grasp of how you make team players out of the ego-ridden plutocracy of big-time golf.

Langer was masterful after the crushing European assault which brought a record lead on the first day, speaking in the coollest, most pragmatic terms of the dwindling challenge that lay ahead.

Sutton was a tragi-comic figure beneath his big black stetson. He was a parody of the legendary gridiron coach Vince Lombardi, who declared that winning was the only thing and of whom one of his players once said: "The best thing I can say is that he never played favourites - he treated us all like dogs."

Such an assessment came swirling back down the years when Sutton coolly told the world that not only had he dropped Phil Mickelson from yesterday's fourballs, but also that he had left the reigning US Masters champion and No 4 ranked player to hear the news "on TV or something."

Almost every Sutton pronouncement brought a round of half-stifled titters and they were suspended only briefly when the man from Louisiana was smiling most broadly in the early going yesterday. That was when Tiger Woods was, with rookie Chris Riley, leading an electric American fight-back.

Langer countered superbly with an afternoon strategy which closed down the American rally and saw Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood lead off with a crushing of the imploding Chris DiMarco and veteran Jay Haas, and paired Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley in a rousing battle to check the Tiger's regained momentum in partnership with Davis Love.

Yet though Europe carry a vast, and carefully plotted advantage going into today's singles, it did seem for a little while that Sutton had confounded the worst fears of his army of critics. He had at least picked up his bed and walked a few steps. On Friday night that alone would have been considered a miracle of Biblical proportions.

Langer was asked to define his concept of the captaincy from the mountain-top of that first-day lead. He said: "I'm trying to lead by serving my guys, by encouraging them, by communicating with them, and letting them know that every one of them is as important to me as anybody else. There are no stars or no rookies as such in my team. They are 12 fantastic players and I'm here to serve them and lead them and guide them in any way possible."

All this sweet logic was inevitably favourably compared with the wild, down-home theorising of Sutton and was only briefly threatened when Woods emerged yesterday morning unrecognisable from the sullen, withdrawn figure who on Friday treated the desperate Mickelson as thought he was some bothersome pan-handler rather than a struggling team-mate widely criticised for his decision to change drivers just weeks before the tournament.

Both Sutton and Mickelson had also received critical lashes when the American captain agreed to the player's request to sit out Wednesday's practice because he simply never did it on the day before a major tournament.

On Friday night, however, Sutton was defiant, claiming: "I expect Tiger Woods to be unbelievable tomorrow. I think he was very frustrated today. I think he thought he was right on the verge of getting something going, but he just couldn't get anything going with Phil. You know when you put two superstars together there's either good karma or bad karma... there's really not anything in between."

Sutton went into Friday night's team meeting with the light of battle still in his eyes. "I don't think they want to be consoled. I have felt all the emotions of winning and losing in my life, of anger and cajoling sympathy, but when I get really mad at myself I don't want anybody patting me on the back or loving on me. I can assure you I'm not going to be loving on my players.

"I wish y'all would have gone through what I've gone through the last hour trying to mix and match [for yesterday's pairings] because I didn't just see a hell of a lot out there that gave me some conclusive points on what I should do. So I was about at as big a loss as anybody in this room could have been at. Now would you have ever bet - I mean how big a bet would you have made that Tiger and Phil wouldn't have lost their match after they'd gone three-up? You'd have made a big bet on that, wouldn't you? I would have bet the ranch. We'd all be broke."

An unlikely fate for Sutton, the scion of a Louisiana oil family and the winner of $15m on the golf course since he was hailed the "new Jack Nicklaus" somewhat prematurely in the Eighties, but then as a captain he certainly seemed close to bankruptcy when he handed in his four-ball pairings. The name of David Toms was crossed out in favour of Jim Furyk, Sutton explaining, a little sheepishly: "I went back and forth, and when I pulled up David and Jim's numbers [in the fourballs] it was Jim's that were counting. I mean it went down to that. It was a guess on my part."

Langer, it was increasingly clear last night, doesn't guess. He draws together all his knowledge of how it is when superbly gifted individuals are required to think about somebody other than themselves. All over this beautiful course yesterday there were examples of what can happen when that line is crossed. Almost exclusively, they came from the men in the blue of Europe. They were Langer's boys - and their own men. You can almost see an arrow in the brim of Hal Sutton's black stetson.