What next for America's star-mangled banner?

After a third successive humbling by Europe, the US must find solutions, not scapegoats, before Kentucky in 2008 But how? James Corrigan investigates
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The Independent Online

Sandy Lyle's tongue happened to be nowhere near his cheek when he suggested yesterday that Europe should be handicapped in future Ryder Cups and that maybe America could be allowed to pick Canadians as well to ensure the matches are more even. Ian Woosnam's assistant captain was deadly serious. And that just about sums it all up.

Even the ridiculous suddenly sounds feasible in this most surreal of aftermaths. When a solid man of such unwavering conviction as Tom Lehman starts querying everything around him, you know that America's fabled faith in their own superiority is being stretched to breaking point. They are scarred after being striped and that starry banner is more mangled than spangled. A third Ryder Cup humbling in succession has seen to it.

Is there something they can do better to avoid another drubbing in Kentucky in two years' time? That is the central question in an inquest overloaded with them. Here we attempt to answer the most impertinent.

Isn't the captain to blame, just like that bloke in a cowboy hat was two years ago when they also lost 18 1/2 - 9 1/2?

Here is the most frightening part for America: Lehman isn't. He is no Hal Sutton. In fact, looking back now to Oakland Hills with this benefit of K Club hindsight, Hal Sutton is no Hal Sutton. He can now be viewed as the invention of a disbelieving audience desperate for a scapegoat. Yes, Lehman's tactics were certainly more astute than his predecessor's gameplan of gung-ho numbskullery, but the endgame was just the same. There were a few mistakes made - as there were by Woosnam - primarily his baffling decision to play his wild card, Scott Verplank, only twice (he won both times), his hesitancy in allowing the rookie JJ Henry to carry on riding the crest of his wave and his refusal to break up the Phil Mickelson-Chris DiMarco partnership that was so obviously not working. But even with perfect captaincy, America's total would have been increased by perhaps as much as two points. And then their inferiority would have been masked. No, America must disabuse themselves of the notion of their leader's omnipotence.

Perhaps the sight of Terrific Tom emulating Hapless Hal will help them. But didn't he make it his mission to instil a team ethic into this ragbag of individuals and didn't he fail?

No, not really. Surely one of the many theories to explain American incompetence can now be scotched: it has nothing to do with them not getting on together. They proved that they were a pretty tight unit by making an unprecedented trip to the Club a month before the match and in those few days, as indeed, in the entirety of the last week there was no reason whatsoever to speculate about any internal tension in the camp. Yesterday David Toms admitted that at vital moments partners did not lift each other adequately, but that hardly suggests a complete absence of team spirit. Lehman did everything he could to make the team room a happy place and did so successfully.

So why did they look so miserable on the course then?

Ah, now you are getting warm, as this is what Lehman saw as the crux of their problem and still does. In the run-up, the captain was telling anyone who cared to listen that his aim was to get America to enjoy themselves at the Ryder Cup, not as in hanging out together, playing ping-pong or whatever it is they do, but in the heat of competition. "When they get inside the ropes our team have looked scared to death," he opined. "We've got to have fun out there playing and I've got to make sure we do." That grimaced image of Tiger Woods on the first tee of the opening round must have instantly confirmed Lehman's worst fears that he had not managed to. "Playing tight", they call it in golf; when the anxious muscles constrict and the flexibility so vital in the golf swing is compromised. You could see this ghastly phenomenon manifesting itself through Tiger's taut expression, the steely look of determination being replaced by the wild-eyed stare of insecurity.

But why?

This does not effect Tiger and the rest in other events and that includes other team events. At last year's Presidents Cup their body language was totally different, far more relaxed, despite them being under intense pressure to exorcise the ghosts of Oakland Hills. "I felt like we approached the Ryder Cup tight; that we didn't play loose; that our team had a different look on their faces when the gun went off in the first round for the Presidents Cup than it did in the Ryder Cup," admitted Jim Furyk. "You know, I think a lot of us made an effort to make sure that didn't happen this week." Alas, it did. They all looked like they wanted it too much.

So you are also discounting the theory that Europe cares more about the Cup than their opponents?

Pub talk. See Tiger's pain when the putts weren't dropping or DiMarco's quite frankly daft denial that his "dead rubber" against Lee Westwood was over when he stuck two balls in the drink on the last. Of course, it is the simpering grin of Mickelson that the critics always hold up as an example of the indifference but, in truth, the golden boy does not look any different at Augusta or at any of the majors. If the "couldn't care less" theorists are determined to keep pressing their case then they would be far better off analysing the way he approaches a major in comparison to a Ryder Cup. At the former he will undertake gruelling eight-hour practice rounds and come up with a shot for almost every scenario. At the latter he whipped around the Palmer Course in three to four hours and the nature of his normal preparation was in no way replicated. But what other choice did he have? If he had done his own thing, his usual thing, then he would have had to have these practice rounds on his own and then he would have been accused of not being a team player and a self-obsessed individualist.

But they aren't team players, are they?

Probably not, but in America this is a curse that runs through the whole of sport. On Sunday night the American Davis Cup team were crashing out to Russia, compounding a year of underachievement that includes flops at the world basketball championships and the world baseball championships, the two sports they pride themselves on being the best in. Those and golf, of course. So what stops their whole consistently not coming close to the sum of their parts? Is it the culture of the individual that pervades their society, the emphasis on what "you" can do rather than what "we" can do?

A certain Michael Jordan thinks so. The basketball legend walked every yard of the K Club last week as he followed his friend Tiger and was forthcoming in his views afterwards. "Maybe we don't play team sports well, because even in those all you hear about growing up is how you can't ever count on anybody but yourself," he said. "Over here, they play one basketball game a week and practice for five. We play three nights out of seven, or more. And what do you see every time you turn on the TV? Highlights. Somebody doing something spectacular, and usually it looks like he's doing it by himself.

"After watching that, what kid is going to work on fundamentals - passing, setting up team-mates, stuff like that?"

Much has been made, and will continue to be made, of the discomfort of Tiger, the great individual, having to play with, and yes worry about, somebody else and this surely has some basis throughout the team. None of them will ever admit it, though. So what do they put it down to? Putting mainly, although they were keen to drag up any mitigating factors that did not put under the spotlight their own desire, commitment or anything their captain did or did not do. "It's about putts, purely and simply putts," said DiMarco, although Darren Clarke found that bemusing. "Didn't we hole more putts because we put the ball closer to the hole?" he asked.

DiMarco and Mickelson, though, would not have it and as the week's biggest let-downs (one point between them) their excuses were interesting. DiMarco was correct in saying momentum is crucial in the Ryder Cup and that America had none, but just like when he, and his team-mates, talked about missed putts, it was as if they were not to answer for this failing, as if it is something that just happens unaccountably. There must be a reason for it.

So what is it then?

Almost certainly a collection of factors including their inability to gel in partnerships and a Tour which breeds millionaires before it breeds winners.

But saying that, Lehman stressed that things happen in cycles. "There will be a time when we'll be sitting here saying to the Europeans, you know, this Ryder Cup is in trouble, because the American team is on top," he said. "That will happen." Although probably not any time soon.

Not in 2008 then?

No, because this European team is really that good that America would need at least three or four world-class players to emerge to boast a comparative strength in depth. Clarke confessed that he doubted it would ever occur again that every player arrived on match week with their A-game in tow, but with the other veterans, Colin Montgomerie and Jose Maria Olazabal, he warned that the likes of Casey, Donald, Garcia, Howell, and Stenson are only going to get better. What America and Paul Azinger, their prospective new captain, must first aim for is a contest. Another walkover and it must be feared how long the American public, television networks and sponsors will carry on shelling out the dollars for an event that they lose so embarrassingly on a biennial basis. Understandably, there is a tremendous backlash awaiting as the nation turns on a bunch of millionaires they accuse of having no heart, pride or hunger for the greater cause. As one American newspaper put it "these chickens will get fried in Kentucky as well". More finger flicking than finger licking.

'Wake up; lose. Have lunch; lose. Then sleep and repeat': The US reaction back home

Underdog... we lose. Favorite... we lose. On home soil... we lose. On foreign turf... we lose. With hard-ass Hal Sutton as captain... we lose. With caring, ultra-organized Tom Lehman... we lose. With Michael Jordan, Bill Clinton and George Bush in attendance... we lose. With Woods playing five matches... we lose.

Gene Wojciechowski, ESPN

Perhaps the Americans should get out of the house more often. More Americans should take a page out of the Tiger Woods book and play in a country other than America (or the Canadian Open). There were people on the American team for whom European competition was a first.

Bob Ryan, Boston Globe

Americans should have been issued a blindfold at the gate and a last cigarette... The United States was absolutely squashed, becoming the first Ryder Cup team ever to lose all five sessions. Wake up; lose. Have lunch; lose. Then sleep and repeat.

Thomas Boswell, Washington Post

The best of American golf found itself snared in an Irish celebration, among frothy pints, fistfuls of cigars and a soundtrack of laughter and tears... After two years preparing for a tussle on Irish farmland, the United States Ryder Cup team burned jet fuel and rhetoric and ended up in the same place.

Damon Hack, New York Times

A modest proposal: How to make the USA (and the Ryder Cup) more competitive

While Sandy Lyle's formula for a more competitive Ryder Cup did come from the fairway adjacent to left-field, his suggestion for America to include Canadians raised an intriguing possibility. How good would they be if they were to expand? In fact, how about if they were allowed to include all non-Europeans? With Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Adam Scott in their ranks the likes of Brett Wetterich would not get a look-in. The last time one side won five out of six Ryder Cups was America in the '70s and in 1979 Great Britain and Ireland became Europe. So, based on the world rankings released yesterday, what would a Rest of the World side look like? Well, one with only five Americans for a start.

World ranking

Tiger Woods (US) 1

Phil Mickelson (US) 2

Jim Furyk (US) 3

Vijay Singh (Fiji) 4

Adam Scott (Aus) 5

Retief Goosen (SA) 6

Ernie Els (SA) 7

Geoff Ogilvy (Aus) 10

Trevor Immelman (SA) 12

David Toms (US) 15

Chris DiMarco (US) 16

Tim Clark (SA) 20

Ryder rankings: The heroes and zeroes

1= D Clarke (Pts 3) 100%

1= L Donald (Pts 3) 100%

1= J M Olazabal (Pts 3) 100%

4 S Verplank (Pts 2) 100%

5 D Howell (Pts 2 1/ 2) 83%

6= S Garcia (Pts 4) 80%

6= L Westwood (Pts 4) 80%

8 P Casey (Pts 3) 75%

9 T Woods (Pts 3) 60%

10 S Cink (Pts 2 1/ 2) 50%

11 C Montgomerie (Pts 2) 50%

12=H Stenson (Pts1 1/ 2) 50%

12=JJ Henry (Pts 1 1/ 2) 50%

14 J Furyk (Pts 2) 40%

15 Z Johnson (Pts 1.5) 38%

16= C Campbell (Pts 1)33%

16= R Karlsson (Pts 1) 33%

16= P McGinley (Pts 1) 33%

19 V Taylor (Pts 1/ 2) 25%

20= C DiMarco (Pts 1/ 2) 12 1/ 2%

20=D Toms (Pts 1/ 2) 12 1/ 2%

22= P Harrington (Pts 1/ 2) 10%

22= P Mickelson (Pts 1/ 2) 10%

24 B Wetterich (Pts 0) 0%

Rankings determined first by winning percentage, then by points gained