Ryder Cup: Disunited state of team ethic

Crenshaw's Ryder conundrum: Old heads are not necessarily wise ones
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE 33RD Ryder Cup was barely an hour old when it began to dawn on the majority of the partisan crowd at the Brookline Country Club here that when it comes down to Europe against America at golf, the number that really matters measures blood pressure, not bank balance or world rankings. So much of the hype had focused on the statistical imbalance of the two teams, Mark James, the captain of Europe, must have wondered whether the Americans intended to play the match on paper. Tissue might have been suitable.

If the American public did not at first believe the strange forces at work in the Ryder Cup, they did by the time the shadows had lengthened and officially the two best players in the world, Tiger Woods and David Duval, had succumbed to the homespun talents of Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke. The elaborate celebrations of the European team showed how much that meant to them.

Three shifts in the balance of power, one to the red of America on the many scoreboards dotted around this prodigious course, two others to the European blue, which occurred before most of corporate America - at least the minority part of it not enjoying the golf here in Boston - had downed their first cup of coffee, fully justified James's description of the match play format. "It's a very volatile type of golf," he said.

The trick, as James's American counterpart, Ben Crenshaw, acknowledged, is to recognise and counter each fractional shift of power. "When you get up and down for that critical half it lifts you," he said. "You become a bit more bullet proof, ready to take on the next little crisis. The Europeans do a good job of that and we need to do more." Two saving eight- footers on the very first two holes of the first day, both effortlessly sunk by Colin Montgomerie, who had not been able to hole a putt for a fortnight, provided graphic illustration of Crenshaw's analysis. The Europeans were ready to lift themselves.

All week, Crenshaw has emphasised to his team of all stars the need to hole out swiftly. Forget the numbers on the board, forget whether it's a par, a birdie or bogey, just make the chip and the putt and move on. It has taken a few precious points lost for the Americans to understand, not for the first time in this historic competition, that individual scores mean nothing.

"They just don't get this idea of team," as one American journalist said. "Our players drive to the course and back in separate cars, they don't socialise with each other when they're on the Tour and they believe that if you're good enough to make the team, you're good enough to work it out for yourself."

Woods spent the opening morning playing singles with Sergio Garcia, while the Spaniard and his unlikely Swedish partner, Jesper Parnevik, spirited away full points from the day. Woods had the wrong enemy. It was Parnevik not Garcia doing the damage. Paired with Duval for the afternoon, the spark was still missing from the Tiger's eye.

By changing three of his four pairs for the second set of foursomes yesterday morning, Crenshaw tacitly admitted to a rather bigger crisis in his own camp. In introducing his team at the opening ceremony, the US captain had made a particular point of listing the number of Ryder Cups played along with the name and the birthplace of each of his players. The message to the grey-suited Europeans was clear: the wise old heads are on our side. By the end of the first day, the only one of the five rookies on view who did not contribute at least half a point to his side was Duval. "We don't have seven rookies anymore," James said. But the Americans still had one.

James, whose catchphrase was "In my experience, experience is overrated" even had faith enough to give Paul Lawrie the unenviable task of hitting the first ball in the tournament and to pair two rookies, Padraig Harrington and the impressive Miguel Angel Jimenez on the first two mornings. Seve Ballesteros might be back at home shouting instructions at the television - you half expected him to come flying up the fairway to offer a bit of technical advice - but his spirit lives on in the way Garcia, Jose-Maria Olazabal and Jimenez have lifted the European team. "There are no egos to be bruised in there," James said, referring to his team-room. "There are no secrets about your game in this team."

The struggles of Olazabal have epitomised the instinctive teamwork of the Europeans. One of the two major winners on the team and a name James must have pencilled into his potential line-up for all five sessions, the Spaniard has been so wayward off the tee he could not possibly be risked on a tight course which rewards accuracy.

But Harrington, who only qualified for the team on the last hole of the very last available tournament, stepped forward to partner Jimenez to a priceless half with Davis Love and Payne Stewart, a banker pairing for Crenshaw with seven Ryder Cups between them. Had the Irishman not missed a six-footer on the last, the story would have had an even happier ending. "Pressure with a capital P", as Harrington said later.

Then, in the afternoon, in the looser format of the fourballs, Jimenez shepherded his countryman through a nervous opening few holes until Olazabal began to find his touch on the greens and absorb a few rays of Jimenez's unruffled confidence.

"The hardest thing in Ryder Cup golf is to trust your own game," Crenshaw says. "It's what makes Ryder Cups so special. You've got to let yourself go, got to let that club go." And, he added, holding his thumb and first finger a fraction apart, his team was that far from finding the right balance. "The difference is infinitesimally small."

The Ryder Cup is rarely hostage to the sort of fortune enjoyed by Europe in the early skirmishes. By common consent, a minimum lead of three points will be needed as a safeguard for today where the Americans, back looking after themselves, traditionally hold sway. By tonight, there really will be no rookies left.