Is Talent Enough? The U.S. Ryder Cup team is loaded, but a squabble over player compensation has raised new concerns about its will to win

August 22, 1999

Ben Crenshaw, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain, darted about the
locker room of the Medinah Country Club on Sunday, dividing his
attention among the telecast of the PGA Championship, the
incessant trill of his cell phone and the succession of
well-wishers trying to comfort this most amiable of men after
what had been a wringer of a week.

"Want me to hang around for anything, Captain?" joked Jay Haas,
whose tie for third at Medinah made his parody of a player
angling to be one of the two captain's selections for the
12-member Ryder team seem almost like no parody. "That's all
right, Jay," said Crenshaw. "I've decided I'm going to pick
Horace Rawlins and Freddie McLeod."

Crenshaw's wry mention of two long-deceased former U.S. Open
champions as the final additions to his squad could have been
his way of underscoring just how unsettled this year's American
Ryder Cup team currently appears. One of Crenshaw's top guns,
Tiger Woods, loves match play but hates the evening functions
that the PGA of America expects team members to attend as part
of the Ryder festivities. Another key player, David Duval, not
only is dismissive of "the big corporate outing" that he
believes the Ryder has become but also seems uncomfortable with
match play. In stark contrast is another Ryder stalwart, Payne
Stewart, whose flag-waving over the Cup has been nearly as
flamboyant as his outfits. Stewart seems out of sync with Woods
and Duval, but then the whole team has been torn by the ongoing
controversy over whether players should for the first time
receive a share of Ryder Cup revenues.

All of which increases uncertainty about whether this
star-studded contingent can avoid losing the Cup for an
astonishing third straight time. As Crenshaw prepares his
charges for the showdown with their European rivals Sept. 24-26
at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass., the questions hanging
over the team can be stated any number of ways. Is the
collective strength of the U.S.'s individual stars doomed to be
less than the sum of its parts? How truly devoted to winning are
the players? Can team members recover from the scathing media
denunciations over their alleged greed or from the public rebuke
that Crenshaw delivered to those players--Phil Mickelson and
Mark O'Meara as well as Duval and Woods--who argue that U.S.
Ryder Cup participants should be paid? Can this team summon the
focus needed to make it the model of solidarity that earlier
U.S. teams have been?

On paper this is one of the most talented Ryder Cup sides ever.
Woods and Duval are Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in the world by
a mile, while Davis Love III, Stewart and O'Meara are also in
the Top 10. The lowest ranked of the team's automatic top 10
qualifiers is Jeff Maggert at No. 20. Captain's choices Tom
Lehman and Steve Pate are 23rd and 32nd, respectively. Five team
members--Woods, O'Meara, Mickelson, Justin Leonard and Hal
Sutton--have won the U.S. Amateur at match play. For good
measure, in February, Maggert won the Andersen Consulting Match
Play Championship.

One more week of qualifying remains for the European side, but
of the nine players who appear to have secured positions, only
two are in the Top 10, Colin Montgomerie and Lee Westwood at
Nos. 4 and 5, respectively, with the remaining seven ranging
from 17th (Darren Clarke) all the way down to 86th (Jean Van de
Velde). But much the same Goliath versus David scenario existed
when the heavily favored Americans got dusted at Oak Hill in
1995 and Valderrama in '97, and this year's European entry has
received a big boost from the meteoric rise to
stardom--dramatized by his stunning runner-up performance at
Medinah--of Spain's teen sensation, Sergio Garcia.

The challenge before the U.S. players is to refute the notion
that they have become soft and satisfied. Raw numbers contribute
to that perception. In the cauldron of the Ryder Cup, the
collective record of the current U.S. team is a sorry 33-39-13.
Home court advantage or not, the battle of Brookline shapes up as
no mismatch. Not with so many intangibles seemingly in Europe's
favor.

"I think we have the best players in the world right here in the
United States, but we haven't been able to prove that as a
team," says Sutton, who played on the losing U.S. sides in both
'85 and '87. "I've seen the Europeans rise to whatever situation
they had to rise to. And that kind of effort from a player only
comes from deep within."

The allusion is to passion and fortitude, and doubts about
whether the U.S. team possesses enough of either are well
founded. Last December a U.S. team with the same core of stars
that will lead the effort at Brookline traveled to Melbourne
only to be shellacked 20 1/2 to 11 1/2 in the Presidents Cup,
the copycat event in which the U.S. competes in Ryder Cup off
years against foreigners from everywhere but Europe. More and
more the term Cup burnout has been invoked to explain the strain
Americans feel at having to do battle with fresh international
teams every year at either the Presidents Cup or the Ryder Cup.
The leading American players still feel honored at being chosen
for the Ryder Cup, but, increasingly, they also feel burdened by
the extra travel, mandatory functions and lack of downtime now
associated with international team events.

Disaffection over these matters partly accounts for the lobbying
by Duval, Woods and others for the PGA of America to allocate
revenue from their millions in Ryder Cup profits to the players
for donation to the charities of their choice. Although Duval
and Woods insisted they were using their clout to "do the right
thing," as Woods put it, their stance challenged Ryder tradition
that players not be compensated. It also exposed them to a
stream of criticism peppered with pithy assessments like the one
by 1995 U.S. captain Lanny Wadkins, who said, "Looks like
Generation X is turning into Generation Selfish."

Even the usually diplomatic Crenshaw was unable to restrain
himself. In a team meeting on Aug. 10, Crenshaw and his players
agreed to keep all discussion on the subject in-house, but in a
news conference the next day the captain singled out several team
members--unnamed but later understood to be Duval, Woods,
Mickelson and O'Meara--for criticism, saying, "It burns the hell
out of me to listen to some of their viewpoints."

Sorry almost immediately, Crenshaw tried to mend fences.
Mickelson, a close friend of Crenshaw's, was miffed but bore no
grudge. Neither did Woods, who spoke to Crenshaw for nearly an
hour, then said, "I don't think he meant it maliciously. He's a
concerned captain. I would be, too. I understand that what we
are doing is causing a problem."

But O'Meara and Duval left Medinah with a bad aftertaste. "I
would be lying to say I like my name dragged through the press,"
said O'Meara. "I think Ben will do a good job, but what happened
[at the press conference] was unfortunate. As a veteran player,
I don't think I deserved that, and I was angry, but it will heal
in time. I still haven't heard from Ben, though. He thinks
everything is O.K., but I hope he talks to me again a little bit."

The insular Duval was the most wounded. Minutes after hearing
Crenshaw's critical comments on television, he called the
captain to protest. "When we left the meeting, I thought there
were 13 people in agreement about what was said and what we're
yearning to do," said Duval, referring to the pledge of public
silence. "Apparently there were only 12." Being the center of
the storm may have unnerved Duval, who finished the PGA tied for
10th, eight shots behind Woods, but it also contributed to his
resolve to acquit himself in the Ryder Cup. Sitting at his
locker at Medinah, he said, "My character will show through in
the end."

That's what Crenshaw wants to hear from all his players.
Fostering a positive attitude was his objective, certainly, in
choosing Ryder Cup veterans Lehman and Pate to round out the
U.S. team. In the 40-year-old Lehman, Crenshaw gains one of the
most admired and respected Tour players, a quiet but intense
leader who has been on the last two losing teams but is fired by
a passion that could help ignite Woods and Duval. Pate, 38, a
six-time winner on the PGA Tour, is known for his fiery
toughness--his temper has earned him the nickname Volcano--but
also for a sardonic, self-deprecating wit that wears well.
"Steve lends a little lightness," said Crenshaw. In addition,
Pate offers the type of high-quality short game and putting
stroke that Crenshaw believes are his team's best weapons
against the gritty Euros. It doesn't hurt that the last time
Pate played the Country Club, at the 1988 U.S. Open, he tied for
third. Before Crenshaw announced his decision, Pate, asked to
make a case for himself, was terse. "Love match play, hate to
lose," he said.

In picking Pate, whose tie for eighth in the PGA elevated him to
14th in the U.S. Ryder Cup standings, Crenshaw bypassed the
higher-ranked Bob Estes, whose tie for sixth at Medinah moved
him within a stroke of making the team on points, and Steve
Stricker. Crenshaw also passed on Fred Couples, a five-time
Ryder Cupper and all-world talent who had expressed an interest
in playing. Before Crenshaw made his selection, Mickelson,
anticipating that Couples would be chosen, had said, "Fred is
such a well-liked guy that he will bring the guys together in
that little way he has. We can use that."

But O'Meara, for one, thinks the U.S. will have what's needed
even without Couples. "The American players will be unified,"
O'Meara says flatly. "We will be ready to play. Nobody is going
to boycott, nobody will be asking to get paid. Let's go play the
Ryder Cup, and everything will be fine. If we don't win, we'll
get hammered, but we're used to that."

Perhaps, but another loss to the Europeans would make the
pounding the American players received in the Ryder two years
ago--or last week in the press, for that matter--seem like a
love tap. Nevertheless, Crenshaw left Medinah feeling upbeat.
"It's all team now," he said. "All the way to Boston. You know,
there's no I in Ryder."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER Under fire Duval, stung by the criticism leveled at him, tied for 10th at Medinah but vowed to acquit himself at Brookline. COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Two for the show To fill out his team's roster for Brookline, Crenshaw added Lehman (below) and Pate (opposite), passing over Couples, a veteran of five Ryder Cups. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK [See caption above]

"I would be lying to say I like my name dragged through the
press," said O'Meara. "I don't think I deserved that."

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