It's hard to put a finger on why the U.S. has lost the last
two--and five of the last seven--Ryder Cups, although with the
exception of 1987, when the European big six of Seve
Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Jose Maria
Olazabal and Ian Woosnam were at the top of their games, none of
the defeats had anything to do with which team had the best
players. No, the more talented Americans always seemed to fall
down on the slippery stuff, like desire, team chemistry and
choice of clothing. Of this the losing U.S. captains, the men
held accountable for the intangibles, are painfully aware.
Sometimes the criticism of the captains has been not only unfair
but also silly. Consider one of the intangibles discovered
during the postmortem of the Americans' loss in Spain two years
ago. Ballesteros, the European captain, was praised for flitting
from match to match, dispensing brilliant bits of coaching from
the seat of a souped-up cart. Meanwhile, Tom Kite, the more
statesmanlike U.S. captain, was hammered for acting as Michael
Jordan's chauffeur, and in a pokier buggy.
Ben Crenshaw, this year's American captain, is too smart to
worry about cart speed. So with little fanfare, he has put his
mind to something quite tangible that could determine the
outcome of next week's Ryder Cup: He has altered the Country
Club course in a way that should ensure that the most talented
Crenshaw's Country Club isn't the same as the one that hosted
the U.S. Open in 1963 and '88. Back then the Country Club was a
plodder's course, with tight fairways and five-inch rough, and
produced Steady Eddy champions Julius Boros and Curtis Strange,
respectively. Crenshaw has had the fairways widened and the
rough cut to a wispy three inches. He wants his players to
attack the course with their drivers and play short irons into
the Country Club's tiny greens. He wants to see a lot of birdies.
David Duval and Tiger Woods, who rank among the top 10 on the
Tour in driving distance, will be on full go. Because in match
play they won't have to worry about making a big number on a
given hole, Woods and Duval can attack the Country Club's short
par-4s and two par-5s. Brookline's Brahmins haven't reacted well
to all this tinkering--they make it sound as if Francis Ouimet's
amateur status has been revoked--but while no one loves the
old-world cragginess of the Country Club more than Crenshaw, he
knows that the Ryder Cup is too important to put romance ahead
The recent lessons are clear. For the 1995 Ryder Cup at Oak Hill
the course was prepared exactly as it had been for previous U.S.
Opens held there, on the premise that Europeans struggle in that
championship. The strategy backfired, and the U.S. lost, when
matches became a defensive, soggy slog through already
prohibitive rough. Birdies were few and far between, which
allowed the scramblers to hang in with, and gain a psychological
advantage on, the better ballstrikers. The heavily favored
Americans felt the heat, and during a disastrous final day won
only four of 12 singles matches, losing four of them one up.
There was little rough at Valderrama in 1997, but the course had
odd angles and funny doglegs that inhibited bold play. The
underdog Europeans, loose and inspired, made the key
up-and-downs and big putts to again win the close matches.
Meanwhile, the U.S. triumvirate of power hitters--Woods, Davis
Love III and Phil Mickelson--went a combined 2-8-3.
This time Crenshaw is determined to play to the strength of his
team. The Country Club may be one of the USGA's five founding
clubs, but for one week he wants it to play more like Augusta
National, which has always been friendly to an imaginative power
player, than like a U.S. Open venue. He wants Duval, Love,
Mickelson and Woods to freewheel and blow the doors off the
plodders. The Europeans also have big hitters in Darren Clarke,
Sergio Garcia, Jesper Parnevik and Lee Westwood, but Crenshaw is
betting that his foursome is a notch better.
In the days leading up to the matches, Crenshaw will continue to
publicly fret about the fine, fine European team, but privately
he knows that he has already unleashed a monster. Some
unforeseen intangible might make the U.S. captain a chump, but
if having the best players and a solid game plan means anything
in this crazy game, Crenshaw will be a champ.