Looking good obviously means something to Fredrik Jacobson, whose
wardrobe leans to white shoes, white slacks and multipaneled
shirts of contrasting hues. Looking good in front of European
Ryder Cup captain Bernhard Langer means even more. So you could
say that the 29-year-old golfer from Molndal, Sweden, was
preening on both fronts last Thursday afternoon when he coaxed a
slow-rolling, downhill 20-footer into the hole for birdie on the
18th hole at Orlando's Bay Hill Club. Jacobson's snazzy duds gave
the dinner-hour grandstand fans something to talk about, and his
deft touch with the putter scored some points with Langer, who
was playing in the same threesome.
This is an article from the March 29, 2004 issue
Not that either Jacobson or Langer would concede that the day's
round was, in effect, an audition. Asked if he was nervous
playing with the man who will coach the European 12 when they try
to retain the Cup this September in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.,
Jacobson shook his head. "No, I don't focus on that," he said. "I
look at it more as an opportunity to learn from a player I've
admired all my life." Langer, pretending he hadn't been brushed
back by some high, hard flattery, said, "The younger guys
shouldn't be focusing on the Ryder Cup right now. If they
concentrate on playing well and accumulating points, they'll be
Jacobson is No. 3 on the European Ryder Cup points list and 17th
in the World Ranking, so Langer probably won't have to spend
either of his two captain's picks on the Swede, but there is some
concern across the Atlantic that come Aug. 23, when 10 players
qualify by way of two separate points lists, the European team
will be the weakest it has been in two decades. If you believe
the worrywarts, Langer's team might even include a couple of
driving-range pros and a tango instructor.
The cause for the Europeans' distress is the World Ranking, a
points-based standings endorsed by the world's top tours. For the
first time in the 18-year history of the ranking, not one
European is in the top 10. Furthermore, there were only nine
Euro-pros in the top 50 as of Monday, led by Padraig Harrington
(13th) and Darren Clarke (14th). "It is a dismal picture," writes
Alan Campbell of Scotland's Sunday Herald, "and one which does
not augur well for the Ryder Cup." Americans hold five of the top
10 spots, nine of the top 20 and 27 of the top 50.
Few who were at the Bay Hill Invitational last week could agree
on the meaning of these numbers. Phillip Price, the Welshman who
won one of the crucial singles matches in the Europeans' victory
at the Belfry two years ago, called the ranking "a fair
reflection of our abilities." Seve Ballesteros, who starred in
eight Ryder Cups and captained the Europeans to victory at
Valderrama in 1997, warned, "The American team always looks
better on paper." Tom Watson, captain of the U.S. side that lost
at the Belfry in '93, shrugged and said, "It's the pendulum--it
Can a pendulum forget what it's doing and simply plummet? No
European golfer has been ranked No. 1 since January 1994, when
Nick Faldo reigned. Faldo is now pushing 50 and retains hopes of
getting into a 12th Ryder Cup only because his current World
Ranking of 94 compares favorably with those of players half his
More troubling is the less-than-lofty World Ranking of the Euros
who figure to be Langer's core players. Lee Westwood was fourth
in the world in 2000 when he won six European tour titles, but he
went winless for the next two years and fell out of the top 200.
Jesper Parnevik, a top 10 golfer in 2000, won only a half point
in the last Ryder Cup and is currently ranked 108th. Sergio
Garcia, the audacious heir to Ballesteros, has tumbled from
fourth to 44th while on a swing-rehab kick.
Pour all those numbers into a spreadsheet program, hit ENTER, and
here's what you get: THE U.S. WILL WIN THE 2004 RYDER CUP WITHOUT
BREAKING A SWEAT.
What's that? The analysis is flawed? Well, you could say that. In
fact you could say the analysis is total garbage. The World
Ranking is fine for assessing a player's tournament form over a
two-year period, but it doesn't predict what will happen
when--figuratively speaking--a sword-waving Scot in blue face
paint squares off in match play against a squinty-eyed Texan in
camouflage fatigues. As swing coach David Leadbetter said last
week, "Eighteen-hole match play, hell, anybody can beat anybody."
That was certainly the case two years ago, when 119th-ranked
Price beat No. 2 Phil Mickelson 3 and 2 in the penultimate
singles match. "I wonder if it's easier being an underdog," Price
said at Bay Hill, where his name and face were recognized only by
other players and caddies. "You raise the level of your play
because you need to." Being a Ryder Cup overdog, on the other
hand, does nothing but pile on more pressure. All the players on
the '02 U.S. team were ranked in the top 25, and seven of the
Americans had won majors. The Euros, poor saps, had just six
players in the top 25 and only Langer had won a major. Final
score: Europe 15 1/2, U.S. 12 1/2.
What's more, Europe's core players are not as lame as their
post-Belfry numbers suggest. Westwood's game mysteriously
reappeared last summer; he won twice in Europe. Parnevik, fully
recovered from hip problems, is shooting low scores again on the
PGA Tour. Garcia, only 24, is expected to be even better than he
was before. Thomas Bjorn's rise has been interrupted by injuries,
but he's still 25th in the world, and if he hadn't precipitated a
sandstorm in a 16th-hole bunker at Royal St. George's he would be
the British Open champion.
Langer even has a couple of fellows who, on paper, look almost as
good as the Americans. Harrington, the latest European to exit
the top 10, didn't really play his way out. He simply took some
time off, which cost him points. Clarke, meanwhile, has lost
weight, gotten stronger and improved both his swing and his
thinking. Clarke tied for sixth at Bay Hill.
New guys? Europe has 'em. Jacobson won three times overseas last
year, and he tied for fifth at the U.S. Open and sixth at the
British. Englishmen Paul Casey, 26, a former Arizona State star,
and Ian Poulter, 28, a five-time Euro winner, could be Ryder Cup
teammates for years. And don't forget two-time European tour
winner Justin Rose, who at 23 already has a pair of top five
finishes in majors.
Type the latest data from overseas into your computer, hit ENTER,
and you get a very different result: EUROPE WINS THE 2004 RYDER
CUP ON THE HEROICS OF THE NETHERLANDS' MAARTEN LAFEBER.
Maarten Lafeber? You probably never heard of him, but if this
week's standings were used to pick the team, Lafeber would be on
Langer's squad. So would England's Brian Davis, France's Raphael
Jaquelin and Spain's Carlos Rodiles. "We have some great
prospects for the Ryder Cup," Langer says.
The irony is that some of the players Langer is looking at would
be underdogs if they had to play Langer, never mind the
Americans. The two-time Masters champion, currently ranked 76th,
scored 3 1/2 points at the Belfry in '02, including a 4-and-3
pasting of this year's U.S. captain, Hal Sutton. But when asked
if he could see himself as one of his own captain's picks, Langer
shook his head and said, "We need the young guys to come around.
The Seves and Faldos and Langers are fading out."
A few minutes later Jacobson stopped on his way to the range to
sign autographs. The whites of his outfit were still brilliant
after six hours in the hot sun. As Jacobson walked away, a fan
called out, "Are you going to play in the Ryder Cup?"
"I hope so," the golfer replied over his shoulder. "I'm trying."
On Sunday, Jacobson finished 15th at Bay Hill. That moved him to
17th in the World Ranking, third on the Ryder Cup points list,
28th on the PGA Tour money list and 24th on the European tour
Order of Merit.
Is that what they mean when they say the Europeans' days are