Same Old Scene

In what has become a familiar sight, a deep, talented European team dominated the U.S. at the Ryder Cup
October 01, 2006

So it has come tothis: The United States is now so incapable of winning the Ryder Cup that allit takes to impress the team's captain is for his boys to try really, reallyhard. Last Saturday evening at the K Club, in Straffan, Ireland, Tom Lehmanwaxed poetic about a squad that had lost all four of the sessions over theopening two days and was trailing in points 10--6, having won only threematches outright. "I thought our team played with a lot of hearttoday," Lehman said. "Very, very, very proud of the way theyperformed.

Obviously theydidn't get the result they were hoping...."

The U.S. has tofind solace in moral victories because actual wins are so elusive. Aftergetting blown out in Sunday singles, the Americans have now lost threeconsecutive Ryder Cups, five of the last six and eight of the last 11. (One ofthe losses was a tie in 1989 that allowed Europe to keep the trophy.) After theU.S.'s record 18 1/2--9 1/2 loss two years ago it was assumed things couldn'tget any worse, but they did. The score this time around was also 18 1/2--9 1/2but only because Paul McGinley magnanimously gifted half a point to theAmericans by conceding a 30-footer on the final green to his opponent, J.J.Henry, a decision hastened by a pasty male streaker who interrupted play beforeHenry could putt.

"We're goingto have to start giving the Americans handicap strokes," former EuropeanRyder Cupper Sandy Lyle said when it was all over. "This is gettingboring."

Why can't Johnnywin? Maybe because the players on the PGA Tour get so rich with a few top 10sthat they never learn how to close the deal. Maybe it's because Europeans growup competing in more match play, or that the far-flung logistics of theirinsular tour breeds more camaraderie. Maybe Americans' obsession with makingtechnically perfect swings has de-emphasized the art of scoring. Or maybeEurope simply has better players: Coming into the Ryder Cup, eight members ofits team were in the top 20 in the World Ranking, compared with just four forthe Yanks.

These arguments,and others, have been kicked around for the better part of the last decade, butone point is indisputable--an event in which only pride is at stake brings outthe best in their stars and the worst in ours. The Ryder Cup seems to haverestorative powers for the Europeans. Mediocre putters such as ColinMontgomerie and Sergio García turn into the second coming of Ben Crenshaw.Players who have spent an entire career trying to find the fairway, such asJosé María Olaàbal, are reinvented as bilingual Iron Byrons. This Europeanteam was deeper and more experienced than the U.S. and for maybe the first timeever universally viewed as the favorite, but the Americans hoped they couldpull off the upset behind the big three of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and JimFuryk, who were residing in that order atop the World Ranking. At this RyderCup they were mediocre, abysmal and disappointing, in that order.

The U.S. trailedafter the first day of the previous three Ryder Cups, and the swoons owedeverything to Woods's baffling play. (In six Friday sessions over that span, hewas 0--6.) For this year's opening four-ball Woods was sent out with Furyk, apairing that was supposed to make a statement. Woods surely did. He jacked hisdrive at the 1st hole so far left it found a pond that heretofore was notconsidered in play. "Tiger's opening tee shot made us all feel atease," said Montgomerie, who was paired with Padraig Harrington in theleadoff match.

Meanwhile, Europefound plenty of inspiration when Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland arrived atthe tee for the morning's fourth and final match. His wife, Heather, lost afour-year battle with cancer in August, but Clarke, a captain's pick, decidedto come to this Ryder Cup for the brotherhood of his teammates and the warmembrace of the fans, who were celebrating Ireland's first opportunity to hostthe Cup. The ovation for Clarke was so thunderous that "it made the hairstand up on the back of my neck, and I was two holes away," said teammatePaul Casey. "I knew it was for Darren. Everyone did, and it lifted all ofus."

So, too, did theway Clarke played the 1st hole. He smashed a perfect drive, covered the flagwith his approach and then buried the birdie putt to take the hole fromMickelson and Chris DiMarco, who would combine for a mere three birdies inlosing 1 up.

Down 2 1/2--1 1/2,the Americans were looking for inspiration wherever they could find it in theafternoon alternate-shot competition. Paired again with DiMarco, Mickelson wasin a dogfight with Westwood and Montgomerie when he walked off the 11th greenand spied a distinguished older gentleman with an American flag on his hat.Mickelson gave him a sloppy high 10, awkwardly locking hands. "We need yourmojo!" he enthused to the 41st U.S. president, George H.W. Bush.

The Americansneeded more than that. This European team was so talented that for the openingsession on Friday, captain Ian Woosnam benched three players in the top 13 inthe World Ranking: Luke Donald (ninth), Henrik Stenson (11th) and David Howell(13th). They all played in a thrilling afternoon session in which every matchreached the 18th hole. The frailty of recent U.S. teams has never been moreapparent than in matches that go the distance. Two years ago the Americans wononly one of the 11 matches that reached 18, and they didn't do much better thistime around. Woods and Furyk were 1 down playing the par-5 finishing hole whenFuryk drowned his team's second shot going for the green, handing a point toDonald and García. "To beat their best team is almost like winning twopoints," said Donald.

The victory wasGarcía's second of the day, and in just his fourth appearance he has become oneof Europe's greatest Ryder Cuppers, marrying Nick Faldo's precision to SeveBallesteros's passion. Over the first two days García would win all four of hismatches, pushing his record in team play to 13-1-2. (After Sunday's singlesloss, his record overall was still a gaudy 14-4-2.)

Mickelson andDiMarco also lost the 18th hole on Friday afternoon, allowing Montgomerie andWestwood to steal a halve and push the European lead to 5--3. At the conclusionof play a half dozen U.S. players were milling around the 18th green, andMickelson could sense the flagging spirits. Though to that point he had gone1-6-1 in his preceding eight Ryder Cup matches, Mickelson tried to project alittle leadership with an impromptu speech. It was impassioned enough thatgolf's Eddie Haskell loosed a mild profanity, leading a couple of teammates toblurt "earmuffs," a nod to Old School and the kids within earshot.

"We're rightthere in every match," Mickelson said. "We're fighting so hard, and wejust have to keep fighting until we turn this thing around." Now his voicewas beginning to rise. "All it will take is for a couple of bounces to goour way, and then the scoreboard is going to be nothing but red."

But on Saturdaymorning Mickelson couldn't walk the walk. He went out in a four-ball withDiMarco and made only one birdie in a 3-and-2 dusting by the Spanish armada ofGarcía and Olaàbal. Woods was even more feeble, failing to make a birdie onhis own ball as he and Furyk lost to Westwood and Clarke. Carried along by thecrowds, Clarke ended the match with a stylish chip-in on the 16th hole.

Down 7 1/2--4 1/2midway through Saturday's action, the U.S. team offered a familiar refrain toexplain the growing deficit: "They just happened to make more putts,"said DiMarco. The Americans speak of putting as if it's a black art and as ifthey have no control over the ball. The Euros make more putts because they havesuperior skill and confidence on the greens, at least for one week every twoyears.

Saturdayafternoon's foursomes offered the last chance to mount a rally ahead of thesingles, but by then the Euros were merely toying with the Yanks. The highlightwas Casey's ace on the 14th hole to close out his and Howell's 5-and-4demolition of Stewart Cink and Zach Johnson.

Having won thesingles at the last two Cups, the Europeans were trying, with limited success,not to appear overconfident on Saturday night. Said Montgomerie, "The lasttime the score was 10--6 was at Brookline in '99, and we all know what happenedthere. So there's no complacency on our side whatsoever." With a knowingsmile he added, "I will say that this is the best singles lineup we've everhad, one through 12."

On Sunday, Lehmanbunched his four rookies in matches six through nine, which meant that for theAmericans to have any chance at victory they needed to win four of the firstfive matches, which had been weighted with most of their top players. Thatdream died early. In the leadoff spot Monty birdied the 18th hole to preserve ahard-fought victory over David Toms and run his alltime singles record to6-0-2. Furyk, off third, played the first seven holes in one over par to fallfour down to Casey, a deficit from which he never recovered. (In the cleanupspot Woods beat rookie Robert Karlsson 3 and 2, lifting his record to 3--2, hisfirst winning mark in five Ryder Cups.) When Donald beat Chad Campbell in thefifth match, the only drama left was whether Mickelson could get off theschneid. He wound up losing to Olaàbal, dropping his record to 0-4-1.

In the end Lehmancould only tip his cap to the victors, saying, "I don't know if in thehistory of the Ryder Cup any team has ever played better than theydid."

And yet, victoryalone was not enough for this powerhouse European squad. "I'll be having aword with Paul McGinley later," Woosnam said, with a nod to his player'sgenerous 18th-hole concession. "It could have been a record."

RISE AND FALL

Who were the biggest winners and losers in the RyderCup? Check out Alan Shipnuck's Hot List at SI.com/golf.

"We're going to have to start giving the Americanshandicap strokes," said Sandy Lyle. "THIS IS GETTING BORING."

TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by Robert BeckBITTERSWEET An emotional Clarke (above) won with a chip-in on Saturday, then shed a tear after his singles victory. TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by Robert BeckMOOD SWINGS Montgomerie (left) was rock solid, and Olaàbal and García were an unbeatable team, but Mickelson looked lost. PHOTOSIMON BRUTY (OLAZABAL AND GARCIA)[See caption above.]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)