It was a disastrous three days that began and ended with shots into the water. From the moment that Tiger Woods hooked his first drive on Friday into the River Liffey until Chris DiMarco followed suit twice on the 18th on Sunday, the USA never looked like regaining the Ryder Cup.
Certain sections of the media in Europe and the USA have this morning raised fears for the future of the grand old team event that so captivated audiences throughout the 1980s and 1990s. How, they say, will the Americans react to a third consecutive defeat, the last two of which have been by record margins?
The fact of the matter is that there hasn’t been a really close finish to the matches this century, with the last one being the memorable and controversial comeback by the USA at Brookline in 1999. For a nation that prides itself on being the best producer of sportsmen on the planet, this latest humbling has real long-term ramifications.
One possibility is that a return to the dark days of the 1960s and 1970s is on the cards. Back then, the feeling was that all the Americans needed to do was turn up to win and the then Great Britain & Ireland team approached the event like condemned men approach the gallows. Devoid of competition, the event became nothing more than an exhibition match until the great Jack Nicklaus put forward the idea that Europeans ought to be included to level the playing field somewhat.
Now the roles have been reversed. Some are saying that Europe should now take on a combined USA & Rest Of The World team. To accept such terms would be an admittance on the part of the Americans that their golfing system is completely flawed and is highly unlikely. What is equally unlikely is that the top American players, so rewarded on the US Tour and such superstars on the international stage in Major championships, would happily and willingly participate in a biennial thrashing at the hands of their European counterparts.
It is therefore likely that the Americans will battle on and look for ways to improve their qualifying system. The system implemented for the 2006 Ryder Cup was a new one and in many eyes a poor one. It rewarded only top ten finishes, meaning that certain players with one tournament win and, say, one top five finish in two years could make the team – whereas somebody who had consistently finished in the top fifteen most weeks would miss out.
The system is undoubtedly flawed, but there are more complicated and difficult questions to answer. The prestigious US magazine Golf Digest yesterday asked the question as to why Phil Mickelson, winner of three Majors in the last two years, has won only one of his last eleven Ryder Cup matches? The pertinence of the question is highly relevant and applies to others too. Tiger Woods was arguably more effective in this Ryder Cup than previous ones, but his 60% success rate also belied the ability he consistently shows on the USPGA Tour and in Majors. A similar criticism can be levelled at Jim Furyk.
Golf Digest then went on to compare and contrast the attitudes of the US and European teams. It stated that in the press the US team often used phrases such as ‘guts’ and ‘pride’, whereas the European team spoke of having ‘fun’ and their ‘togetherness’. It is here that the main difference lies. The sight of Sergio Garcia hugging, kissing and high-fiving his European colleagues throughout the event was one of the enduring images of this Ryder Cup and he wasn’t the only one of Ian Woosnam’s men to partake in such behaviour. It seems that the US team are far more up tight, under pressure and stand-offish, despite Lehman’s admirable and concerted efforts to cultivate camararderie and team spirit.
The main difference seems to be the ‘pride’ that the US team falsely referred to. For most of the Europeans, the Ryder Cup is the pinnacle of their careers. When Bernhard Langer missed the decisive putt at Kiawah Island in the 1991 renewal, he spoke of the pressure and responsibilty being the most he’d ever faced in golf. The feeling remains that, for most of the Americans, winning dollars on the USPGA Tour and performing well in Major championships is the most important thing. It is no coincidence that the last time a European won a Major championship was in 1999 – also the last year that they lost a Ryder Cup match. While their priority has been qualifying for and winning the Ryder Cup, the Americans have prioritised elsewhere. They have won Majors, but have underperformed in the Ryder Cup.
If Samuel Ryder’s dream of a competitive, long lasting team competiton is to be preserved, the Americans must find a captain with the ability to see through the superficial comments from the likes of Mickelson that he “is readier than he’s ever been for a Ryder Cup challenge”. An examination of his disinterested demeanour throughout the weekend suggested that he was paying Lehman nothing more than lip service.