The best sports year since 1975 is about to get even better. For the first time since 1999, golf’s Ryder Cup is going to be a barn-burner — and for the first time since 1999, the United States team will win. And in so doing, it will remind us of how sports, rightly played, can ennoble.
First, a quick reminder of what happened in 1975. In March, John Wooden won his record 12th and final NCAA basketball championship with his UCLA Bruins, first beating former assistant Denny Crum’s Louisville Cardinals in overtime and then beating a powerful Kentucky squad that two rounds earlier had upset Bobby Knight’s undefeated Indiana Hoosiers. In April, in what up until then was certainly the most gripping Masters ever, Jack Nicklaus held off Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf in an incredibly epic battle. In July, in a match fraught with underlying tensions about patriotism (Arthur Ashe) and alleged lack thereof (Jimmy Connors wouldn’t play for the Davis Cup team), the elegant Ashe out-thought and out-finessed the brash Connors at Wimbledon. Also that month, in what still may be the most remembered thoroughbred match race of all time, the filly Ruffian broke down while running stride for stride with the powerful Foolish Pleasure. And in October, in what is still the greatest World Series ever played, Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine eked out a win in seven games over one of the most entertaining Boston Red Sox teams of all time. That same month, what many consider the greatest boxing match ever took place, with Muhammad Ali outlasting a brave Joe Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila. In events of less raw excitement but still noteworthy, the Pittsburgh Steelers won the first of their record four Super Bowls in six years, Bjorn Borg made his first real mark in tennis by winning the French Open, Tom Watson won his first major in golf, the British Open, and Chris Evert won two tennis majors, establishing her undisputed dominance of the sport.
But 2008 already is on the verge of topping that record. In January, in what is indisputably one of the four best Super Bowls of all time, and maybe the best ever, the single greatest play ever (considering all the circumstances) — the head-cradled catch by David Tyree of an Eli Manning pass — on the game’s last drive helped end the amazing, undefeated season of the New England Patriots. In April, the NCAA men’s b-ball tourney went to overtime after a heart-stopping regulation finish, with Kansas taking the title over Memphis State. In June, what surely is the most thrill-a-minute U.S. Open in history ended with a 91st-hole win by Tiger Woods hobbling on a fractured leg and a bum knee, over a phenomenally gutsy Rocco Mediate. The greatest tennis match of all time followed in July, with Rafael Nadal stunning the great Roger Federer in a matchless display of athleticism. Then came August’s Olympics, with Michael Phelps’ eight gold medals, including the two comeback wins for the ages — Phelps in the butterfly and Jason Lezak in the freestyle relay.
These events have taken our breaths away.
Now, today, comes the Ryder Cup. For once, the U.S. team is a decided underdog. Tiger Woods is still on the mend, and thus not playing. Team rookies — Anthony Kim, Boo Weekley, J.B. Holmes, Hunter Mahan, Kenny Perry, Ben Curtis, and Steve Stricker — will be carrying an unusual part of the weight. And yet… and yet…. Something tells me this is a team ready for victory.
THE TRUTH IS, Woods has seemed like a wet blanket in every Ryder Cup competition, and his teammates always seem to wait around for him to carry them on his shoulders. With him sitting home, Phil Mickelson can concentrate on beating the Europeans rather than trying to outpoint Tiger. Phil is, finally, ready to lead. He also likes the Valhalla course, where he has twice contended for PGA titles and which fits well his high-risk game.
Perry almost won the 1996 PGA there, and he and J.B. Holmes are both Kentuckians playing a course with which both are quite familiar and that both of them love. Former British Open champion Curtis is a real gamer who has been on a months-long hot streak. Jim Furyk is money in the bank, and Stricker has a great career record in match play. And then there is Justin Leonard, the comeback hero from the last U.S. victory, in 1999, who has played marvelously all year long and who may well be a good-luck charm. Leonard is one of those rare birds who plays best from behind. Twice he has won tournaments after starting the final round five strokes back — one of them the semi-major Tournament Players Championship — and another time he started the final round of the British Open five strokes back and fought his way into a playoff before losing.
Against them is arrayed a European squad with more front-line star power (the world’s two hottest golfers, Ireland’s Padraig Harrington and Spain’s Sergio Garcia) and a much better reputation for effective teamwork. But captain Nick Faldo erred badly with his captain’s picks, leaving off what had in the past been and would have been again the heart and spine of his team — respectively, Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke and Scotland’s Ryder Cup hero of heroes Colin Montgomerie. For all his humor as an announcer, Faldo is not a real “people person,” not a guy to inspire fierce loyalty, while American captain Paul Azinger is the sort of blood-and-guts, rally-around-him kind of guy who is beloved by his team members and smart enough to find any angle, any edge, that will help his American charges beat their nemesis.
Watch for the Americans to pull together when it counts the most, while the Euros start bickering among themselves just when triumph seems to be almost in their grasp.
AND WHY DOES this all matter? Because, just in the nick of time, Americans might finally be toughening up again. Just when economic times seem fraught with risk, an underdog team can remind Americans that we are by nature winners. And we can do it in such a way that brings honor, in a game famous for sportsmanship, led by a cancer survivor who grew up a military brat and who loves country more than self.
In 1999, after surviving cancer, Azinger had not won a tournament for six years. His best friend, Payne Stewart, died in an airplane mishap, and Azinger gave one of the most poignant eulogies I’ve ever heard. And in his very first tournament thereafter, Z-man went to Hawaii and lapped the field for his first and only post-cancer tour win, in honor of his friend Stewart. This is a man who rises to the occasion. This is the kind of man who, like Captain Ben Crenshaw in 1999, breathes the air of unseen spirits. This is the kind of man who fights, and who won’t give in, and who wins. And this weekend, in a way no fiction writer could dream of, Azinger will help his inexperienced team find their own inner strengths and win a reeling country’s hearts.
The Cup is coming home to America. It’s a gimme.