NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Here it is, 10 a.m. Ryder Cup Sunday morning, and like all golf fans, I should be looking forward to a ding-dong shootout in singles competition, taken down to the last of twelve singles matches between the European and United States teams in this biennial competition.
Nope. Not this year. Once again, the U.S. side has made a hash of the first two days of matches, between two-man teams. They’re behind by 11 points to 5. Europe needs only 3 more points to retain the Cup. The U.S. needs 9 and a half points to win it. Won’t happen. Even granted the miraculous comeback from a one-point better deficit in 1999, at Brookline, this year it’s worse, and the U.S. will not win.
In a quote overlooked so far — unbelievably — European captain Bernhard Langer said he expected to win two of the first three singles matches on Sunday. Those three will be contested by Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Davis Love III for the Americans. Given the performance of the three superstar Americans so far, Langer’s confidence would seem fairly sourced.
So what happened? Colossally bad coaching by Hal Sutton, who seems to have mistaken stubborn determination for any real ideas.
The first big idea of any current U.S. Ryder Cup coach must be the care and feeding of the two biggest stars on the team, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. Get together with the two of them, apart from the rest of the team, and tell them, “I want you guys comfortable and happy out there, loose, free-swinging, and playing your best. Who would you like to play with? When would you like to go out — early or late? Do you want four-ball or foursomes first or second on Friday and Saturday?” And so forth.
Instead, first match out the first day, Sutton put Woods and Mickelson together for four-ball and foursomes, wasting the advantages of their individual talents, wasting the inspiration or experience they might have shared with rookie partners — this on a squad with five rookies — making them both edgy and uncomfortable. And, as evidenced by the joyous pairing up of Tiger with Chris Riley the next day, wasting inspiration Tiger or Phil could have pulled from a more suitable partner. Two losses right there.
Second, bench your head cases the first two days. Anybody watching golf much on TV — let alone from close up, like Sutton — could have seen that Kenny Perry, Fred Funk, and Chad Campbell were nervous competitors in the last several months. Those players should not have appeared at all the first two days. Perry played once, Funk twice, Campbell twice. All five matches were lost.
At the same time, get your hardheads out there. Recent U.S. squads have missed a couple of traditional bulldogs who used to be mainstays, but are now past their primes and no longer eligible to play: Paul Azinger and Cory Pavin. The only player who resembles them at all now is Chris DiMarco. DiMarco didn’t get to play until the afternoon Friday. He should have been out right away.
Finally, don’t count on rah-rah emotionalism to take up the slack of more fundamental problems. And don’t bet on emotion to carry a player past his physical abilities. Sutton should have benched DiMarco and Jay Haas after their inspirational win and tie Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. They were burned out, especially Haas, who’s fifty years old.
Instead, he broke up the Tiger-Riley team (Riley supposed pled exhaustion, but he had played only once). DiMarco and Haas couldn’t handle any more, and they lost.
The Americans very nearly lost the Cup outright by Saturday night. Credit, of course, superb play by the Europeans, especially in the all-important first round of matches Friday morning and in the crushing Saturday afternoon round. They stomped on the Americans, and they never let them up.
BUT THE AMERICANS SHOULD have done better, a lot better. A reasonable goal, given the Americans’ traditional difficulty with two-man team formats, would have been to win 7 out of 16 points on the first two days. Aim for a split and settle for 7. Instead of front-loading your talent in the early matches, put your best teams out late, against the Europeans’ less experienced players. Instead, Sutton did just the opposite, and broke his best talents against the rock of European team experience in Colin Montgomery, Darren Clarke, Padraig Harrington, Sergio Garcia, and Lee Westwood. Two losses. Plus, remember the nervous guys, Funk, Perry, and Campbell. With those guys benched the first two days, the U.S. could at least have won two of those five matches, too. That’s the difference between 5 points and 7, or perhaps as many as 9.
Maybe I’ll be wrong. Maybe the Americans will come out and win everything on Sunday afternoon. Singles matches suit their games better than team play; that’s just the way it is. But I don’t think they can do it.
NBC will have to deal with a whole bunch of disappointed advertisers after about 2 p.m.*
*Okay, so it was 4:30.