U.S. gets singled out

Posted: Monday, September 30, 2002

So much for rugged individualism.

It turns out a team that rarely plays well together wasn't any better playing by themselves.

We brought the top two players in the world, six who ranked among the top dozen, and seven guys who combined for 14 major championships.

They had two players ranked among the top 12, and the same guy owned both of their majors.

Our average pro ranked 31st and spent almost as much on fuel for his private jet as some of them made last season.

Theirs ranked 53rd and usually flew coach.

That's what made Europe 15 1/2, United States 12 1/2 even more deflating than the usual Ryder Cup defeat.

They whipped us at our own game.

The Americans won exactly two of the final day's dozen singles matches and halved five others. The decisive blow was an 8-foot putt on the 18th green struck by a journeyman Irish pro named Paul McGinley, whose ranking (71) doesn't even place him on the same page as Jim Furyk (10), with whom he halved the crucial match.

In the day's upset special, an even more obscure Welshman named Phillip Price (ranked 119th; career titles: two Portuguese Opens) needed just 16 holes to thump chronic underachiever Phil Mickelson (2nd; career titles: 21 on the PGA Tour).

''Although on paper we might be favored,'' Mickelson said in the understatement of the tournament, ''that doesn't mean anything if we don't play our best.''

You think?

The Europeans had already claimed the Cup five of the last eight times when they went mano-a-mano against their U.S. counterparts. Considering what happened in 1999, when the Americans staged the biggest Ryder Cup final-round comeback ever, they may have had revenge on their minds. But history was definitely on the other side.

After two days of team matches, the score was tied 8-8, and only once before in those five wins -- and just five times in the 75 years of the event -- had the Europeans won the singles.

Maybe that's what forced European captain Sam Torrance's desperate gambit. Remembering how his predecessor, Mark James, front-loaded his weakest players in the singles three years ago and lost the first six matches en route to a 10-6 pounding, Torrance did just the opposite.

He sent out fellow Scotsman Colin Montgomerie in the opening match, followed by inspirational leader Sergio Garcia and so on through the first seven places. The idea was to build momentum in a hurry, splash Europe's blue numbers across the scoreboard and give the rookies lined up in slots 8-11 like so many sacrificial lambs some encouragement to take on the richer, better-known Americans.

''Out of the shadows come heroes,'' Torrance said, '' and that is where Paul McGinley and Phillip Price came from.''

Of course, it wasn't all about strategy or pluck -- as the Europeans would have us believe; nor even luck -- as the Americans insisted time and again.

''You all are tired of hearing about it,'' U.S. captain Curtis Strange said, ''but match play is like that. If you get going for 18 holes, you can beat anybody in the world, because you only have to sustain top play for four hours versus 72 holes of stroke play.

''And when you play in front of a crowd, a wonderful crowd like they had today, it carries you on. It inspires you.''

To his credit, that was about as much as Strange said about home-field advantage. He didn't point that the Europeans set up the course at The Belfry to neutralize as many American strengths as they could.

Some tees were moved back and fairways tightened up to force big hitters like Tiger Woods, Mickelson, David Duval and Davis Love III to leave their drivers in the bag. All the greens were slowed down to make the Europeans more comfortable and give them a better chance to make putts. But Strange's players weren't quite as magnanimous.

''They didn't play the real Tiger, the real Davis, the real David and the real Mickelson,'' Paul Azinger said. ''They played guys hitting irons off the tee on every hole.''

That is true as far as it goes, but everybody still played the same course. What made the difference, finally, was the desire of the Europeans -- from top to bottom -- to prove that no one holds the monopoly on golf, no matter what the numbers say.

''It means more for us to win than it does for the U.S. tour. Their tour would continue just as strong without the Ryder Cup. We're a smaller tour, definitely in dollar terms, anyway,'' Montgomerie said. ''We needed to win this.''

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org.

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