A team competition in a uniquely individual sport should reveal something about the players involved. The Ryder Cup certainly does that. Once again, the Europeans beat the American, this time handing the US their worst loss in the 77 year history of the event. All this with a distinct advantage in the rankings among their players and major championships galore on their resumes compared to low world rankings and exactly zero majors for the Europeans.
So what happened?
The Euros trounced the Americans, figuring out how to play as a team. For your basic amateur, team golf is the norm. Me and my partner against you and yours. When I’m out of the hole, I’m rooting for my partner to keep me in it. The Europeans do exactly that. When one guy is AWOL, the other grinds harder to keep him in it. The Americans don’t seem to be able to figure that out, instead sticking to the “I’ll play my game and that’ll be good enough” mentality.
I don’t know who came up with the Tiger Woods/Phil Mickelson pairing, but it was the American problem in microcosm. “History demanded it, the fans demanded it,” American captain Hal Sutton said of the match up. I have a hard time believing that Sutton forced this on either one of those guys. One of them had to make the suggestion that it would be a good pairing. But it didn’t work. Even their body language early in the opening match on Friday showed that it was an uncomfortable start. I hate to lay the whole thing at Tiger’s feet, but he is America’s best player (no matter the world rankings) and his demeanor sets the tone for the rest of the team.
He’s never seemed comfortable in the team format, except when he’s played with David Duval. (They won the World Cup together.) You never hear a “what do you think” or some idle chatter about conditions or the matches or whatever. He’s the guy everybody’s looking to for a cue, and it’s not happening. There’s a theory that Tiger doesn’t want the other players too comfortable with him because he wants that air of invincibility to stay around when he faces them on the American tour and in the majors. There’s another that Tiger is best when paired with a player clearly his junior in stature who will show Tiger the deference he’s accustomed to. But who knows? The litmus test is his record in team competition in the Ryder Cup, and it’s not good.
Tiger’s taking a beating in the media right now for his comments comparing his record to Jack Nicklaus’ in Ryder Cup play, and rightly so. Tiger has lost twice as many matches in team play than he’s won. Nicklaus, on the other hand, was 17-8-3. And nobody was more dominant or intimidating than Nicklaus in his heyday. So what’s the answer? You don’t sit Tiger Woods, do you? His succession of partners has gone from his best friend, Mark O’Meara, to his biggest rival, Phil Mickelson, with virtually the same results: losses. Justin Leonard, Tom Lehman, David Duval, David Toms, Davis Love, Chris Riley, Paul Azinger and Mark Calcavecchia have all be paired with Woods and all have come back with a loss or two.. He did win back to back matches with Davis in 2002, but lost with him this time around.
For the ’06 matches at the K Club in Ireland, the American captain, (Azinger, Larry Nelson) should first ask Tiger if he wants to play. As in, “Do you want to be a part of this team?” Azinger is feisty enough to do it, and Nelson has no relationship with Tiger so he won’t have a problem either. Then he should ask Tiger who he wants to play with. Let him pick his partners and tell him that they’re his partners. Finally, talk to the rest of the team and tell them to get over the whole Tiger thing. They’re professionals, so go make it happen.
Isn’t everybody else sick of losing to the Euros?