The Ryder Cup begins tomorrow—finally. I love The Ryder Cup. I love the drama, the nerves, the emotion that it brings out in players and (most of the time) fans. What I could live without is all the yammering that goes on prior to the matches beginning.
I mean, seriously, did anyone really think there was any chance Corey Pavin wasn’t going to pick Tiger Woods if he didn’t finish in the top eight in the points standings? The only way Woods wasn’t going to be chosen was if he didn’t WANT to be chosen and this was the one year when he actually needed to play. Why? Because he needs to wear ‘USA,’ on his back as part of his image-rehab. Because he’s had a horrible year (for him) and this is a way to salvage something—anything—from a lost year. Because he’s played on ONE winning Ryder Cup team and a lot of people have noticed that the only U.S. team to win in this century was the one (2008) that didn’t have Woods on the team.
So, Woods was going to be picked and he was going to play. All of Pavin’s Hamlet-like, ‘to pick him or not to pick him,’ was pure silliness. Of course he was going to pick him.
The Woods-Rory McIlroy thing is also much ado about little. McIlroy made the comment that he would love to face Woods in singles in mid-August shortly after the worst performance of Woods’ career (T-78 at Firestone; if there had been a cut he would have missed it). I know McIlroy a little bit and he’s not the kind of kid who goes around trying to sound cocky. He was just being honest basically saying, ‘right now the guy isn’t playing very well.’
Naturally the tabloid media in Great Britain wants to turn this into a cage match. Woods, who learned from Michael Jordan that you take anything resembling a slight and use it for motivation is smiling and saying he’d like to play McIlroy too as if he’s going to show him who is boss. Heck, he might very well do that. But let’s not act as if McIlroy is somehow trying to get into Woods face or his head. He was being honest. The more we (the media) take honest comments and try to make them into more than what they are, the less likely we are to continue to get honest comments.
Now that the matches are finally—Thank God—beginning we can all stop speculating on who is going to play with whom and on whether Woods and Phil Mickelson will be able to smile in one another’s presence. All I ask of the two of them is to NOT act as if their dislike of one another is some sort of media concoction. It’s not.
That doesn’t mean they can’t be part of a successful U.S. team. My feeling all along has been this notion that Europe is the favorite is crazy. YES, they have home court advantage and that’s a big deal. The U.S. has won in Europe ONCE since 1983 and that was in the 1993 when Tom Watson was captain and played a hunch on Saturday with his team about to get blown out and put John Cook and Chip Beck—who hadn’t played yet—out in the first four ball match of the afternoon against Colin Montgomerie and Nick Faldo. Cook and Beck won the match one-up and the U.S. ended up outscoring the Euros 11 and ½ to 5 and ½ from that point on to win, 15-13.
Pavin should keep Watson’s gamble in mind. He has spent a lot of time consulting with players and his various assistant captains—including my pal Paul Goydos (whose comment on the Lisa Pavin-created U.S. uniforms was, “Those outfits might look okay on Tiger and Dustin Johnson, I’m not so sure how they’ll look on me.”)—about who should play with whom and who should sit out and who shouldn’t sit out.
That’s all well and good. But you have to have a gut feeling for your players as the matches go on. Watson knew the combinations he was using in 1993 weren’t working. He sat both Fred Couples and Davis Love III that Saturday afternoon and played Cook and Beck because he felt Couples and Love were fighting themselves emotionally. In fact, while those matches were going on, Love took Couples aside and gave him a talking-to about getting down on himself that also proved to be critical to the final outcome.
There may come a moment when Pavin has to do something that doesn’t seem to make sense: sit Woods out perhaps if he isn’t playing well; put together a crazy pairing like Rickie Fowler and Bubba Watson—something. But he better be ready when that moment comes because Colin Montgomerie most assuredly will be totally ready if it comes for him. You can say what you want about Monty—and most things have been said about him—but he has been a superb Ryder Cup player and he understands this competition as well as anyone. His players may not think he’s the greatest guy who ever lived but they will surely respect him and follow him with The Ryder Cup at stake.
You see the secret to European success dating back to 1985 (Europe is 7-4-1—retaining the cup in 1989 when the tie occurred) since then is simple: The Euros wanted to win more. They were willing to put aside personal difference to band together for one week every two years to prove that they were underrated—which they often were. What helped the U.S. in 2008 was two things: People pretty much assumed Europe would win because the only U.S. win since 1993 had been at Brookline in 1999 when Europe simply fell apart in the singles on Sunday and Paul Azinger didn’t have to deal with Woods. (This is the part where you JF doesn’t like Tiger-posters start typing).
Woods is 10-13-2 in Ryder Cup play. But that’s not been the real problem. Most U.S. players of this generation have mediocre to lousy Ryder Cup records. The problem is Woods never really wanted to be there and everyone knew it. That’s why he was so hard to find partners for until Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker stepped up and said, ‘hey, I’ll do it.’ Woods brings tension into every room he walks into. It is just who he is. As someone once said, ‘joy is not his thing.’ Even when he wins joy isn’t the emotion he really feels: relief, yes; enjoying beating the other guy, sure. But joy? No. He’s always onto the next thing—which is part of why he’s been so great.
Woods wasn’t there in 2008 because he was hurt. Azinger had a bunch of guys who just wanted to WIN to shut up all the people who kept asking why the U.S. never won anymore. This year’s team doesn’t have that but it SHOULD have a motivated Woods because of the past year of his life, his past Ryder Cup record AND what happened without him in 2008.
That’s why I think the U.S. will win. I also think Lee Westwood is playing hurt; Padraig Harrington is playing poorly and Europe has more rookies (six) than the U.S. (five). Of course Westwood and Harrington could shake off their troubles for three days and the Welsh crowd might roar Europe to victory. But I don’t think so. I think the U.S. wins by the same score it won by in 1993, 15-13. And if Europe wins, blame me for jinxing the U.S.
I often point out appalling behavior here because there is so much of it to point out in sports. But not always. On Wednesday I went to the volleyball game between middle schoolers from The McLean School and their counterparts from Holton Arms. As you might have guessed, my daughter Brigid plays for McLean. The teams split the first two games and the final game (played to 15) was tied at 10-10 when one of the McLean girls served into the net. That put Holton Arms up 11-10 and gave them the serve—a big advantage at this level because a successful serve often means a point won.
But as the ball was being rolled to the other end, the Holton Arms coach stopped the game and went to talk to the referee. He had been trying to substitute before the point started and the girl he was subbing in didn’t get onto the court in time. Thus, his team was a girl short when the ball was served. By rule that gave the point—and the serve—to McLean. The ref hadn’t noticed, neither had anyone else. The coach did and he called it—on himself and his team. McLean won, 15-13.
I made a point after the game of telling the coach, after asking him what had happened because I didn’t know either, how impressed I was. I then made a point of explaining to Brigid what had happened. Sometimes kids don’t get things like that. Brigid did. “There should be more coaches like him,” she said.
As usual, she was right.