- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2008

LOUISVILLE, Ky. | The United States‘ best chance for victory at Valhalla could be the ongoing Faldo farce.

On paper, this week’s 37th Ryder Cup looks lopsided. Virtually every indicator points to yet another installment in what has become a biennial beatdown of the top U.S. golfers.

Of course, history favors the Europeans, who come to Louisville having claimed five of the last six cups.

In a slight departure from the past, however, roster strength and present form paint an even uglier picture of American hopes. This week, the U.S. squad will be without world No. 1 Tiger Woods, who’s nursing his reconstructed left knee. That leaves world No. 2 Phil Mickelson and his 1-7-1 record over the last two Ryder Cups to head the home charge.

In fact, no U.S. player comes to Valhalla Golf Club (7,496 yards, par 71) in top form. Veteran Kenny Perry collected the last victory among the home dozen more than two months ago.

In stark contrast, the European team boasts white-hot performers. Padraig Harrington arrives with British Open and PGA Championship victories in tow. Sergio Garcia, who owns a 14-4-2 Ryder Cup record, has three top-five finishes in his last four starts. Even European reserves like Robert Karlsson, who last week won the Mercedes-Benz Championship, have enjoyed recent success.

“This time I think it’s clear that we are the underdogs,” U.S. captain Paul Azinger said.

And yet, there’s a positive U.S. vibe this week. It helps that most U.S. players feel they have nothing to lose against the Europeans.

“We have, I think, everything to gain in this situation,” Azinger said. “Not a lot of people expect us to pull this off minus Tiger Woods.”

Primarily, though, the difference between this week and previous Ryder Cups seems to be team chemistry. Europe had a monopoly on the commodity in previous Ryder Cups, but this week the scales seem to tip in the United States’ favor, largely because of the impact the respective captains have on their rosters.

Paul Azinger might be a self-described “control freak,” but he’s also universally liked and respected by his charges. His quick wit long ago made him a locker room favorite among his peers. And with 14 professional victories and numerous clutch moments in the Ryder Cup, respect for Azinger as a player was never lacking.

On the other side of the aisle, however, Nick Faldo’s status with his European team is less certain.

During a playing career in which he captured six major titles and earned more Ryder Cup points than any player in history with 25, Faldo collected more trophies than friends. Most of his European contemporaries have few kind words for Faldo, who was an intense competitor inside the ropes and often caustic outside them.

“I don’t know anybody that had a relationship with Nick 10 or 15 years ago,” Azinger said. “He’s from another world.”

Azinger’s description became clearer several weeks ago when Faldo announced his captain’s picks. Faldo incensed golf when he selected his young favorite, Ian Poulter, over Darren Clarke. The 40-year-old Clarke collected as many victories this season (two) as Poulter had top-10s. Clarke also carried a 10-7-3 record in five Ryder Cup appearances. But Faldo selected the 28-year-old Poulter and his 1-1 Ryder Cup record.

The Europeans have put up a unified front on the issue this week by deflecting all questions concerning the selection. But the move likely cost Faldo credibility among his own team members. It’s difficult to consider Poulter’s addition a positive because he will limp into the Ryder Cup off consecutive missed cuts.

Ryder Cup captains who choose nepotism over fairness have doomed their teams in the past. In 1995, U.S. captain Lanny Wadkins added close friend Curtis Strange to his roster even though the game had passed him by. The United States lost 14 1/2-13 1/2 in large part thanks to Strange’s 0-3 performance.

Captains can’t win a Ryder Cup, but their blunders can lose one. Faldo has the look of a man afflicted with a nasty case of hubris. If chemistry issues cost the Europeans the Ryder Cup this week, the bulk of the failure is likely to land at his feet.

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