- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 15, 2004

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Get ready for a Motor City Melee.

Ryder Cup atmospheres tend to follow the personality of the host captain. If that trend continues at Oakland Hills this week, U.S. skipper Hal Sutton is likely to turn this week’s 35th matches into a jingoistic maelstrom reminiscent of Kiawah Island and Brookline.

“Do you see what’s on my back?” asked Sutton yesterday, turning to show off the unfashionably large U.S. flag which will be an embroidered staple of the American team wardrobe this week. “We’re here to represent this flag. And we’re here to win. Period.”

After the last Ryder Cup on U.S. soil, when both the home team and the partisan galleries at Brookline (1999) trampled across the line separating patriotic enthusiasm from inhospitable decorum, it became fashionable to describe the biennial event as an exhibition where the result was far less important than the spirit in which the matches were conducted.

With Uncle Sam’s unseemly behavior at Brookline still stinging both squads, the 2002 Ryder Cup Matches were conducted with an almost morbid civility, both European captain Sam Torrance and U.S. captain Curtis Strange trumpeting the event’s spirit of transatlantic fellowship.

For the PGA of America, there was just one problem with the proceedings at the Belfry: Europe won by the largest margin in 17 years (151/2-121/2), claiming Samuel Ryder’s golden chalice for the third time in its last four tries.

Enter Sutton, who claims the PGA of America gave him but one mandate upon selecting him two years ago as captain: win. And Sutton, of course, was a perfect pick for such a single-minded campaign.

For one, Sutton doesn’t believe in exhibitions. To the 46-year-old Louisiana native, anything worth doing demands bared teeth and clenched fists.

For another, Sutton bleeds red, white and blue. Perhaps only the late Payne Stewart and former firebrand Tom Lehman, both of whom teamed with Sutton at Brookline to provide the spiritual guts of the victorious U.S. machine, have ever matched Sutton’s brand of unabashedly flaming patriotism. Throw in his solid record in four Ryder Cup appearances (7-5-1) and his brilliance on and off the course at Brookline (3-1-1) and Sutton seems a natural.

In fact, the only negative surrounding the Sutton regime might be that he’s more sergeant than captain, more warden than host, more dirty camo than dress blues. There’s not a single subtle, diplomatic or compromising bone in Sutton’s body.

Asked yesterday by a member of the British press if he was concerned that his uber-patriotism might produce the same kind of inflammatory atmosphere that prevailed at Brookline, Sutton responded in typically brusque fashion.

“Look, y’all have been kind of like a bad marriage partner,” said Sutton, who knows a thing or two about such things after three failed marriages. “We’ve apologized for five years for what happened at Brookline. So, y’all need to forget about that. The American players, if we had it to do over again, would not have run out on the [17th] green. But the truth of the matter is, we’re going to be ourselves.

“I’ve told all of our players to be gentlemen and be yourself. I can’t be concerned or try to control everybody else in the world. … So we are going out there and we’re going to be ourselves. No more apologies or anything else.”

Translation: the single-minded Sutton isn’t really concerned about potentially rowdy fans, whom the PGA of America has promised to control, or European feelings. In fact, he’s not even concerned about stepping on his own team’s feelings. And with his bricklayer’s forearms, barrel build and bearish demeanor, he doesn’t have to be.

“I am not going to tell [my players] who they are playing with until Thursday,” said Sutton, who did confide that everyone on his roster would play Friday. “They have no clue who they are going to play with. If they know who it is, they start worrying about their partner’s game instead of their own game. … I told them, ‘Be prepared to beat the other two guys by yourself, and if I give you a little help, then that’s a bonus.’”

After Michael Jordan delivered a pep talk to the U.S. squad at Monday night’s team dinner, Sutton even had a sitdown with Tiger Woods to make sure the game’s 28-year-old superstar had the proper competitive respect for the event.

“All we have to do is just say, ‘Hey, Tiger, it’s time you felt this is important,’” said Sutton, explaining how he and assistants Jackie Burke and Steve Jones addressed Woods, who has a pedestrian 5-8-2 Ryder Cup record and has routinely described the event as an exhibition. “‘I want you to realize that this is going to be an area that guys are going to judge you by down the road, whether you like it or dislike it. … This is going to be another barometer of success for you. Let’s give it all you’ve got and lead this team.’”

It’s questionable whether Papa Earl deigns to talk to Tiger in such semi-patronizing tones. But Sutton not only stuck a poker under the eight-time major champion, he’s confident that the chat has the World No.2 inspired to pounce.

“I feel strongly that Tiger Woods is ready,” Sutton said. “In fact, I think y’all might see some of Tiger’s greatest golf this week, so buckle your chin straps.”

Actually, with the Hal-witzer already blazing, perhaps helmets might be advisable for the visiting Europeans. Because whether the Europeans like it or not, Sutton has 12 soldiers and 38,000 friendlies prepared to take Oakland Hills by force.

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