- The Washington Times - Monday, September 20, 2004

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. — “I thought the world deserved seeing Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson together,” said Sutton after becoming the first U.S. captain in Ryder/Presidents Cup history to force the two foes together. “I mean, if they had good karma together out there, if they could get it going together, they could have been grand. They didn’t.”

That’s a gross understatement. The Woods/Mickelson experiment was a debacle. The two hardly exchanged a word during their two Friday matches, exhibiting a kind of Shaq/Kobe anti-synergy as they absorbed two thumpings from the Europeans. Sutton claimed to be shocked by their failures.

“Who would have seen that coming?” asked the U.S. skipper after his star-strategy imploded.

Well, Hal, at least five other Ryder and Presidents Cup captains saw it coming. There’s a simple reason Tom Kite, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Crenshaw, Ken Venturi and Curtis Strange all eschewed the power pairing in 24 previous opportunities to mate them in U.S. team competition: Woods has a well-known loathing of his left-handed rival.

The rather obvious pairings for the two were Woods/Chris Riley and Mickelson/David Toms. Tiger’s friendship with Riley dates to their junior golf days in California. And Woods told anybody who would listen early in the week that the excitable U.S. rookie was his preferred partner. Mickelson and Toms earned more points together at the Belfry in 2002 than any other U.S. pairing, finishing 2-1-1. Of course, Sutton sent out those duos just once each at Oakland Hills. And, predictably, those two pairings (2-0-0) accounted for half of America’s victories in the four-balls and foursomes.

Given those facts, how can you not second-guess Sutton for his suspect pairing strategy? Then again, perhaps nobody should be surprised when a man on his fourth marriage has trouble picking proper partners.

Perhaps the Ryder Cup was lost when Mickelson decided to switch woods just a week before golf’s premier match-play event. Mickelson has politely refused to address that dubious decision. But according to sources inside the Mickelson camp, the switch transpired when Titleist declined to increase Lefty’s endorsement deal after he suggested that a career season (13 top 10s and a major breakthrough at the Masters) merited a financial boost.

So, Phil chose his ego and his bank account over the best interests of his team, took a reported $10million from Callaway and showed up at Oakland Hills with new sticks and a comically crooked game. In the most shocking anti-endorsement in history, Mickelson Captain Kirked his way around the property all week, routinely driving the ball boldly where no man had gone before. Tiger’s “what-a-dope” look when Mickelson fanned his 3-wood 60 yards left at the 18th to doom them in the Friday foursomes provided the ultimate commentary on Mickelson’s club change.

Once again, American ego had reared its ugly head at the Ryder Cup. Is it any wonder the U.S. can’t beat a European dozen that gallops as one every other year?

“We care about each other, and that’s really big in this type of event,” said Spain’s Sergio Garcia, who ran his record in four-balls and foursomes to an astounding 9-1-2 this week. “I think some of us enjoy playing as a team here this week more than we do as individuals in majors or whatever. In a way, this is more important to me.”

Sure, Euros like Garcia and Colin Montgomerie are likely to say such things given resumes loaded with major near-misses. But the next time you hear an American suggest the Ryder Cup might be as important as a major will be the first.

And perhaps, the United States lost the Ryder Cup when the fiery likes of Payne Stewart, Tom Lehman, Paul Azinger and Sutton started disappearing from the biennial roster. The U.S. team’s personality is now defined by the cashmere clique, guys with soft constitutions like Davis Love III, Kenny Perry, Stewart Cink and Mickelson — one green jacket can’t cover up a career of major choke jobs.

These are all great golfers, no doubt. And they’re all nice guys, as well — too nice. They lack what the Europeans call “bottle.” A player who routinely demonstrates the combination of guts and stone-faced resolve in the moment is said to have bottle. The players who provide the psychological backbone of the European team (Darren Clarke, Lee Westwood, Padraig Harrington and Miguel Angel Jimenez) are men who ooze this calm, killer instinct.

The Ryder Cup’s 18-hole matches routinely come down to one pressure-packed swing or putt. In these instances, bottle is more important than talent. A Paul McGinley might lack the talent to regularly work himself into winning position in a 72-hole stroke-play event. But if he could, he wouldn’t likely spit the bit. That’s why Europe routinely wins the close matches (4-0-2 in team matches that reached the 17th green last week) despite showing up every other year with a squad ranked far lower on paper.

The cashmeres on the U.S. roster didn’t used to outnumber the Woods and Furyks, not in the days of ‘Zinger, Lehman, Stewart and Sutton. But those days are gone and bottle-bearing reinforcements aren’t on the way. Unlike Europe, which introduced young toughs Paul Casey and Luke Donald at Oakland Hills, the U.S. has no obvious young stalwarts on the horizon.

You certainly can’t count Riley, a guy who begged off of Saturday’s foursomes when Sutton came calling.

“I said, ‘A 42-year-old fat man in ‘99 went five straight matches, so I’m sure that a 30-year-old flat-belly that’s hyper can go four, can’t ya?’” related Sutton. “He kind of stuttered. … So, I went in a different direction.”

The Ryder Cup has been heading in the same direction for some time now. And given the sad state of Uncle Sam’s recent past and future prospects, nobody should be surprised if the Euros make it five of six when the 36th matches travel to Ireland in 2006.

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