- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2006

MEDINAH, Ill. — Tom Lehman arrives here under less pressure than any Ryder Cup captain in recent history.

Every other year, the PGA Championship’s primary subplot involves finalizing the U.S. squad for the coming Ryder Cup, and this week is no different. Medinah’s Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson opening act will give way to Lehman’s epilogue Monday, when the 47-year-old grinder tops up the U.S. roster with his two wild card selections.

In virtually every other respect, however, Lehman’s task feels different from the no-win duties of past U.S. captains.

For one, Lehman’s team won’t be favored when it shows up at the K Club in Straffan, Ireland, next month (Sept. 22-24). And that underdog status isn’t solely because the Europeans have claimed four of the last five Ryder Cups. Europe has always had better chemistry than the camaraderie-challenged Yanks. And this year, it actually has better players — at least on paper.

Looking simply at the 10 with automatic berths for the two sides, Europe has more players among the top 20 in the World Rankings (seven to five), more players in the top 50 (10 to seven) and fewer rookies (two to four).

Even if the Europeans hadn’t trampled the Americans in unparalleled fashion at Oakland Hills last time around (181/2-91/2), one would have to fancy the home side in what undoubtedly will be Cup-crazed Ireland.

“We may be underdogs,” Lehman said yesterday. “I don’t mind that at all. I’d say let them be favorites. Let them deal with that.”

While nobody is going to feel sorry for a squad that features three of the planet’s top four players (Woods, Mickelson and Jim Furyk), Lehman shouldn’t be strapped with the same must-win expectations as recent U.S. captains Hal Sutton, Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite and Lanny Wadkins.

And while enduring intense scrutiny from every double-digit handicapper with a laptop is part of every captain’s job description, even Lehman’s pairing decisions should be simpler than those of his predecessors. Last year’s Presidents Cup gave Lehman a couple of no-brainer power pairings, as the Woods-Furyk and Mickelson-Chris DiMarco duos forged a formidable 5-0-2 record against the loaded Internationals at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club. Though mating those four burns the bulk of the American team’s firepower, Lehman likely will be loath to deviate from such a proven formula for success.

Finally, even Lehman’s wild card picks are unlikely to generate any real second-guessing angst. Given that seven would-be rookies are lined up in the eight spots in the current U.S. standings from Nos. 7-14 entering this final week of point-grabbing, Lehman is almost compelled to expend his two captain’s picks on experience.

Only four players between Nos.11 and 19 in the standings have such experience: No.12 Stewart Cink, No.15 Davis Love III, No.16 Fred Couples and Lehman himself (19th). If Cink makes the cut this week at Medinah, he’s probably a lock. Cink satisfies Lehman’s criteria for a pick by being both a “rah-rah” guy and bolstering team weaknesses. Cink’s accuracy off the tee and reliable putter make him a nice foursomes fit with just about anyone.

As for the second choice, given his runner-up finish at the International last week, nobody would quibble if Lehman picked himself, though he still hasn’t decided whether he’ll play even if he earns an automatic slot this week.

“DiMarco cornered me yesterday and said, ‘We’ve all talked about it. If you make the team, you’re playing, period. No conversation. No argument from you. We’re going to make you play,’” Lehman said. “That’s really nice, but I’m the captain, and I get to make that decision.

“The Ryder Cup is all about heart and passion and whoever chips and putts the best. In some ways, I feel like I’d be a detriment to our team, because my putting is streaky. I don’t need streaky [on this team]; I need good, and consistently good to great.”

He won’t find that in Love or Couples, the aging pair with chronically misbehaving backs and putters. But that pair does have loads of experience, combining to total 11 Ryder Cup appearances. Both have virtual .500 records in the Ryder Cup. And given a choice of the two, perhaps one would have to lean toward Couples, if his back permits.

Unlike Love, who hasn’t won in three years and hasn’t posted a top-10 finish in six months, Couples showed his match play spark in last year’s Presidents Cup by downing top International Vijay Singh in the Sunday singles and following with a strong showing in this year’s Masters (tied for third).

Perhaps most importantly, Couples would give the U.S. team something that could be sorely lacking in a team room loaded with anxious rookies and fire-breathing vets like Lehman, Furyk, DiMarco and David Toms: a heavy dose of decompression.

It’s no news flash, but Lehman pointed to the U.S. team’s tendency to play tight when asked about recent U.S. failures.

“We don’t have fun inside the ropes competing, that would be my biggest opinion,” Lehman said. “That’s where I think we need to improve.”

Couples might not be able to putt, but he sure can cure a case of the team-room tights with his quick wit and magnetic personality. It’s also no secret that Couples would represent Tiger’s best team-room companion, making golf’s king a bit more comfortable.

Barring some major moves in the standings this week, expect Lehman to stick with the no-pressure theme of his captaincy by tapping Cink and Couples on Monday.

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