- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 20, 2006

What happens to the Ryder Cup when Goliath is a gimp?

For years the Ryder Cup has thrived on the universally appealing notion of Europe’s motley band of brothers trumping America’s splintered, if superior, talent.

Aside from the 13 humiliated Americans, that version of the Ryder Cup has been fulfilling for nearly everyone. European fans and players routinely celebrate victory for their second-tier tour. And many Americans secretly smile at the can’t-win angst of their me-first mercenaries.

But the dynamic that has defined the event and driven golf’s biennial event to dizzying heights of popularity and commercial success is due for a dramatic overhaul this week at the K Club.

For the first time in more than a decade, Uncle Sam sports the higher handicap. Darth Vader is now the underdog in an event framed to frustrate favorites.

Even European captain Ian Woosnam couldn’t avoid acknowledging the fact that oddsmakers have installed his charges as 4-to-5 favorites for this week’s 36th matches, which begin Friday just outside of Dublin.

“I suppose we’re the favorites, so we have to be careful about complacency,” Woosnam said in his opening address to the media at the K Club.

Woosnam will, no doubt, play up the Tiger factor when trying to rouse his charges. He’ll point to a U.S. roster featuring the world’s top three players (Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk), a trio which bests the entire European assemblage on the major meter by the ludicrous tally of 16-0, and wonder how anyone can assign underdog status to such sultans of swing.

But no matter how you cut it, past performance or current personnel, Europe’s plucky Little Engine that Could has become a streamlined locomotive.

The U.S. roster is forgettable.

According to average and median World Ranking, this is easily the worst team the U.S. has sent abroad in more than a decade. The Americans have an average ranking of 29.4 and five top-20 denizens. Woosnam’s lowest-ranked player (No. 53 Paul McGinley), stands well clear of the three lowest-rated Americans (No. 60 Vaughn Taylor, No. 64 J.J. Henry and No. 68 Brett Wetterich), and Europe’s roster boasts a superior average World Ranking of 22.8.

Fact is, the American roster has never been so top-heavy. Even with its front-loaded titan trio, a fairly generous leap given the sub-par Ryder record of Woods, Mickelson and Furyk (20-28-7), there are at most only two other feared players on the U.S. roster — Chris DiMarco and David Toms. That threat is legitimate in the case of DiMarco, the firebrand who boasts the best team match-play record of any American (8-4-2) and who just last year was U.S. man of the match at the Presidents Cup after a brilliant 4-0-1 performance.

But Toms has been battling an injury and has just two top-10 finishes since March. And the rest of the U.S. lineup consists of four rookies and three forgettables with a dearth of experience and success (5-7-1). Under ordinary circumstances, perhaps those on the lower rungs of the U.S. ladder could expect some support from premium partners. But given the success of the Woods/Furyk (2-0-1) and Mickelson/DiMarco (3-0-1) marriages at last year’s Presidents Cup, Lehman will be loathe to split his Big Four, meaning the United States’ bottom eight likely will be on their own at the K Club.

That’s particularly bad news when you consider that the lower two-thirds of the roster is defined by the weakest class of Ryder rookies in U.S. history. Only one of the Americans’ first-timers boasts more than one victory — Vaughn Taylor with two victories in the glorified Nationwide Tour event known as the Reno-Tahoe Open. Henry has enjoyed a decent run of late, recording a pair of top-10 finishes in his last two starts. But the other two (Wetterich and short-knocking Zach Johnson) have completely vanished since qualifying for the team, each posting only a single top-20 finish since the start of June.

It’s impossible to compare this year’s crop with the rookie class of 2004 (DiMarco, Chad Campbell, Kenny Perry, Fred Funk and Chris Riley). The first-timers at Oakland Hills were simply inexperienced; this crew is inexperienced, undecorated and unheralded. Expect a serious case of the jitters.

Finally, Lehman repeated conventional wisdom at the PGA Championship, stating that he believes recent American failures stem from a chronic case of stress. The Euros have fun and play loose, while the Americans dread losing and play tight. The result is four underdog European victories in the last five Cups and seven European conquests in the last 10 meetings.

Even with the underdog role reversed, it’s hard to picture this particular U.S. group discovering its inner Sergio or reversing its toxically tight team chemistry. There isn’t a mellow sort in the U.S. mix, other than perhaps Wetterich. Lehman is a classic blood-and-guts, crusade-style captain, and he didn’t do the U.S. team room tenor any decompression favors by adding serious soldiers Stewart Cink and Scott Verplank to the equation.

In the final analysis, there’s really no way to predict anything other than another Euro rout in Ireland, home-turf advantage tossing the final timber on the U.S. pyre. But one has to wonder if the Ryder thrill will still exist when Europe puts the sword to such a forgettable foe.

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