- The Washington Times - Friday, September 22, 2006

STRAFFAN, Ireland — It’s amazing that 14 inches of gold always seems to bring out the best in Europe’s band of individual underachievers.

With the opening swings of the 36th Ryder Cup coming today, one is reminded that for every U.S. hiccup over the last decade, there has been a European hero. During a run that has seen the Europeans sweep to victory in four of the last five Cups, perhaps the only thing more surprising than the anomalous struggles of American stalwarts like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson has been the unwavering Ryder Cup brilliance of Euros like Colin Montgomerie and Sergio Garcia.

Golf’s clubhouse co-leaders for the dubious distinction of best player never to win a major, Montgomerie and Garcia come to K Club with Ryder Cup resumes as formidable as their major credentials are futile.

In three appearances in the biennial event, Garcia has posted a Ryder Cup record of 10-3-2, the best winning percentage (73 percent) of the 24 men in attendance. The 43-year-old Montgomerie stands just behind him with a 19-8-5 record (67 percent) and the reputation as perhaps the greatest European performer in the event’s history.

“Monty is the guy who has been around the longest, and he’s put a dent in our points over the years,” American veteran Stewart Cink said. “If I had to pick one player out who has been their most outstanding Ryder Cupper over the last decade, it’s been Colin Montgomerie. … In the Ryder Cup, I think that’s where he shines the most.”

Given that golf at its highest level can be boiled down to the four majors and the two team match-play events (Ryder and Presidents Cups), that’s the only place Montgomerie has shined.

Just three months ago at Winged Foot, the surly Scot posted his 10th major top-10 without a victory in fittingly galling fashion, carding a 72nd-hole double-bogey from the center of the fairway to finish tied for second with Jim Furyk and Mickelson. In fact, Montgomerie had the U.S. Open’s goat horns all locked up until Lefty snatched them with his even more spectacular closing-hole swoon.

Nobody, save perhaps Garcia, has given away as many major opportunities without ever celebrating a breakthrough. And yet, on Sundays at the Ryder Cup, an event that players universally describe as the game’s ultimate stress-fest, Montgomerie has never lost. How can a man who wilts with such predictable certainty in major moments respond to golf’s most intense spotlight by posting a 5-0-2 singles record?

“The dynamic is just totally different,” Montgomerie said earlier this week. “The Ryder Cup is bigger than any one person. I can’t explain it other than by saying the team mentality brings out the best in us, all of Europe.”

Garcia has the same disconnect, countering a fruitless Slam stat line (no victories and 12 top-10s) with an almost unbeatable record in the Ryder Cup’s two-man formats (9-1-2).

The 26-year-old Spaniard can’t make a putt on Slam Sundays, but his stroke becomes pure platinum for three days every other year.

“It’s just definitely my favorite event,” said Garcia, who sincerely espouses that he would rather win the Ryder Cup than any major. “We only play it every two years and that makes it even more special. It’s just an unbelievable week and a special event.”

Perhaps the explanation for why Montgomerie and Garcia personify European excellence, providing a contrast to Woods, Mickelson and Furyk, is as simple as desire. Conventional wisdom has long held that the Europeans care more deeply about the event, perhaps because they do have more to prove given their second-tier tour and suspect Slam results.

But that simply seems like an oversimplification. The Americans care deeply, perhaps too much about the result and not enough about each other. It’s more likely that the Ryder Cup’s one-round, one-match, 18-hole formula has a knack of hiding flaws, flummoxing favorites and selecting the strangest of heroes.

The Americans would prefer that the fickle format finally select one of their own for such an uprising. The United States won’t win without help from an unlikely quarter, namely one of the bottom eight players on its top-loaded roster. Perhaps Ireland is the perfect place for the United States to find a lurking leprechaun capable or reversing its Ryder Cup woes.

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