- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 23, 2006

STRAFFAN, Ireland — Some things never change.

The United States trails in the Ryder Cup after Day 1 once again. And another intractable U.S. captain is more concerned with static game plans and holding hands than victory.

Tom Lehman made a rookie mistake yesterday at K Club.

Lehman arrived on the Emerald Isle practically begging for a glint of sunshine from one of the four unheralded rookies at the bottom of his roster. Yesterday he got more like a supernova from 31-year-old greenhorn J.J. Henry. Making his debut alongside Stewart Cink in the morning four-balls, all Henry did was card as many birdies (five) as any other player on the property, leading the American pairing from 3-down at the turn to a comeback halve with a dramatic 18th-hole birdie.

So what does our intrepid captain do with the torrid Henry? He puts him on the shelf for the afternoon foursomes.

Why?

“That’s a good question,” said Henry, who spent the afternoon watching as the Americans didn’t win a single match to fall behind 5-3. “Being a rookie, I wouldn’t have thought that I would play all five matches anyway, so who knows. … Would I have liked to play? Of course, everybody wants to play, absolutely. But at the same time, Captain Lehman has done a tremendous job.”

Really? Lehman has certainly done a solid job of fostering camaraderie among a Stars and Stripes bunch typically defined by a case of toxic team chemistry. But pulling Henry from the lineup certainly raises serious concerns about his strategy.

Like so many U.S. captains before him, Lehman was totally married to his afternoon game plan regardless of the morning results. Never mind that Henry was brilliant in the four-balls or that Phil Mickelson and Chris DiMarco were shaky from start to finish. Lehman had a plan, and he was sticking to it.

It wasn’t a format issue. Henry is as solid tee-to-green as just about anybody on the U.S. roster. And if he was worried about the Texas resident’s occasionally spotty short game, Henry should have answered those questions at the par-5 18th.

With seemingly the whole of Ireland gathered around K Club’s final green, Henry managed a clutch up-and-down birdie from a nasty side-hill lie in the right greenside bunker, dead-centering a 10-footer to dispel any doubts about how he would handle Ryder Cup pressure.

“I dug deep down and said, ‘I might miss a putt like this, but it’s not going to happen today.’ And sure enough, I knocked it right in the center of the hole,” said Henry, who won his first PGA Tour event at the Buick Championship in July and then rolled into the Ryder Cup in good form after back-to-back, top-10 finishes. “To be honest with you, I was excited and felt like I was playing really well coming in. I wasn’t as nervous as everybody talks about. … I was determined to go out this morning and play well and prove to everybody that I belonged on this team.”

He proved that he belonged in the afternoon lineup. But Lehman refused to make the necessary halftime adjustments.

Perhaps it should surprise nobody that a man named Lehman is in lockstep mode. But you expect more from the ardent 47-year-old respected by every player on both teams for his combination of midwestern grit and understated, standup style. In many ways, Lehman has been the anti-Hal Sutton this week, but he took a few steps down the ill-fated path of the 2004 U.S. captain with his inflexibility yesterday.

Sutton, of course, stubbornly stuck with his Tiger Woods/Mickelson mismarriage for both sessions on the opening day at Oakland Hills although the tandem’s atrocious synergy was obvious in an opening four-ball loss to Padraig Harrington and Colin Montgomerie.

That failure to adapt set the tone for the most lopsided U.S. loss in the event’s history.

Yesterday’s error by Lehman was far less egregious, given that it cost the team no more than half a point. But everyone knew going in that the United States was a serious underdog that couldn’t win without a major contribution from an unexpected quarter, namely the four rookies at the bottom of the roster. Lehman found his dark horse help in Henry’s four-ball heroics and then decided to stable his surprise stallion.

It’s understandable that Lehman is loathe to break up or bench his two power pairings (Woods/Furyk and Mickelson/DiMarco). But that still left four more available slots for Henry, who was unquestionably the U.S. man of the morning. But it’s clear that Lehman has a script that includes playing all of his charges, however worthy, before the singles.

“Absolutely, [I considered sending Henry back out],” Lehman said. “J.J. is playing great golf, no doubt about it. … What can I say — there’s only eight spots. It was my goal to play everybody [before the singles] this week.”

Ah, there’s the rub. Everybody plays. Everybody wins. That’s a great slogan for little league baseball. But the Ryder Cup is big-boy stuff, and only one team walks away a winner on Sunday night. Usually, that’s the team that identifies its dynamo du jour and rides him, not the team that pays homage to last year’s heroes, yesterday’s game plan and tomorrow’s tour pals.

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