Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Same Old Song

The American Ryder Cup team shouldn't have been surprised when the Irish crowd briefly interrupted the closing ceremonies Sunday afternoon for a rousing rendition of 'Ole, Ole,' the European fight song.
They'd been hearing it all day.
The Americans didn't just lose the Ryder Cup. They got walloped -- again.
Why does this keep happening?
It happened this time because the Europeans just played better. They always had the momentum, holed seemingly every crucial putt and played with their typical passion.
Match-play golf is built on momentum and the Americans never had any.
This Ryder Cup belonged to the Europeans from the start. Some of it had to do with talent. On the first morning, Ian Woosnam benched three players ranked in the top 14 in the world. That's how deep the Europeans were.
The Americans' best chances -- the Tiger Woods-Jim Furyk and Chris DiMarco-Phil Mickelson pairings -- weren't particularly productive. Woods and Furyk did okay but Mickelsonn and DiMarco were a bust.
The rookies didn't hurt the U.S. team. Throw them in with the two captain's picks and they produced more points than the top six players in the American lineup.
So, after consecutive wipe-outs, where do the U.S. go next?
That's what everyone is trying to figure out. It's expected that Paul Azinger will be the next captain and he's not afraid to speak his mind.
But Tom Lehman can't be faulted for his preparation. The players spoke glowingly of Lehman's captaincy. They just didn't play well enough.
They came to Ireland looking for the Ryder Cup. They left looking for answers -- again.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Without Hope What Is There?

It would be easy to bury the American Ryder Cup team right now and a lot of people probably are.
They're down 10-6 entering the Sunday singles and they've looked dull. Not disinterested, just dull.
Too many putts have burned the edges, too many chances have been wasted, too many things haven't happened.
Golf, like any other sport, is often built on momentum. It's huge in the Ryder Cup and the Americans have never, not for a second, had it.
Their only hope is to grab it Sunday and never let go -- and that may not be enough.
It's easy to point to the American failures so far. Phil Mickelson has done nothing. Chris DiMarco has done nothing. Four matches for Phil, three for DiMarco, no wins.
Tiger hasn't been too much better. He was flat Friday and lousy Saturday morning but he and Jim Furyk kept alive the Americans' slender hopes by winning the last point on Saturday.
Has Tom Lehman made all the right moves?
He should have played J.J. Henry more than he did the first two days and he should have put Phil Mickelson on the bench Saturday afternoon when it was obvious the left-hander didn't have it. Maybe he should have played Vaughn Taylor earlier, too.
Ian Woosnam looks brilliant because everything is working. That's what happens when more putts fall than for the Americans.
I expect the Americans to make a game of it Sunday. That doesn't mean they're going to win -- the Europeans are too good and too deep -- but the U.S. may give them a scare.
David Toms is a good match against Colin Montgomerie.
Sergio Garcia may be too much for Stewart Cink but Sergio's record on Sunday's playing by himself isn't too good these days.
The Jim Furyk-Paul Casey match could swing the early matches. Two terrific players going head to head.
Tiger beats Robert Karlsson then it gets tricky. But if the Americans can get up big on most of the early matches, something unexpected could happen.
When Woosnam was asked Saturday night if he was worried things could go all wrong for his team on Sunday, Woosie said, "Yes."
They probably won't. Four points is huge when the Americans need 8 1/2 to win the cup.
But it could happen.

Friday, September 22, 2006

A false start

The United States Ryder Cup team -- and everyone distantly related to it -- has a uniform for everything they do here in Ireland.

Wonder if they have a "been there, done that" T-shirt?

One day in, the Americans find themselves in a familiar spot -- trailing 5-3 after watching Sergio Garcia play like Tiger Woods and Colin Montgomerie make another putt that matters.

The Americans weren't bad and they're certainly not finished with 20 more matches to go but they need to play better than they did Friday if they want to spend Saturday night anticipating rather than dreading Sunday.

The simple solution is to make more putts. That's what captain Tom Lehman saw as the problem and there's something to that.

But it's deeper than that.

The Americans need to play better period.

That's possible, maybe even likely. Tiger Woods went 1-1 with Jim Furyk Friday and neither had their best stuff. The chances of both of them being dull on Saturday is slim.

The bigger question is whether the Chris DiMarco-Phil Mickelson team can find its mojo. Mickelson looks almost disengaged. He's not the same crisp player he was three months ago and he needs to be for the U.S. to win.

Here are some other impressions after the first day:

  • Sergio Garcia is amazing in the Ryder Cup. If he played and putted every week as well as he does in the Ryder Cup, Tiger would have a challenger at No. 1.
  • The Europeans showed their depth by getting at least one-half point from every player. That's the difference in the Euros and the Americans. Lehman still hasn't put Scott Verplank and Vaughn Taylor out. Verplank goes out Saturday morning but if things go bad in the four-balls, Taylor may not play before Sunday's singles.
  • J.J. Henry was a stud. He can make some birdies, the guys like him and it may have been a mistake for Lehman to sit him down Friday afternoon. If the Americans are going to find an unlikely hero, it may be him.
  • The Americans won the team uniform battle on Friday. Nice call on the black pants, gray shirts and gray-and-white argyle sweaters.
  • Sweetest moment of the day belonged to Darren Clarke at the first tee when the crowd roared for him and the guys he was playing with -- Lee Westwood, Mickelson and DiMarco -- each gave him a hug.
  • Two key matches for the Americans in Saturday's four-balls: Woods and Furyk must beat Clarke and Westwood, and Mickelson and DiMarco must beat Garcia and Olazabal. Otherwise, you're counting on Zach Johnson and Scott Verplank to beat Henrik Stenson and Padraig Harrington. Ummm....

Tiger does his part early

Considering his day began with a fat, pulled 3-wood into the water on the par-4 first hole, Tiger Woods' morning improved nicely as he and Jim Furyk, the new American dream team, were the only American winners in four-ball play, edging Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington 1-up.

If the Americans are going to win the Ryder Cup back, Woods needs to contribute at least four points, which is more than half his career point total. Trailing 2 1/2 - 1 1/2 after the morning wasn't a disaster but it seemed too familiar, given the Americans' recent poor starts.

The featured match with Woods wasn't spectacular, perhaps because it took nearly 5 1/2 hours to complete. Woods made the difference with consecutive birdies early in the back nine to put his team ahead. Then they held off the Europeans, neither of whom looked particularly sharp.

The sharpest American in the morning was rookie J.J. Henry, who made five birdies and has been the best U.S. player in practice this week. Had Henry and Cink won their match rather than halve it after being 3-down, it could have been the emotional spark the Americans needed.

The Phil Mickelson-Chris DiMarco pairing didn't have its Presidents Cup magic as they lost. Mickelson looked flat, making just one birdie, suggesting we may not see the Phil we see at the Masters.

In the afternoon, captain Tom Lehman made a couple of curious decisions. He sat Henry, who was the morning's top player, and he also kept Scott Verplank on the bench. Verplank was a captain's pick largely for his alternate-shot talents, where he's straight off the tee and a terrific clutch putter. It raises the question if Verplank's back is bothering him or if Lehman thought the long conditions, exacerbated by afternoon showers, worked against Verplank.

The best part of the morning was Darren Clarke. Everyone knows his sad story now, and he was greeted on the first tee by a roaring ovation. He then smacked his opening tee shot down the middle and birdied the first hole like something from a storybook.

When Clarke closed out Mickelson and DiMarco with a birdie at the last, there were tears in his eyes. As a reward, captain Ian Woosnam gave Clarke the afternoon off.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

On Your Mark, Get Set...

U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman got another thing right.
He kept the Tiger Woods-Jim Furyk and Phil Mickelson-Chris DiMarco pairings together for the first set of matches in the Ryder Cup. That doesn't mean they're going to win but it means Lehman didn't ignore the chemistry lessons learned last fall at the Presidents Cup.
Play to your strengths. That's what both sides are doing.
When Ian Woosnam stuck Padraig Harrington and Colin Montgomerie out first, he figured they'd line up against Woods and Furyk and he was right. He's hoping they can give the Europeans the same dynamite they provided two years ago when they beat Woods and Mickelson in the first match on the first day, setting the tone for the weekend.
What's different this time is Woods is at the top of his game. Two years ago, he was still working through his swing change with Hank Haney and was paired with Mickelson, who had just changed equipment companies and seemed like a man who didn't want to be there.
Woods is comfortable with Furyk, who cracks jokes under his breath at times, amusing Woods.
For both sides, a victory in the first match would be a huge boost, though it's only the first step in a long march.
The Americans have a strategy though Lehman wouldn't reveal it Thursday. It likely centers on getting off to a solid start, rather than playing themselves into a hole as they've typically done early.
In pairing Brett Wetterich with David Toms, Lehman opted to go for power on a long, wet course and temper it with Toms' calming influence. Most expected Toms to play with Chad Campbell but Lehman likes what Wetterich brings and had the pairing in mind after the team visited Ireland last month.
Woosnam chose to pair Jose Maria Olazabal with Sergio Garcia, putting the Spaniards together in hopes of recapturing some of the Ryder Cup magic Olazabal had with Seve Ballesteros. He may be on to something.
Match play golf is a different animal. You can play very well and lose or you can scrape it around and still scrape out a win. Two years ago, Woods and Mickelson shot a better-ball 31 on the first nine against Montgomerie and Harrington and were 1-down at the turn.
That's the way it goes.
There is encouraging news on the weather front here. The rain is expected to end overnight and the forecast for the weekend is good. Temperatures in the upper 60s, 15 to 20 mile per hour winds and only a slight chance of rain.
They're likely to play lift, clean and cheat because it's so muddy but it may be the only fair way to play given how muddy the course is.
The best news is it's finally time to play.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Hear Tiger Roar

The price of being Tiger Woods is waking up one morning and finding a provocative story and photos of your beautiful wife plastered across a publication, suggesting more is available if you want to comb through some porn websites.
It didn't matter that later in the day, the people in charge at The Dubliner magazine issued an apology, weakly explaining that the story -- which fired oversized darts at all the wives of the American players -- was intended to be a satire of tabloids. They had no doubt been contacted by some of Mr. Woods' legal representatives -- as they should have -- and they were doing damage control far too late.
It's true that Elin Nordegren Woods has modeled bikinis in her past. There are plenty of photos in cyberspace of her and Woods acknowledged that when he spoke out about the Dubliner story Wednesday morning.
Woods sounded noble in the way he defended his wife. He made an uncomfortable moment an impressive one.
He said what he wanted and he moved on.
This Ryder Cup is about golf, after all, even if a small hurricane is trying to ruin everything for Ireland.
It isn't just blowing over here. It's howling like N.C. State fans after a win over North Carolina. There are moments when walking straight ahead becomes a 50-50 proposition. And it's been raining buckets with no guarantee either the wind or rain will subside before the Celtic drummers take the stage for Thursday's opening ceremonies.
One day, two storms.
Just wait until the golf begins.