Since 1985 the hallmark of the Ryder Cup has been cutthroat
competitiveness and cuticle-chewing finishes, so imagine what a
relief it must be for this year's U.S. team to have already been
declared the victor. As everyone knows by now, those plucky
underdogs from Europe haven't been this hopelessly overmatched
since, well, since 1995, but never mind Choke Hill. Let's talk
about this American team's overwhelming superiority. "Fifty
years from now, we may look back and decide the 1997 Ryder Cup
team was our best ever," one golf publication has breathlessly
"This team looks like the future of golf," Tom Lehman was moved
to say following last month's PGA Championship.
Tapping (or should we say typing) into the zeitgeist, a golf Web
site posed the following question: Which side has more talent? A
whopping 91% of the respondents keyed in "the Americans." Asked
which side "has more guts under pressure," 65% voted for the
Stars and Stripes.
When normally tight-lipped U.S. captain Tom Kite declared, "This
could be the strongest team ever," critical mass was achieved.
Who can argue? I mean, look at this team. We've got Tiger Woods!
Granted, he hasn't done squat since July, missed the first cut
of his pro career in his final tune-up for Valderrama and is a
Ryder Cup rookie, but how many players on the European team have
won the Triple Crown--guest slots on Leno, Oprah and Barbara
Even if Tiger flops, the U.S. team can lean on that solid
Midwestern oak, Lehman. O.K., so Lehman hasn't won in almost a
year and his most memorable swings this season were two ugly
hooks into the water. At least he tries hard.
Not that he'll have to, though, because Phil Mickelson's on our
side. Yes, it does seem like he enters a witness protection
program before every major, his putting is in and out, and under
pressure his swing is looser than Fuzzy's lips, but no one can
deny that he leads both teams in victories in the Nortel Open.
Jim Furyk? Here's a guy who ran off eight straight top 10s this
summer, which is another way of saying that he has perfected the
art of coming close. Furyk hasn't won since February 1996. We
won't mention the 80 he shot in the Canadian Open.
Jeff Maggert has been runner-up almost as often as Susan Lucci,
and his 10 seconds since his last win, in 1993, don't even
include his most memorable self-immolation, at this year's U.S.
Open. If Mark O'Meara is immune to Ryder Cup pressure, it's only
because he's so apathetic. Of course, with a 2-5-1 record in
three appearances, who wouldn't be? Fred Couples has been on
autopilot all year as he deals with an ill father and
girlfriend. Equally distracted is Brad Faxon, who's in the
middle of a divorce and an even uglier estrangement from
teammate Scott Hoch. Getting his mind off golf may be helpful to
Faxon, who has won only once since '92 and is 0-3 in playoffs
the past two seasons. Then there's Lee Janzen, who should've
been picked in '95 but wasn't, and who got picked this year and
shouldn't have been. Janzen, at 33 the youngest U.S. captain's
pick ever, hasn't won in more than two years.
Only three players on the mighty U.S. team are on their
games--Hoch, Justin Leonard and Davis Love III. Leonard and Love
have been playing out of their minds all summer, which makes you
wonder when the law of averages is going to kick in. Hoch,
meanwhile, has a chance to make Ryder Cup history by becoming
the first man to play in the foursomes without a partner, owing
to the fact that his teammates treat him like poison ivy.
American honks have been trumpeting the fact that it took about
200 more points to qualify for this team than for the '95 squad.
Ostensibly a sign of strength, this two-year grind also helps
explain the lackluster play of many U.S. team members--the
thrill was in the chase and left them burned out.
In contrast the Europeans seem to be peaking. Costantino Rocca
fired a final-round 62 to win the European Masters two weeks
ago, while Nick Faldo shot a 66-65-68-70 to finish sixth. Having
detected the swing flaw that has bedeviled him most of the year,
Faldo says he hasn't felt this locked and loaded since February,
when he won in Los Angeles. Darren Clarke and Colin Montgomerie
also finished in the top 10 in the European Masters. Clarke will
headline Europe's so-called second team, which is stronger than
it has been in years. Young studs like Thomas Bjorn, Padraig
Harrington and Lee Westwood will bring a lot of game and
chutzpah to their first Ryder Cup, and don't think they aren't
motivated by all the heavy breathing about the Americans. The
untidy dismissal of Miguel Angel Martin shouldn't be
underestimated, either. In addition to strengthening the team by
allowing Jesper Parnevik to join it, the controversy will fuel
the Europeans' bunker mentality.
Amid all the speculation, this much we know: Come Sept. 26 the
Americans will have the chance to justify their billing. There's
also the possibility they'll earn a different superlative: The
greatest U.S. team to lose the Ryder Cup.
COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS: EVANGELOS VIGLIS [Drawing of men's arms, representing different European countries, sticking pins in balloon representing American golfer]