So far in the '90s we've had a War by the Shore, a Battle of the
Belfry, a Choke Hill and a Trauma at Valderrama. The last Ryder
Cup of the decade, Sept. 24-26 at the Country Club in Brookline,
Mass., is a no-brainer. Get ready for a Boston Massacre. Yes,
that goes against recent history, but a new chapter begins in
Brookline. The U.S. players want to be paid? Fine. Just provide
the payback. Here's why the U.S. will finally live up to its
pretournament billing and win easily.
Start with Tiger Woods. We can dispense with the World Ranking
for the next dozen years or so. Woods is the best player in the
world and figures to remain so, and we don't need a ranking to
state the obvious. There will be golfers who play better for
short stretches. David Duval had a great run this spring, and
Colin Montgomerie beats up on the European tour every summer.
Mild-mannered Ernie Els seems capable of hopping into a phone
booth and changing into a red cape if he has a mind to. But
based on what Woods has done over the course of the year, there
is no doubt about who's No. 1.
Woods was a remarkable talent when he turned pro late in the
1996 season, but the player who sparked Tigermania by winning
twice in his first seven starts to play his way into the Tour
Championship after only two months on the circuit was a mere
shadow of the force he has become. That became clear last week
when Woods dominated (10-under-par 270) the formidable South
Course at Firestone Country Club in Akron while winning the $1
million first prize in the NEC Invitational, the second of the
three $5 million World tour events, with a field featuring
members of the '98 Presidents Cup and current Ryder Cup teams.
Woods has evolved into a complete player, one with more shots
and more power than any of his peers. There is only one event in
which he hasn't gotten the job done--the Ryder Cup. He was not a
factor in '97 at Valderrama, going 1-3-1 and losing his singles
match to Costantino Rocca. The way Woods is playing now, a
repeat performance is almost unimaginable.
The Europeans are woefully inexperienced. They have seven
rookies on their team and will be without the war horses they
rode to glory in the '90s. With Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo,
Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam gone, the hopes of Europe will
ride on one of the rookies and four veterans: Sergio Garcia, the
19-year-old first-year player; Montgomerie, who has a love-hate
relationship with the States; Jose Maria Olazabal, the Masters
champ who hasn't been right since he punched a hotel room wall
at the U.S. Open; Jesper Parnevik, the curious Swede; and Lee
Westwood, England's own boy wonder. Woods, who has played in
only one Ryder Cup, would rank as the third most experienced
Euro. "On paper, the Americans would blow Europe out of the
water," says Els. "If they played the Ryder Cup at stroke play,
the Americans would beat them quite comfortably."
At Firestone the Americans did blow away the Europeans. The 12
U.S. Ryder Cuppers (in addition to Duval and Woods, they are Jim
Furyk, Tom Lehman, Justin Leonard, Davis Love III, Jeff Maggert,
Phil Mickelson, Mark O'Meara, Steve Pate, Payne Stewart and Hal
Sutton) finished a combined seven under par. The Europeans were
73 over, an 80-shot difference. "What does this mean?" asked
Westwood, tongue firmly in cheek. "It means that the European
team is far inferior. We are massive underdogs, and the U.S. is
a huge favorite. I don't think anyone in America will give us a
Yes, the Europeans, who didn't wrap up Ryder Cup qualifying
until the week before the NEC, were fatigued in Akron, but their
performance was too poor to dismiss. Garcia, who tied for
seventh last week at two under, eight strokes behind Woods, was
the only European to break par. Nine of the 15 worst scores
belonged to Euros. Olazabal shot an 80 last Friday, then started
Sunday's round with three straight 6s and finished next to last
in the 41-man field. "This game is a mystery," he said. "Friday
spoiled the whole week for me. I didn't even practice. I went
straight to the hotel because I'd had enough." Uh, the hotel,
Jose? "The walls are O.K.," he said.
Olazabal, Europe's most experienced Ryder Cupper (he has a
14-8-3 record in five appearances), is on the ropes and knows
it. "It's tough as hell," he said last week. "I've been
struggling since the U.S. Open, since I hurt my [right] hand--a
silly, silly mistake on my part." Reminded that he still holds
the course record at Firestone--in 1990 he shot a 61 in the
first round of the World Series of Golf--Olazabal shook his head
and said, "I'll never forget that day. What I can't remember is
how I did it."
Montgomerie is the European tour's big dog. He has won five
events this season and is on his way to becoming that tour's
leading money winner for a record seventh straight year. He
finished seven over in Akron, along with Jarmo Sandelin of
Sweden. Monty, though, had an excuse. In the weeks leading up to
Akron he had won the Scandinavian Masters, flown to Medinah and
come in sixth at the PGA, flown to Munich and won the BMW
International Open, then flown back for the NEC. To make matters
worse, a rain delay last Thursday meant that he had to play 35
holes on Friday. Predictably, he shot 75 on the second 18.
The World Ranking, which admittedly favors U.S. players because
of the PGA Tour's superior depth, also makes the European team
appear weak. Nine of the 15 top-ranked players are Americans.
Only two (No. 3 Montgomerie and No. 5 Westwood) are Europeans.
No American is further down in the ranking than 30th (Pate).
Four Europeans rank 65th or worse. In terms of cold cash, the
U.S. beat the Europeans by about $1.8 million at Firestone. "I
guess that means we better play the Ryder Cup here," said Love.
Then he got serious. "No matter what stats you use, we always
look like we should win, but you're not going to convince me
we're going to win because of stats. We should've won the last
two Ryder Cups and the Presidents Cup, but we didn't."
The U.S. was favored in the '95 Ryder Cup at Oak Hill, but
Europe came from behind on the last day, in the singles, to win.
The U.S. was heavily favored again in '97 but lost, mostly due
to a lack of familiarity with Valderrama. Course knowledge
should not be a problem this time around. The NEC had barely
ended when eight of the 12 members of the U.S. team rushed off
to the airport to catch a charter flight to Boston for a Monday
practice round at the Country Club.
Woods (as well as Lehman, Love and O'Meara) was not among them,
but he still looms large. His numbers speak for themselves: four
victories in his last seven starts on Tour and five for the
year. (He won a sixth event in Europe.) The last 23-year-old to
win five times in a season was Jack Nicklaus, in 1963. Woods has
played in 67 Tour events and has won 12 of them--or better than
one out of six. He is the Tour's most feared closer, winning
nine of the 10 times when he has led or shared the lead after 54
holes. He has missed the cut only twice, and his current streak
of 36 straight cuts made is the Tour's longest. Woods has
finished in the top 10 in 13 of the 18 tournaments he has played
this year. The money he has won is meaningless as a means of
comparison, yet for the record, Woods has earned $4.27 million
in '99 and is up to $8.97 million for his career, 12th on the
The most impressive number Woods came up with last week was the
62 he laid on the field in the third round. That gave him a
five-shot lead going into Sunday. He looked invincible, but as
all golfers know, no one ever is. Just like at the PGA, where
his five-stroke cushion evaporated on the back nine, Woods's
advantage was also whittled down to a single shot at Akron.
Instead of Garcia, this time it was Phil Mickelson who
challenged, with five birdies on the first seven holes to make
the turn in 30. Mickelson bogeyed two of the last three holes,
though, to finish with a 65, and when Woods made a clutch
15-footer for birdie at 17, he took a two-shot lead to the final
tee. Mickelson, who was watching Woods on a TV in the scoring
trailer along with his wife, Amy, their baby daughter, Amanda,
and his caddie, Jim MacKay, stuffed his glove and some tees back
into his golf bag after Woods holed that putt, sure that there
wouldn't be a playoff.
He was right, even though Woods bogeyed the final hole.
Mickelson wasn't around to see it. He had some business to take
care of in Boston.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Swing low Woods tamed Firestone with an array of knockdowns and half-shots.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Garcia struggled, yet he was the only European under par in the 80-shot rout.
"What does this mean?" asked Westwood, tongue firmly in cheek.
"It means that the European team is far inferior."