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Team Game

Europe are hot favourites for the Ryder Cup, and rightly so. But as Ed Hawkins points out, could Europe following America’s lead in not being fully together as a team? Are there chinks in the armour we can exploit?

“THERE is no ‘I’ in team,” so sports coaches across the US have bawled since the first squeak of sneakers on gym floors. They used to be right. These days across the pond the brats respond “but there is a ‘me’ in team”. The ‘Me’ has been blamed for America’s meagre record in team sports, one that threatens to undermine a bid to keep European hands off the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor in October.

America have suffered defeats in five of the last seven contests against Europe’s finest golfers, a record which some cannot fathom given that man-for-man, on paper, they have so often had the superior players. The answer to the brainteaser is that there have been too many ‘I’s’, too many ‘Me’s’ and not enough ‘We’s’ among those swinging under the Star-Spangled Banner.

Superstars of the PGA tour, like Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, have wrestled with the notion that they must, for three days every two years, morph into socialists from single-minded, selfish individuals. It is the present American culture. Ironically, the solitary golfer is by no means on his own.

The tennis players have won the Davis Cup only once since 1995, in 2004 the basketball Dream Team failed to win Olympic gold and their baseball counterparts have been dominated by Cuba, winning gold on a lone occasion. Ask any punter who backed Europe in the last seven Ryder Cups the main reason for his support and he is likely to respond ‘they were a team, the US weren’t’. Europe’s victories in 2004 and 2006, both by 18.5 to 9, were their biggest margins of success.

Europe are once again considered a brethren. For Celtic Manor Colin Montgomerie and his charges are as short as 4/7. America, at 9/5 with Boylesports, are close to being written off. The tie – there hasn’t been one since 1989 at The Belfry – is 11/1.

The money is expected to keep coming for Europe right up until the tee off. Two years ago at Valhalla, they were backed in to no better than even money with the US drifting to 11/8. And we know what will be driving the surge.

But should we allow ourselves to be carried along with the tide, like driftwood towards the sluice gates? Are a US team that comprises such undoubted talent as Mickelson, Steve Stricker and Hunter Mahan really going to be swept away so easily?

What if, and here’s a thought, US captain Corey Pavin, renowned for being ‘one of the good guys’ manages to recapture the Valhalla spirit, blending and cajoling his dispirited bunch to form a united front who drive, chip and putt together?

It can be an expensive game when punters attempt amateur psychology because no-one can really know what is going on in the mind of a captain, what words are being spoken in the team room or whispered behind another’s backs. Perhaps Europe might not be swinging in the same direction.

It is a far from a ridiculous notion. There have been rumblings for some time. First there have been the snubs by top players to skipper Montgomerie. Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy ignored his pleas for them to play at Celtic Manor in the Wales Open, a move that senior golf commentators admitted called into question Europe’s famed team spirit.

Then there were the FedEx Four. Paul Casey, Padraig Harrington, Justin Rose and Luke Donald chose to chase American dollars instead of Ryder Cup qualification at Gleneagles, despite a hand-wringing Monty pleading: “I’ll be very surprised if I pick any player on the border of the team whom I ask to play at Gleneagles and they don’t show up.” The captain has since gone back on that somewhat, selecting Harrington and Donald as two of his picks, with Edoardo Molinari the other – much to Rose and Casey’s chagrin.

"I thought I had as good as shot as anyone," said Rose, as news of the wildcards broke. "I think it's a very interesting selection. I don't think many people would have gone with those three."

It has to be a concern that if the players are not doing as their captain says in the build-up, they may do the same when the action begins. Certainly Montgomerie, whose wittering in the build-up has seen him live up to his Mrs Doubtfire moniker, is not a man golfers have queued up to get behind, unless they have wanted to his use his sturdy frame to shelter from the elements.

The Welsh wind and rain, of course, is given as another reason why America will falter. Sure, Mickelson and Co will hate seeing a ball blown off trajectory or having their faces pelted by precipitation, but the idea that the Europeans revel in it, or just plain don’t mind, is not one which should be subscribed to.

A more robust argument for backing Europe is that in a role reversal they have the better players. Given what has gone before in this article, and depending on your cynicism levels, that might put you off.

Two years ago they were superior too, with Nick Faldo’s team ranked a combined 266 compared to Paul Azinger’s collective 297. This time, the first seven automatic picks gave the score (at the time of writing): 105 Europe (Lee Westwood 3, Martin Kaymer 5, Rory McIlroy 7, Ian Poulter 11, Graeme McDowell 13), Ross Fisher 28 and Francesco Molinari 38) to 136 USA (Mickelson 2, Sticker 4, Mahan 12, Matt Kuchar 23, Dustin Johnson 24, Bubba Watson 25, Jeff Overton 46).

There is no disputing the numbers either, when it comes to the Ryder Cup disciplines over the last seven meetings. Europe are in profit on the foursomes (34-26), fourballs (27.5-20.5) and singles (38.5-33.5).

However, the numbers that really count for punters are the odds. And in a head-to-head that has become the global attraction it is today thanks to the tag line ‘anything can happen’, maybe the US are the call at attractive fractions. If they let you down, you at least know what to bawl at the television. “Jeez, there’s no ‘I’ in team, y’all”.

KEY RYDER CUP MOMENTS

1) ALL IN GOOD TASTE?

People think Americans were unpopular in Europe because of Iraq. Not so. At the Battle of Brookline in 1999, the American team ensured that whenever their countrymen would visit Paris, London or Madrid, waiters would spit in their soup. In what has been described as the mother of all comebacks (the US recovered from four behind), Justin Leonard holed a 40-foot putt on the 17th to spark disgracefully premature celebrations, with players, their wives, caddies and fans dancing on the green. They thought they had won. They hadn’t. Jose Maria Olazabal still had a putt to halve the hole and keep the match alive. He missed. “Those were the most disgusting scenes I've ever seen,” said Europe captain Sam Torrance.

2) LANGER CLANGER

Germans are not supposed to fissure under pressure. But Bernhard Langer did in 1991 at Kiawah Island in 1991. There was not a blade of grass between the two teams so it came down to the final match, the final hole, the final putt. Langer, who uncharacteristically for a German had suffered the yips, had a five-foot downhill put to give Europe a 14-13 victory. “I saw two spike marks on my line,” he said. “It looked like a left-left putt. I talked to my caddie. He said, ‘Hit it left centre and firm to avoid the spike marks’. That's what I tried to do. It did not go in.”

3) MONTY’S CLOSE CALL

Not one of the greatest Ryder Cup moments, but probably one of the most relevant for Celtic Manor given the insight it provides into Colin Montgomerie’s mind. At the ‘War on the Shore’ at Kiawah, Monty was making his Ryder Cup debut. He would go on to never lose a singles match in his entire career. But he should have lost the first. Against Mark Calcavecchia, Montgomerie was on the verge of conceding a point that Europe could not afford to lose. "I'd taken off my glove and handed it to my caddie. I was going to concede his two-foot putt and shake hands," recalled the Scot. "But then I thought, 'No - let him win the game, not me give it to him'. And he missed the hole completely." Calcavecchia, who was four up with four to play, imploded. Monty was not much better but halved the match.

4) DARREN DEFIES THE ODDS

There would have been punters who backed against Darren Clarke in the 2006 Ryder Cup at the K Club on the basis that the emotion of the occasion would have been too much for him. A few months before, Clarke’s wife, Heather, had died of cancer. Inspired by the supports of teammates and opposition players, Clarke decided to play after being skipper Ian Woosnam’s final wild card choice. With unprecedented vocal support roaring him on, Clarke recorded a 100% points tally.

5) BATTLE OF THE BELFRY

One of the enduring images of Ryder Cup battles down the years is at the Belfry in 1985 with the red pullover-wearing Sam Torrance standing legs apart with arms raised in defiance after landing the putt to give his team their first victory in 28 years. Europe and the USA could not be separated and on the approach to the 18th hole, there was suddenly daylight. American Andy North drove into the water. Torrance did not. Still he had work to do with the short stick, sinking a 22-foot putt for glory.

VITAL STATISTICS

• Europe’s victories in 2004 and 2006, both by 18.5 to 9, are their biggest margins of success

• Colin Montgomerie, Europe captain at Celtic Manor, is joint-third on Europe’s most matches won list. He has won 20, as has Seve Ballesteros

• The USA have twice won seven consecutive Ryder Cups – from 1935-55 and from 1971-1983

• Tiger Woods has lost 13 matches, second only to Ray Floyd’s 16

• Phil Mickelson (three) has halved more matches than any other American.

• Corey Pavin has a total of eight Ryder Cup points in his career having participated in 1991, 1993 and 1995. Montgomerie (23.5) is far more experienced. He missed out in 2008 but otherwise has been part of the European team in every contest since 1991
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