Bangers and mash await knife and fork.
"Another pint, John?" a young man asks the burly fellow about to eat a plateful of sausages, mashed potatoes and gravy in the bar at the Berystede Hotel, 45 minutes outside of London.
"Thanks, mate," John Bickerton says, polishing off his Guinness and swabbing the foam off his upper lip with the back of his hand.
Everyone in the bar seems to know John, and vice versa. The 38-year-old Englishman, once a welder in his father's sheet-metal shop, has played golf on the European Tour since 1993. Tonight's a big night for Bickerton and his mates: Manchester United and Chelsea are about to meet in the final of the UEFA Champions League, marking the first time two English football clubs have played for Europe's most important trophy. "Most of the lads here are caddies, coaches, people who work for the Tour," Bickerton says. "A lot of players live nearby, or they'd be in here too. But they're all watching."
Most have a rooting interest, although not necessarily because they're United or Chelsea supporters. On the range that afternoon, through a cloud of cigar and cigarette smoke, bets are placed by players and caddies alike. "Twenty quid on Ronaldo to score the first goal," one caddie says, making an entry in what looks to be his yardage book. "And 20 on United to win one-nil."
Now kickoff's just minutes away. "I'm an Aston Villa man my whole life," says Bickerton, scraping the grease off his plate with a fork. "But this should be brilliant football." Even if it weren't such a big game, Bickerton says, there'd still be action on the range. "That's our Tour. The lads get on well with each other. The range isn't just a place to work on your shots; it's a place to get in your shots and to take some, as well."
Tomorrow, at the historic Wentworth Club, Bickerton will tee off at 7:40 a.m. in Round 1 of the BMW PGA Championship, arguably the European Tour's most prestigious event. But kickoff is now just minutes away. "Time to freshen up my pint," Bickerton says. "Cheers, mate."
THIS STORY INVESTIGATES THREE QUESTIONS:
1. Why does Europe kick America's tail in the Ryder Cup every two years?
2. Is it true the Euro players have better camaraderie?
3. Is it a fact that top American players fly to tournaments on private jets with wives, kids and nannies in tow or drive around in pimped-out RVs and stay in five-star hotels, while Euro Tour players travel like a 100-man rock band, flying commercial, hopping trains, sharing meals and drinks and trashing hotel rooms?
We'll get to Question 1 shortly, but the answers to Questions 2 and 3 are yes and yes.
Well, maybe not the part about trashing hotel rooms. But, as Bickerton said, the lads do get on well.
They have no choice. As the Euro Tour moves from China, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa to the U.A.E., Qatar, India and Indonesia—25 countries in all—the players find themselves in the same airports, on the same flights, adjusting to the same time zones. The Tour doesn't even reach Europe until late March and, by all rights, should properly be called the World Tour.
"It's forced us to get along," says England's Paul Casey, who'll play in his third
Ryder Cup, at Valhalla in Louisville, Sept. 19-21. "In China, for example, all 100 guys stay in the same hotel. There's one restaurant, one bar. In the States, you get your choice of a dozen nice hotels and 100 bars and restaurants at every event."
Togetherness on the Euro Tour comes by default. "After I won the China Open in 2005, the Hong Kong Open was the next stop," Casey says. "We all stayed over Sunday night, we all checked into the same hotel, and we all went straight to the bar. The word was out: Drinks on Paul Casey!"
So can you blame European Tour players for resenting Phil Mickelson? He swooped into China for the HSBC Champions this past November, won the tourney and 567,500 euros ($833,300), then flew right back to the U.S. Who picked up the bar tab?
Sure, the limited options of the Euro Tour can be a burden, but Casey says the upside becomes obvious at the Ryder Cup: "I think the fact that we know each other so well helps when we get in the team room." Adds Justin Rose, an Englishman who played the bulk of this season on the PGA Tour and who'll make his Ryder Cup debut at Valhalla: "We have more camaraderie than the Americans. Life on the European Tour is the reason."
Even country-music-singing, Hooters-loving, slot-machine-playing, Miller Lite-guzzling John Daly longs for the Euro life. "Them guys just have more fun together than we do," says the big guy. Teetotaling, Augusta-born and -bred Charles Howell III agrees: "The team spirit Europe has is no mirage."
Now back to Question 1 (restated): How has Europe, with lesser-known and lesser-bankrolled players, been able to thrash the U.S. the past three Ryder Cups and five of the past six?
Start with karma. Even if you bleed red, white and blue, the behavior of the U.S. team in 1999, the last time it won, was an embarrassment. The players not only wore hideous, team-picture-emblazoned shirts, they also tried to ignite the Brookline crowd during Sunday's singles matches with the lamest fist pumps in sports history. Then the wives stampeded the green after Justin Leonard sank his legendary 45-footer, even though José María Olazábal still had a 25-foot putt left that would've kept the match all square.
Not a proud moment for American golf.
That tournament also turned Colin Montgomerie, commonly perceived Stateside as the consummate Euro snob, into a sympathetic figure, so rudely was he treated by Boston fans. As the Yanks sprayed champagne from the clubhouse balcony, any American who had ever hit a range ball was probably thinking, I'd rather be drinking with Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke or smoking a stogie with Miguel Angel Jiménez. The European players were simply more likable. If there are golf gods—and we know there are—they turned on the U.S. that day.
Don't believe in karma? Then go back to what Charles Howell said about the Euros' team spirit. There may be no "i" in "team," but there's also no "t-e-a-m" in "golf," at least not on these shores. That attitude starts on the U.S. Kids Golf Tour, where 8- and 9-year-olds show up with caddies (or swing coaches) and scorecards and try to run the table on the field. Inevitably, the best players turn out to be lone wolves. Howell, one of the most personable players on the PGA Tour, sums it up this way: "I had 14 friends in high school, and they all fit in my golf bag. I did have a girlfriend, though. Her name was Big Bertha."
Contrast that with most of Europe—especially the U.K.—where kids play for golf teams and play team golf. "We work on matching shot shape and matching the mentality of the players," says Hugh Marr, coach of the Surrey County Golf Union in England. "Foursomes is an art, and it's hard for players not conditioned to it to play as a team." It's little wonder the Euros dominate the Americans in four-ball and foursomes at the Ryder Cup. In foursomes, two playing partners hit alternating shots. Player A drives, Player B hits the approach, Player A takes the first putt, and so on. In four-ball, both golfers on each two-man team play their own ball into the hole, and the best score counts. Partners have to make sacrifices. One might lay up while the other goes for the green. If one player hits a drive into trouble, his teammate may play it safe with an iron to stay in the hole. Older Americans play these formats at club events, but top young players? Rarely, if ever.
Ireland's Graeme McDowell, who starred at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, laughs about the team aspect of U.S. college golf. "We had fun on road trips," McDowell says. "And if you won a team trophy, you felt a sense of pride. But on the course, you were playing for yourself. If you scored well you helped the team, but it wasn't what I'd consider team golf."
Back at the hotel bar, the football match has reached halftime. A Sky Sports commercial plugs tomorrow's BMW PGA Championship, but mainly as part of the Ryder Cup countdown. "Follow it week to week," the announcer says, "the race to golf's holy grail." In England, golfers dream of playing in the Ryder Cup. "Winning a major is the only thing that would rank ahead of it for any of us," says Bickerton. "I honestly don't think that's true with the Americans. Shame, really."
A few weeks later, first-time U.S. Ryder Cupper Hunter Mahan confirms Bickerton's instincts, echoing criticisms leveled against the event by David Duval and Mark O'Meara back in 1999. Because players aren't compensated for participating, "you're just a slave that week," Mahan told Golf Magazine recently. "[Our] time is valuable … At some point, the players might say, 'We're not doing this anymore, because this is ridiculous.'" Mahan quickly apologized to U.S. captain Paul Azinger, but his comments did little to promote team spirit.
On the flip side, after a round at the Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, England's Oliver Wilson, clinging to a spot on the European team, offered his take on the Ryder Cup experience. "I'd pay to make the team," he says, "but if they auctioned it off, I couldn't afford it. It's that huge for us."
As the golf gods would have it, some funny things happened on the way to answering the three questions posed earlier in this story. For starters, Europe, whose roster looks a lot more like a major leader board than America's, became the heavy favorite when Tiger Woods went down in June. Yet maybe that raises a fourth question: Is the U.S. team better off without the best player in the world? Azinger says that's ludicrous, yet he relishes his team's position as "clear underdogs."
On the European side, increased expectations have brought a degree of tension. In the final days before Nick Faldo made his captain's picks, Ian Poulter missed the cut at the Deutsche Bank Championship, then complained about the British media's obsession with the Ryder Cup. When Faldo chose Poulter and Casey over fan favorite and team linchpin Darren Clarke, pundits buzzed that Faldo was ignoring team chemistry.
Meanwhile, U.S. player Kenny Perry skipped the British Open because he thought he stood a better chance of making the Ryder Cup team by playing in the U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee. Perry, a Kentucky native, was signaling that playing for his country in his home state was more important than competing in golf's oldest major.
"The fact that they're even talking about it is dangerous for Europe," says Casey. "In the past you've had Phil and Tiger butting heads a bit, which is understandable. I think new blood will be good for their chemistry. We've seen that it's about more than just having great players."
Should Europe be concerned that many of its top players live a chunk of their lives in the U.S., where travel is easy and the courses are always perfectly manicured? "I don't want to say that players on the U.S. Tour are spoiled," says McDowell, "but it's certainly different over there."
As he watches the Man U players celebrate their victory, Bickerton agrees: "The grass is certainly greener on the U.S. Tour, but we have something special here."
Half of Paul Azinger's squad is made up of Ryder Cup rookies, but considering the vets are a combined 19—37—17 in the biennial showdown, some new blood may be just the thing to end the Euros' reign.
Steve Stricker Once a prospect with potential, Stricker knows how to play through adversity. The Tour's 2006 Comeback Player of the Year had a solid showing at the 2007 Presidents Cup. At 41, he offers veteran perspective to complement the young talent.
Anthony Kim Don't mistake that giant "AK" belt buckle as a sign of cockiness. The 23-year-old has earned the right to be confident, recently becoming the first under-25 U.S. player since Tiger Woods to win two tourneys in the same season. His fearlessness should be an edge.
J.B. Holmes If anyone can be described as speaking softly and carrying a big stick, it's this small-town Kentuckian, whose 310.4-yard driving average ranks third on Tour. Holmes, 26, has an easygoing demeanor that makes him an ideal teammate.
Hunter Mahan Controversial comments aside, the transplanted Texan was a captain's pick because of his pure ball striking and solid overall stats. Mahan, 26, describes himself as a perfectionist, and Azinger is banking that he has the heart to prove it.
Boo Weekley He doesn't watch golf on TV, loves to hunt and has been known to chew tobacco while playing. Plus, the 35-year-old self-described redneck doesn't truck with golf's highfalutin ways. His comic relief and no-worries outlook will keep teammates loose.
Ben Curtis The 31-year-old has just three career wins, but one of them came at the 2003 British Open, a gutsy victory that demonstrates his heart and focus. He's also willing to put country first, having replaced his usual caddie, Brit Andrew Sutton, with American Tony Navarro in advance of Valhalla.