Europe's spirit may overwhelm the Americans

Something was missing the last time.

Perhaps perspective had returned to the Ryder Cup after the unfortunate fan abuse directed at the European team at The Country Club near Boston in 1999 and the inappropriate celebration by American players, caddies, families and hangers-on at the 17th green before the competition was decided. Perhaps the 2002 match at The Belfry in England lost some sizzle because of the one-year delay following the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Perhaps the American team was a little flat at the Belfry because nationalism took on a different meaning -- a non-sports meaning -- after Sept. 11.

But this much is clear: If the American players and their fans don't pour some energy back into this competition, they had better get use to seeing Europe take home the Ryder Cup.

For reasons that are both mysterious and obvious at the same time, the Ryder Cup simply seems to mean more to the European side. It is, for them, the fifth major championship. The fact that the U.S. team has five major winners among its 12-man squad while Europe has none will mean absolutely nothing when play starts Friday at Oakland Hills CC near Detroit. What matters for the Europeans -- what always matters for the Europeans -- is the perception on their part that they do not get the credit they deserve unless they forsake their home tour to play full time in the United States. That chip on their collective shoulders is the 13th man that had helped Europe keep the Cup in six of the last nine competitions.

What happened on the 17th green at The Country Club was wrong and should never be repeated. Not only was it not in the spirit of sportsmanship, it also came dangerously close to directly impacting play. The mostly alcohol-fueled taunts directed at Colin Montgomerie also have no place in the game. Let's hope those incidents at Brookline were one-time aberrations and not a foreshadowing of things to come. And let's hope that the loss of an appetite for a team competition drawing upon national lines was also a one-time thing in the wake of Sept. 11.

The Ryder Cup is the most intense competition in professional golf, and has become even more intense since Europe emerged as a truly worthy opponent with its victory at The Belfry in 1985. If spirit has been lost in this competition, it has been on the part of the American players.

If there is a perfect time for Hal Sutton to be captain of the U.S. team this is it. Sutton, who once faced down Tiger Woods in a final-round of the Players Championship with a final-hole plea -- spoken for all to hear -- for his approach shot to "be the right club today" might just light a fire under a bunch of guys who have more to lose than they do to gain in the Ryder Cup. After all, they are Americans, aren't they supposed to win? That is exactly the attitude that fuels the fire of the Europeans. And it is exactly the attitude that allows the Americans to be painted as players who care more about individual financial gain than about collective team glory.

On paper, the Americans surpass the European team in total major championships (12 to zero, with eight by Woods) and in average place on the Official World Ranking (18.33 to 37.75). But in total number of career victories, the U.S. squad has only a 123-117 lead and, in what likely matters more, the Europeans lead in victories this year with 11 to seven by the Americans. Who has the most victories this year on the two teams? Miguel Angel Jimenez with four.

But most importantly, and this gets back to the spirit thing, the Europeans outdistance the Americans when it comes to team leaders. Who would you say is the spark plug of the American side? Woods has a losing record in Ryder Cup play, has been far from himself this year and has never shown the same fire in team play he shows when he is competing for himself. Phil Mickelson finally won a major this year but Sutton can't be too happy that he is coming into Oakland Hills with new -- virtually untested -- sticks in his bag. Jay Haas brings maturity but he last won a PGA Tour event 11 years ago. Who is the player that will rev up the crowd with a dramatic shot at just the right time? Anyone seen John Daly?

Europe, on the other hand, has the irascible and reliable Montgomerie, the effusive Sergio Garcia, the Gold Dust twins -- Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood -- and the most reliable mechanic in the game in Jimenez. Padraig Harrington is ranked ninth in the world and Luke Donald has won on both sides of the Atlantic in his career. The Europeans, who always turn out to have a sum that is greater than its parts, might actually have the better team this year.

If the Americans think they can simply stroll into Oakland Hills and walk away with the Ryder Cup they are sadly mistaken. The fire that was there during the Sunday singles matches at The Country Club needs to return, not in the form of premature green-trampling celebrations but in the form of inspired play. After watching the Ryder Cup reside mostly in European hands since 1985, the U.S. team needs to enter this year's competition with a sense of ownership over the Cup. It needs to recapture the energy of Lanny Wadkins and Paul Azinger and Payne Stewart. If there has been some sizzle lost in the Ryder Cup it has been on the part of the American players. They need to go into this year's competition playing like they want to win, playing like it matters.

The Europeans surely will.

Ron Sirak is the Executive Editor of Golf World magazine.

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