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The U.S. could win more if its best played better

So the U.S. Ryder Cup team is right where it was on this day two years ago, battered and bruised and searching for answers. Now what? Bring in Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as captains? Let them pick the 12 players they want? Beat up Sergio Garcia so he can't play next time?

Sure, the PGA of America can consider all sorts of scenarios in the coming weeks as it decides on a new captain for the 2008 Ryder Cup at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky.

And those folks might sit down and quibble with the picks and pairings, debate the merits of the qualification process, wonder about the commitment of the players, or consider dozens of other reasons the U.S. team is having so much trouble at an event it used to dominate.

But all of the consternation neglects one apparent fact: The top U.S. players simply need to play better.

That's what it boils down to, really.

Ian Woosnam is a genius today? Not really. His players performed. Tom Lehman is a dunce? Nope. He didn't miss a single fairway, green or putt.

Let's face it, too much is made about the role of the captains, anyway. Lehman appeared to have done everything right going in, Woosnam everything wrong, and the Europeans still won by the same nine points they did two years previous, matching their biggest victory ever.

For three straight Ryder Cups now, it has been a matter of America's best not being at their best.

Yes, No. 1-ranked Tiger Woods went 3-2, his best showing in five Ryder Cup appearances. But he was an ordinary 2-2 with No. 2 Jim Furyk in the team competition. Furyk then lost his singles match on Sunday. No. 3 Phil Mickelson was not on the winning side of a single match, going 0-4-1. David Toms, ranked 15th in the world, was 0-3-1; same for No. 16 Chris DiMarco.

That means those five players -- the heart and soul of the U.S. team -- managed to factor in 4½ of the 9½ points the U.S. team won.

Or, not nearly enough.

You can make it this simple. If Woods and Furyk go 3-1 instead of 2-2 and Mickelson and DiMarco go 1-1-1 instead of 0-2-1, the matches would have been tied going into Sunday.

Maybe it wouldn't have mattered, given the sorry state of U.S. singles play. But with the match tied, things might have been different.

Or look at it this way. Nine of the 16 team matches went to the 18th hole. The U.S. won the 18th hole just once. The Americans lost three and tied five. That means they had eight chances to improve their situation by half a point -- a total of four points -- and were unable to do it.

"There's one reason and one reason alone,'' said Ireland's Paul McGinley. "Talent. Nobody understands how good this [European] tour is.''

There is no doubt about the quality of play in Europe, but that argument simply does not explain another U.S. defeat. Excluding Woods, who has nine worldwide victories, the rest of the U.S. team had won eight times around the world in 2006. The Europeans? They also posted eight victories. The talent is clearly not superior.

And how do you explain the European major drought? Only Jose Maria Olazabal on the European side had won a major title, the last of which came in 1999. Four Americans -- Woods, Mickelson, Furyk and Toms -- have won majors, with Woods and Mickelson capturing seven of the last 12.

NBC's Johnny Miller again suggested the Europeans' camaraderie is better because they play so many events in foreign outposts, while the Americans are so singular in their pursuits on the PGA Tour.

But players such as Paul Casey and Luke Donald live in the U.S., and the Europeans have their share of guys who travel on private jets. They also play a good bit on the PGA Tour. And such camaraderie didn't seem to matter 30 years ago when the Americans continually were handing it to what was then a Great Britain and Ireland team.

"When it comes right down to it, in all of these Cups that I've been a part of, it's whoever plays [No.] 18 the best and whoever makes the most putts for the week,'' Woods said. "If you look at the way the matches went for the entire week, the Europeans did better.''

Lehman got Woods on board this time and had him coming off five straight victories on the PGA Tour. He managed to get the entire team to Ireland for practice and bonding at the K Club, then had them practice together in the various formats. And you hardly could argue with his pairings of Woods-Furyk, Mickelson-DiMarco. He played Scott Verplank (who went 2-0) just twice, which was probably a mistake, but would playing Verplank four times have mattered?

Probably not.

The way to win the Ryder Cup is to get your best players performing their best.

It's really that simple.

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.