Ben Crenshaw, the U.S. Ryder Cup captain, darted about the locker room of the Medinah Country Club on Sunday, dividing his attention among the telecast of the PGA Championship, the incessant trill of his cell phone and the succession of well-wishers trying to comfort this most amiable of men after what had been a wringer of a week.
"Want me to hang around for anything, Captain?" joked Jay Haas, whose tie for third at Medinah made his parody of a player angling to be one of the two captain's selections for the 12-member Ryder team seem almost like no parody. "That's all right, Jay," said Crenshaw. "I've decided I'm going to pick Horace Rawlins and Freddie McLeod."
Crenshaw's wry mention of two long-deceased former U.S. Open champions as the final additions to his squad could have been his way of underscoring just how unsettled this year's American Ryder Cup team currently appears. One of Crenshaw's top guns, Tiger Woods, loves match play but hates the evening functions that the PGA of America expects team members to attend as part of the Ryder festivities. Another key player, David Duval, not only is dismissive of "the big corporate outing" that he believes the Ryder has become but also seems uncomfortable with match play. In stark contrast is another Ryder stalwart, Payne Stewart, whose flag-waving over the Cup has been nearly as flamboyant as his outfits. Stewart seems out of sync with Woods and Duval, but then the whole team has been torn by the ongoing controversy over whether players should for the first time receive a share of Ryder Cup revenues.
All of which increases uncertainty about whether this star-studded contingent can avoid losing the Cup for an astonishing third straight time. As Crenshaw prepares his charges for the showdown with their European rivals Sept. 24-26 at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass., the questions hanging over the team can be stated any number of ways. Is the collective strength of the U.S.'s individual stars doomed to be less than the sum of its parts? How truly devoted to winning are the players? Can team members recover from the scathing media denunciations over their alleged greed or from the public rebuke that Crenshaw delivered to those players—Phil Mickelson and Mark O'Meara as well as Duval and Woods—who argue that U.S. Ryder Cup participants should be paid? Can this team summon the focus needed to make it the model of solidarity that earlier U.S. teams have been?
On paper this is one of the most talented Ryder Cup sides ever. Woods and Duval are Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in the world by a mile, while Davis Love III, Stewart and O'Meara are also in the Top 10. The lowest ranked of the team's automatic top 10 qualifiers is Jeff Maggert at No. 20. Captain's choices Tom Lehman and Steve Pate are 23rd and 32nd, respectively. Five team members—Woods, O'Meara, Mickelson, Justin Leonard and Hal Sutton—have won the U.S. Amateur at match play. For good measure, in February, Maggert won the Andersen Consulting Match Play Championship.
One more week of qualifying remains for the European side, but of the nine players who appear to have secured positions, only two are in the Top 10, Colin Montgomerie and Lee Westwood at Nos. 4 and 5, respectively, with the remaining seven ranging from 17th (Darren Clarke) all the way down to 86th (Jean Van de Velde). But much the same Goliath versus David scenario existed when the heavily favored Americans got dusted at Oak Hill in 1995 and Valderrama in '97, and this year's European entry has received a big boost from the meteoric rise to stardom—dramatized by his stunning runner-up performance at Medinah—of Spain's teen sensation. Sergio Garcia.
The challenge before the U.S. players is to refute the notion that they have become soft and satisfied. Raw numbers contribute to that perception. In the cauldron of the Ryder Cup, the collective record of the current U.S. team is a sorry 33-39-13. Home court advantage or not, the battle of Brook-line shapes up as no mismatch. Not with so many intangibles seemingly in Europe's favor.
"I think we have the best players in the world right here in the United States, but we haven't been able to prove that as a team," says Sutton, who played on the losing U.S. sides in both '85 and '87. "I've seen the Europeans rise to whatever situation they had to rise to. And that kind of effort from a player only comes from deep within."
The allusion is to passion and fortitude, and doubts about whether the U.S. team possesses enough of either are well founded. Last December a U.S. team with the same core of stars that will lead the effort at Brookline traveled to Melbourne only to be shellacked 20½ to 11½ in the Presidents Cup, the copycat event in which the U.S. competes in Ryder Cup off years against foreigners from everywhere but Europe. More and more the term Cup burnout has been invoked to explain the strain Americans feel at having to do battle with fresh international teams every year at either the Presidents Cup or the Ryder Cup. The leading American players still feel honored at being chosen for the Ryder Cup, but, increasingly, they also feel burdened by the extra travel, mandatory functions and lack of downtime now associated with international team events.
Disaffection over these matters partly accounts for the lobbying by Duval, Woods and others for the PGA of America to allocate revenue from their millions in Ryder Cup profits to the players for donation to the charities of their choice. Although Duval and Woods insisted they were using their clout to "do the right thing," as Woods put it, their stance challenged Ryder tradition that players not be compensated. It also exposed them to a stream of criticism peppered with pithy assessments like the one by 1995 U.S. captain Lanny Wadkins, who said, "Looks like Generation X is turning into Generation Selfish."