So far in the '90s we've had a War by the Shore, a Battle of the Belfry, a Choke Hill and a Trauma at Valderrama. The last Ryder Cup of the decade, Sept. 24-26 at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass., is a no-brainer. Get ready for a Boston Massacre. Yes, that goes against recent history, but a new chapter begins in Brookline. The U.S. players want to be paid? Fine. Just provide the payback. Here's why the U.S. will finally live up to its pretournament billing and win easily.
Start with Tiger Woods. We can dispense with the World Ranking for the next dozen years or so. Woods is the best player in the world and figures to remain so, and we don't need a ranking to state the obvious. There will be golfers who play better for short stretches. David Duval had a great run this spring, and Colin Montgomerie beats up on the European tour every summer. Mild-mannered Ernie Els seems capable of hopping into a phone booth and changing into a red cape if he has a mind to. But based on what Woods has done over the course of the year, there is no doubt about who's No. 1.
Woods was a remarkable talent when he turned pro late in the 1996 season, but the player who sparked Tigermania by winning twice in his first seven starts to play his way into the Tour Championship after only two months on the circuit was a mere shadow of the force he has become. That became clear last week when Woods dominated (10-under-par 270) the formidable South Course at Firestone Country Club in Akron while winning the $1 million first prize in the NEC Invitational, the second of the three $5 million World tour events, with a field featuring members of the '98 Presidents Cup and current Ryder Cup teams.
Woods has evolved into a complete player, one with more shots and more power than any of his peers. There is only one event in which he hasn't gotten the job done—the Ryder Cup. He was not a factor in '97 at Valderrama, going 1-3-1 and losing his singles match to Costantino Rocca. The way Woods is playing now, a repeat performance is almost unimaginable.
The Europeans are woefully inexperienced. They have seven rookies on their team and will be without the war horses they rode to glory in the '90s. With Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam gone, the hopes of Europe will ride on one of the rookies and four veterans: Sergio Garcia, the 19-year-old first-year player; Montgomerie, who has a love-hate relationship with the States; Jos� Mar�a Olaz�bal, the Masters champ who hasn't been right since he punched a hotel room wall at the U.S. Open; Jesper Parnevik, the curious Swede; and Lee Westwood, England's own boy wonder. Woods, who has played in only one Ryder Cup, would rank as the third most experienced Euro. "On paper, the Americans would blow Europe out of the water," says Els. "If they played the Ryder Cup at stroke play, the Americans would beat them quite comfortably."
At Firestone the Americans did blow away the Europeans. The 12 U.S. Ryder Cuppers (in addition to Duval and Woods, they are Jim Furyk, Tom Lehman, Justin Leonard, Davis Love III, Jeff Maggert, Phil Mickelson, Mark O'Meara, Steve Pate, Payne Stewart and Hal Sutton) finished a combined seven under par. The Europeans were 73 over, an 80-shot difference. "What does this mean?" asked Westwood, tongue firmly in cheek. "It means that the European team is far inferior. We are massive underdogs, and the U.S. is a huge favorite. I don't think anyone in America will give us a chance."
Yes, the Europeans, who didn't wrap up Ryder Cup qualifying until the week before the NEC, were fatigued in Akron, but their performance was too poor to dismiss. Garcia, who tied for seventh last week at two under, eight strokes behind Woods, was the only European to break par. Nine of the 15 worst scores belonged to Euros. Olaz�bal shot an 80 last Friday, then started Sunday's round with three straight 6s and finished next to last in the 41-man field. "This game is a mystery," he said. "Friday spoiled the whole week for me. I didn't even practice. I went straight to the hotel because I'd had enough." Uh, the hotel, Jose? "The walls are O.K.," he said.
Olaz�bal, Europe's most experienced Ryder Cupper (he has a 14-8-3 record in five appearances), is on the ropes and knows it. "It's tough as hell," he said last week. "I've been struggling since the U.S. Open, since I hurt my [right] hand—a silly, silly mistake on my part." Reminded that he still holds the course record at Firestone—in 1990 he shot a 61 in the first round of the World Series of Golf—Olaz�bal shook his head and said, "I'll never forget that day. What I can't remember is how I did it."
Montgomerie is the European tour's big dog. He has won five events this season and is on his way to becoming that tour's leading money winner for a record seventh straight year. He finished seven over in Akron, along with Jarmo Sandelin of Sweden. Monty, though, had an excuse. In the weeks leading up to Akron he had won the Scandinavian Masters, flown to Medinah and come in sixth at the PGA, flown to Munich and won the BMW International Open, then flown back for the NEC. To make matters worse, a rain delay last Thursday meant that he had to play 35 holes on Friday. Predictably, he shot 75 on the second 18.
The World Ranking, which admittedly favors U.S. players because of the PGA Tour's superior depth, also makes the European team appear weak. Nine of the 15 top-ranked players are Americans. Only two (No. 3 Montgomerie and No. 5 West-wood) are Europeans. No American is further down in the ranking than 30th (Pate). Four Europeans rank 65th or worse. In terms of cold cash, the U.S. beat the Europeans by about $1.8 million at Firestone. "I guess that means we better play the Ryder Cup here," said Love. Then he got serious. "No matter what stats you use, we always look like we should win, but you're not going to convince me we're going to win because of stats. We should've won the last two Ryder Cups and the Presidents Cup, but we didn't."