It's hard to put a finger on why the U.S. has lost the last two—and five of the last seven—Ryder Cups, although with the exception of 1987, when the European big six of Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Jose Maria Olaz�bal and Ian Woosnam were at the top of their games, none of the defeats had anything to do with which team had the best players. No, the more talented Americans always seemed to fall down on the slippery stuff, like desire, team chemistry and choice of clothing. Of this the losing U.S. captains, the men held accountable for the intangibles, are painfully aware.
Sometimes the criticism of the captains has been not only unfair but also silly. Consider one of the intangibles discovered during the postmortem of the Americans' loss in Spain two years ago. Ballesteros, the European captain, was praised for flitting from match to match, dispensing brilliant bits of coaching from the seat of a soupedup cart. Meanwhile, Tom Kite, the more statesmanlike U.S. captain, was hammered for acting as Michael Jordan's chauffeur, and in a pokier buggy.
Ben Crenshaw, this year's American captain, is too smart to worry about cart speed. So with little fanfare, he has put his mind to something quite tangible that could determine the outcome of next week's Ryder Cup: He has altered the Country Club course in a way that should ensure that the most talented team wins.
Crenshaw's Country Club isn't the same as the one that hosted the U.S. Open in 1963 and '88. Back then the Country Club was a plodder's course, with tight fairways and five-inch rough, and produced Steady Eddy champions Julius Boros and Curtis Strange, respectively. Crenshaw has had the fairways widened and the rough cut to a wispy three inches. He wants his players to attack the course with their drivers and play short irons into the Country Club's tiny greens. He wants to see a lot of birdies.
David Duval and Tiger Woods, who rank among the top 10 on the Tour in driving distance, will be on full go. Because in match play they won't have to worry about making a big number on a given hole, Woods and Duval can attack the Country Club's short par-4s and two par-5s. Brookline's Brahmins haven't reacted well to all this tinkering—they make it sound as if Francis Ouimet's amateur status has been revoked—but while no one loves the old-world cragginess of the Country Club more than Crenshaw, he knows that the Ryder Cup is too important to put romance ahead of pragmatism.
The recent lessons are clear. For the 1995 Ryder Cup at Oak Hill the course was prepared exactly as it had been for previous U.S. Opens held there, on the premise that Europeans struggle in that championship. The strategy backfired, and the U.S. lost, when matches became a defensive, soggy slog through already prohibitive rough. Birdies were few and far between, which allowed the scramblers to hang in with, and gain a psychological advantage on, the better ballstrikers. The heavily favored Americans felt the heat, and during a disastrous final day won only four of 12 singles matches, losing four of them one up.
There was little rough at Valderrama in 1997, but the course had odd angles and funny doglegs that inhibited bold play. The underdog Europeans, loose and inspired, made the key up-and-downs and big putts to again win the close matches. Meanwhile, the U.S. triumvirate of power hitters-Woods, Davis Love III and Phil Mickelson—went a combined 2-8-3.
This time Crenshaw is determined to play to the strength of his team. The Country Club may be one of the USGA's five founding clubs, but for one week he wants it to play more like Augusta National, which has always been friendly to an imaginative power player, than like a U.S. Open venue. He wants Duval, Love, Mickelson and Woods to freewheel and blow the doors off the plodders. The Europeans also have big hitters in Darren Clarke, Sergio Garcia, Jesper Parnevik and Lee Westwood, but Crenshaw is betting that his foursome is a notch better.
In the days leading up to the matches, Crenshaw will continue to publicly fret about the fine, fine European team, but privately he knows that he has already unleashed a monster. Some unforeseen intangible might make the U.S. captain a chump, but if having the best players and a solid game plan means anything in this crazy game, Crenshaw will be a champ.