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So it has come to this: The United States is now so incapable of winning the Ryder Cup that all it takes to impress the team's captain is for his boys to try really, really hard. Last Saturday evening at the K Club, in Straffan, Ireland, Tom Lehman waxed poetic about a squad that had lost all four of the sessions over the opening two days and was trailing in points 10--6, having won only three matches outright. "I thought our team played with a lot of heart today," Lehman said. "Very, very, very proud of the way they performed.
Obviously they didn't get the result they were hoping...."
The U.S. has to find solace in moral victories because actual wins are so elusive. After getting blown out in Sunday singles, the Americans have now lost three consecutive Ryder Cups, five of the last six and eight of the last 11. (One of the losses was a tie in 1989 that allowed Europe to keep the trophy.) After the U.S.'s record 18 1/2--9 1/2 loss two years ago it was assumed things couldn't get any worse, but they did. The score this time around was also 18 1/2--9 1/2 but only because Paul McGinley magnanimously gifted half a point to the Americans by conceding a 30-footer on the final green to his opponent, J.J. Henry, a decision hastened by a pasty male streaker who interrupted play before Henry could putt.
"We're going to have to start giving the Americans handicap strokes," former European Ryder Cupper Sandy Lyle said when it was all over. "This is getting boring."
Why can't Johnny win? Maybe because the players on the PGA Tour get so rich with a few top 10s that they never learn how to close the deal. Maybe it's because Europeans grow up competing in more match play, or that the far-flung logistics of their insular tour breeds more camaraderie. Maybe Americans' obsession with making technically perfect swings has de-emphasized the art of scoring. Or maybe Europe simply has better players: Coming into the Ryder Cup, eight members of its team were in the top 20 in the World Ranking, compared with just four for the Yanks.
These arguments, and others, have been kicked around for the better part of the last decade, but one point is indisputable--an event in which only pride is at stake brings out the best in their stars and the worst in ours. The Ryder Cup seems to have restorative powers for the Europeans. Mediocre putters such as Colin Montgomerie and Sergio Garc�a turn into the second coming of Ben Crenshaw. Players who have spent an entire career trying to find the fairway, such as Jos� Mar�a Olaz�bal, are reinvented as bilingual Iron Byrons. This European team was deeper and more experienced than the U.S. and for maybe the first time ever universally viewed as the favorite, but the Americans hoped they could pull off the upset behind the big three of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk, who were residing in that order atop the World Ranking. At this Ryder Cup they were mediocre, abysmal and disappointing, in that order.
The U.S. trailed after the first day of the previous three Ryder Cups, and the swoons owed everything to Woods's baffling play. (In six Friday sessions over that span, he was 0--6.) For this year's opening four-ball Woods was sent out with Furyk, a pairing that was supposed to make a statement. Woods surely did. He jacked his drive at the 1st hole so far left it found a pond that heretofore was not considered in play. "Tiger's opening tee shot made us all feel at ease," said Montgomerie, who was paired with Padraig Harrington in the leadoff match.
Meanwhile, Europe found plenty of inspiration when Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland arrived at the tee for the morning's fourth and final match. His wife, Heather, lost a four-year battle with cancer in August, but Clarke, a captain's pick, decided to come to this Ryder Cup for the brotherhood of his teammates and the warm embrace of the fans, who were celebrating Ireland's first opportunity to host the Cup. The ovation for Clarke was so thunderous that "it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck, and I was two holes away," said teammate Paul Casey. "I knew it was for Darren. Everyone did, and it lifted all of us."
So, too, did the way Clarke played the 1st hole. He smashed a perfect drive, covered the flag with his approach and then buried the birdie putt to take the hole from Mickelson and Chris DiMarco, who would combine for a mere three birdies in losing 1 up.
Down 2 1/2--1 1/2, the Americans were looking for inspiration wherever they could find it in the afternoon alternate-shot competition. Paired again with DiMarco, Mickelson was in a dogfight with Westwood and Montgomerie when he walked off the 11th green and spied a distinguished older gentleman with an American flag on his hat. Mickelson gave him a sloppy high 10, awkwardly locking hands. "We need your mojo!" he enthused to the 41st U.S. president, George H.W. Bush.