For the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills Country Club in Michigan, U.S. captain Hal Sutton came up with a brazen strategy to launch his team. He would start the competition by pairing the top two players in the world, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, ignoring any history suggesting that the two men didn't care for each other, as well as any indication that the two were uncomfortable with the decision and would prefer other partners.
What he couldn't ignore was that the power pairing put the U.S. team one point down to Europe when they lost the morning four-ball to Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington. Still, Sutton, undeterred, came back with the same mismatched and miserable duo for the afternoon foursomes only to see them lose again, this time to Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood. It launched the team all right--on a Titanic-like course that sunk the Americans by a humiliating 18½-9½ margin. Two years later, Europe would again rout Tiger, Phil and the other Americans by the identical score.
Apart from the mortar-and-bricks verbiage of a sportswriter's craft--ball, game, run, shoot, pass, etc.--perhaps no word gets used more than redemption. The Boston Red Sox gained it memorably in 2004. Tom Coughlin found it in Super Bowl XLII. The Williams sisters always seem to be seeking it (and finding it), as did Roger Federer at the U.S. Open. At the Beijing Olympics, it was the quest of goalkeeper Hope Solo and the U.S. women's soccer team as well as that of the NBA's starry aggregate, which had relinquished its "Dream Team" designation in favor of the "Redeem Team." And I've already begun writing, at least in my head, the redemption story about A-Rod and the Yankees before the 2009 season.
Still, no sports stars or team has more to make up for--is more in need of redemption--than the recent golfing aggregates that have gone by the name "U.S. Ryder Cup team." Beyond the two most recent European romps, the Americans' would now be on a six-Cup losing streak but for one miracle putt--Justin Leonard's 45-footer in '99 that halved his match with Padraig Harrington. And all this losing has come at a time when America not only boasts the best player in the world by a long drive, but could field squads with higher rankings and far more distinguished golfing pedigrees.
If the Americans couldn't win with those advantages, how can they possibly win this weekend at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville without their injured superstar, Woods, and with a team that for the first time, at least on paper, doesn't measure up to the European dozen? The Americans have just five players ranked among the top 20 in the world (compared to seven for Europe), have a cumulative record of 24-33-9 in Cup competition (compared to 29-21-12 for the Europeans) and have six Ryder rookies (compared to just three on the Continental squad). Nobody on the American team has a winning Ryder Cup record. Its three most-experienced players--Mickelson, Jim Furyk and Stewart Cink--have a combined 15-29-10 mark; Leonard, the hero of the '99 U.S. victory with his come-from-behind tie, has still never won in eight Ryder Cup matches. Meanwhile, Cup stalwarts Sergio Garcia (14-4-2) and Lee Westwood (14-8-3) lead Europe.
Why should the Americans bother showing up? Because this year, I believe, they can recapture the Cup. And if they do win, it will likely be because they will compete for the first time since 1995 without a Tiger in their golf bag, not in spite of it. Strange as that may sound, as blasphemous as it may be, the absence of the player regarded by many as the best ever to play the game could prove to be the decisive boost for the U.S. team.
Even the greatest warriors have weaknesses. Achilles had this heel problem. A-Rod can't get a hit when it really counts. No tennis player won more Grand Slam titles than Pete Sampras, but he was ordinary on the slow clay at Roland Garros and never even reached a French Open final. Woods's weakness happens to be team play, as the Ryder Cup has demonstrated. His overall record in six Cup competitions is a pedestrian 10-13-3; it is even worse in the pairs matches--7-12-1--that fill up the first two days and that always seem to leave the Americans buried. The explanation seems obvious enough. Tiger plays superbly against others, but not particularly well with others. He competes with a singular ferocity and focus. While that serves him well in the cutthroat competition of tournament golf, it doesn't lend itself to the gentlemanly style that characterizes international foursomes and four-balls. Tiger is left with something of a conundrum: he can be himself and make his teammates nervous, resulting in erratic play--or he can dial down and make himself less of a force on the golf course. It's kind of a lose-lose situation.
In addition, Tiger is inevitably miscast as the team leader, a role he is forced to take because of his singular stature in the game. It's sort of like if A-Rod were the leader of the Yankees by virtue of his talent. Woods, who seldom has to worry about any relationship on the golf course other than the one with his caddy, suddenly has to transform himself into a motivator and a cheerleader for a bunch of golfers, many of whom he barely knows. Woods and the other top American players seldom hang out with each other, flying in and out along the tour in their private jets. Contrast that with the Europeans, who often travel, dine and toss a few back together on a more intimate and compact tour. Hosting an unofficial dinner for some of his Ryder teammates, as Woods did last time around, was a generous notion, but no substitute for spending lots of time together. The Europeans, despite six nationalities and multiple languages, seem to get a boost from the camaraderie that their American rivals can't engender.
But this time the Americans are a team with a difference. Finally, they are the undisputed underdogs. And finally, it is the Americans who are the no-names. (Try asking your average sports fan about Anthony Kim, Hunter Mahan, Boo Weekley and J. B. Holmes. I suspect you'd get at least as many answers about "To Kill a Mockingbird" as golf.) So while the Tour has been a snooze without Tiger, the U.S. Ryder Cup team might just bust out of his giant shadow. All it has to do now is win. Sounds like the perfect recipe for redemption.