Starr: Why Can’t U.S. Win on World Stage?

One of the treasured American sports clichés is that “there is no ‘I’ in ‘T-E-A-M.’” But I am more concerned these days about whether there is any T-E-A-M at all in U.S.A. Our most famous and feted male athletes no longer seem capable of winning a world championship—even in the sports we invented.

This year may have been the most wretched ever for the red, white and blue—or at least for our men’s teams that wear it. The flops began at the Winter Olympics in Italy, where the U.S. hockey squad played six teams and beat only Kazakhstan. At the inaugural World Baseball Classic this spring, a superstar American lineup lost back-to-back games to South Korea and Mexico and didn’t even reach the semifinals. In June, our soccer team, ranked fifth in the world entering the World Cup, failed to win a single game in Germany (and is now ranked a more appropriate 29th). And earlier this month our latest NBA “Dream Team” lost in the semifinals of the world championships—torched for 101 points by an unstoppable Greek team. (Those of us who stayed tuned for the finals discovered Greece wasn’t quite so unstoppable, after Spain held it to 47 points.)

Now, starting Friday, our Davis and Ryder Cup teams will carry the flag in Russia and Ireland respectively. The Americans haven’t won a Davis Cup since 1995, while six other nations have won this annual battle for tennis supremacy. And even with Andy Roddick leading our best racqueteers to Moscow for this semifinal matchup, the U.S. squad is given little chance of besting Russia on a very un-American, meaning very slow, clay surface. Which means that our Ryder Cup golfers represent America’s last, best hope to capture a major international jewel this year.

Once upon a time, that proposition would have been a mortal lock. And sometimes it seems it should still be. The 2006 American Ryder Cup team not only boasts the greatest golfer in the world, Tiger Woods, at the top of its lineup, but also the current No. 2- and No. 3-ranked golfers, Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk, on the 12-man squad. However, Woods’s ascension to the pinnacle of the game has coincided with a remarkable turnabout in America’s Ryder Cup fortunes—one that has the Americans claiming underdog status for this showdown with Europe in the damp, wind and cold outside Dublin. The U.S. team has won just one of the previous five biennial duels—and in 2004, on American soil, suffered its worst defeat ever in a competition that dates back to 1927.

The team’s Ryder Cup failures have been attributed primarily to the Americans’ inability to play well together, a requisite in the pairs four-ball and foursome (alternate shots) matches that constitute the first two days of the three-day competition. (Each match is worth a point, with 16 pairs on Friday and Saturday followed by 12 singles on Sunday.) Somehow Englishmen, Irishmen, Spaniards and Swedes have managed to bond and develop a greater sense of common cause than Floridians and Arizonans who seem, of late, to share nothing beyond citizenship.

Why? European camaraderie appears to grow naturally on their tour, where they travel, wine and dine together. American stars tend not to mingle, each jetting off on their own from tournament to tournament. As a result, the unusual cheerleading aspect of this fray comes naturally to the European squads, while for the American team, with a chilly Woods-Mickelson relationship at its core, it appears to be an unnatural act. In 2004, U.S. captain Hal Sutton confronted the problem head-on by pairing Woods and Mickelson and sending them off first on the opening day; it set a disastrous tone as the ill-matched duo wound up losing both their matches.

Because they don’t play well together, the American Ryder Cup losses have been true team efforts. But Tiger, because of his singular stature, bears a lion’s share of the responsibility. Since becoming a fixture on the U.S. team in 1997, Tiger has a record of seven wins, 11 losses and two draws in Ryder Cup competition—lousy by anyone’s standards, let alone his. Not surprisingly, his Cup problems have shown up mostly in pairs. The mental game that has helped propel Woods to the top is not designed for sharing, at least not with anyone but his caddy. Watching him, despite a huge lead, bristle with anger when he bogied a late hole at the PGA Championship, provided a remarkable glimpse of his ferocious mindset.

It must be daunting to be paired with him, no matter how often he offers reassurance. And when Tiger has to expend energy on making his partner comfortable, his own game appears to suffer. Ten different golfers have been paired with Tiger in 16 Ryder Cup matches, suggesting that a natural fit is very hard to find. The seemingly unflappable Furyk, whose own Ryder Cup record is a shabby 4-9-2, will be No. 11 this time around.

The Ryder Cup is the sole blemish on Tiger’s extraordinary resume. And it is just that, a blemish and nothing more. Still it must gall him to have stumbled at this challenge and, perhaps more important, to be viewed as a champion who has trouble embracing team values.

Woods says that in past Cups, playing on American teams with many golfers senior—if not superior—to him, he was reluctant to seize a leadership role. But with four relatively anonymous Ryder Cup rookies on the team and Woods’s ever-growing stature, he has now assumed the responsibility—publicly and privately—that folks had been assigning him anyway. He organized a dinner with his younger teammates earlier this year, has offered them generous counsel on the Ryder rigors and apparently let down his guard by performing a weak version of the Stanford University fight song at team-building festivities this week. And he seemed to have the whole team behind him when he angrily denounced as false and defamatory a story in the Irish press that naked pictures of his wife could be found on online porn sites.

We genuinely like it when Tiger shows his human face, as was demonstrated earlier this year when grief over the death of his dad spilled onto the links during his British Open victory celebration. But the ultimate measure of Tiger’s week will be whether that human face can help secure a victory for our lads. If not, it will put a bit of a damper on Tiger’s most extraordinary golfing adventure of 2006. And, of course, leave us with what has become a recurring question about American sports: can any team here play this game, or for that matter any game?