September 29, 2007

Sirak Says: Three Cups, All Lopsided

Ryder, Presidents & Solheim, the premier team events in golf... not one was even close

Exactly what to make of it is one problem, exactly what to do about it is an entirely different dilemma. But the truth of the matter is the three premier team events in professional golf -- Cups named for Ryder, Solheim and Presidents -- have become walkovers of shocking proportions. Geez, even the Seve Trophy has become a blowout and we aren't even sure what it is.

The waxing the Americans turned in against the International side in the Presidents Cup at Royal Montreal Golf Club was so resounding if it had been a hockey game the goalie would have been pulled about last Thursday when the U.S. team jumped out to a 5½ to ½ lead. The outcome was never really in doubt going into the weekend and the final score of 19 ½ to 14 ½ was a formality devoid of any drama.

As things now stand, the Americans have a record of 5-1-1 against the team from the rest of the non-Ryder Cup world in the Presidents Cup. Oddly, the apparently invincible Yanks when it comes to Presidents Cup play have a record of 3-7-1 against Europe in the last 11 Ryder Cups and have lost the last two by identical and humiliating scores of 18½ to 9½. And the Solheim Cup a couple weeks back was a 16 to 12 rout by the American women and their seventh victory against Europe in the 10-event history of the competition.

Let's take the questions one at a time. First what do we make of all this? Why, for example, are the American men so good against the Internationals in the Presidents Cup and so pathetic against the Europeans in the Ryder Cup, especially when it seems like the Internationals have a better team than the Europeans on paper?

The answer seems to have everything to do with history. Golf was big in Britain before it was anything in the United States. That made it pretty hard to swallow when the Americans -- Hogan, Snead, Palmer Nicklaus, Watson et al. -- started dominating. When the British and Ireland Ryder Cup team was expanded to include all of Europe in 1979 -- and Seve Ballesteros popped onto the scene -- there was a renaissance in golf on the east side of the Atlantic.

Then there was the matter of the PGA Tour not reducing the minimum numbers of events required by foreign players in the United States to make it easier for European players to compete on their home tour and in America as well. That didn't sit well with Seve, Ian Woosnam, Nick Faldo, Sandy Lye, Jose Maria Olazabal, Colin Montgomerie, Darren Clarke, Lee Westwood and the other guys who became the heart and soul of the team that turned it around for Europe in Ryder Cup play.

Those guys stayed home in part to support their home tour and in part because they just thought it was better to raise their families in the land where they grew up. Many Americans -- some fans, some in the media and perhaps even a few among the players -- thought the Europeans who stayed home were not good enough or confident enough to make it in America.

There is absolutely no doubt that the European team plays the Ryder Cup with an enormous chip on its shoulder, and it has been doing so for more than 20 years. It is a healthy chip in the sense that they use it for enormous motivation. No matter how many times Europe beats the United States it will always go into the Ryder Cup feeling it is the underdog -- underappreciated Europe against the big bad Americans.

There is no such history in the Presidents Cup. And the atmosphere between the two events could not be more different. Captains Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player are all about building the spirit of the game. And there is nothing wrong with that. But every captain for Europe goes into the Ryder Cup wanting a good result as least as much -- and probably more -- than good feeling.

The circumstances that built the intensity of the Ryder Cup were real. It is a feeling that cannot be manufactured. Though it goes pretty much unacknowledged by both sides, the U.S. teams goes into the Ryder Cup knowing how Europe feels. That builds the intensity of the event. What Europe does well is embrace that intensity while the Americans -- burdened by their better resumes -- feel the pressure of being the team that is supposed to win but just can't seem to get the job done.

The Presidents Cup was created in 1994 because of the power shift in the game to the Pacific Rim. Greg Norman, Ernie Els, Jumbo Ozaki, Steve Elkington and others were just too good to be left out of such compelling team competitions. The women's game is facing that dilemma now. With the Americans clearly the superior team in Sweden at the Solheim Cup and with the likes of Lorena Ochoa, Karrie Webb and Se Ri Pak not eligible for the competition how will they be accommodated?

Perhaps the change that needs to be made in all three competitions is an Americas Cup yachting style situation. Keep the events every two years, have the winner stay on for the next competition and have the loser sit out. If Europe beats the United States in the Ryder Cup, it plays the International team the next time around. And the same for the Solheim Cup.

If nothing else, the rotating nature of the events will make the competition even more intense. No one is going to want to wait four years to compete again. There is no question these team events are enormously compelling weeks of golf, highly entertaining even when they are a blowout. But wouldn't they been even more interesting if the outcome was in doubt? As for the Seve Trophy? I'll get back to you on that.