The Ryder Cup format
Captain Paul Azinger changed the qualifying format to reward players who were playing well in the same year of the event -- and to give himself four captain's choices instead of two. Both moves were crucial to the American team's success. Captain's choices Hunter Mahan and J.B. Holmes didn't play like the Ryder rookies they were, earning a combined six points and winning their Sunday singles matches. Anthony Kim, Kenny Perry and Justin Leonard all parlayed strong play in 2008 into places on the team, and all three showed that continued good form. That combination of good form and good chemistry gave Azinger's team a -- for lack of a better word -- European flavor, and the result was, um, European. The underdog role obviously agreed with this captain, and with his team. It'll be interesting to see how the Americans try to figure out a way to cast themselves as underdogs again in 2010, at Celtic Manor, when Tiger Woods is presumably back on the team.
For Perry, this was a major championship. The Kentucky native went 2-1-1 in front of thousands of friends and family, and saved his best golf for the most pressure-packed time. Perry won the best-played match of the tournament, a 3-and-2 decision over Henrik Stenson, by birdieing four of his first five holes, then eagling the seventh. Three birdies on the back locked up the point for the Americans.
Mahan had to face up to comments he made pre-Ryder Cup about players resenting having to play for free. The best way to do it? Win a lot. He did, and probably learned in the process why the Ryder Cup can be such a big deal. Mahan and Justin Leonard were the US Team's most successful pairing, winning both matches convincingly on Friday, then halving on Saturday morning. Mahan then partnered Phil Mickelson to a halve on Saturday afternoon before playing the most exciting match of the tournament Sunday afternoon. Leading Paul Casey virtually the entire way, he dropped to all square on the 16th hole, when Casey made a 6-footer for birdie. On 17, Mahan made the putt of the weekend, a 40-foot, double-breaking snake for birdie to go 1-up again. Cranked up from his celebration dance on the 17th green, he blew his tee shot on the 18th into the pond on the right side of the fairway. Casey won the hole with a par and halved the match. Regardless, Mahan was MVP of the week for the Americans, playing in every match and going undefeated, 2-0-3. With Boo Weekley and J.B. Holmes (both 2-0-1), Anthony Kim (2-1-1) and Ben Curtis (1-1-1), he was part of the greatest rookie class in modern Ryder Cup history.
If Europe was going to come back Sunday, it needed a fast start from Sergio Garcia in his first-out match against Kim. The 23-year-old American wasn't going to let that happen. He birdied three of his first four holes and lost only one hole all day against Garcia. Kim's 5-and-4 drumming of Europe's long-time team MVP kept the defending champions scrambling all afternoon in a desperate game of catch-up.
Nick Faldo got some static for picking Poulter as a captain's choice over 2006 hero Darren Clarke, but Poulter more than proved he belonged, going 4-1-0 to earn more points than any individual on either team. By Sunday, Poulter had earned Faldo's trust as the singles anchor, going out in the usually crucial 10th match ahead of the veterans Padraig Harringon and Lee Westwood. He did his part, making seven birdies on the way to beat Steve Stricker 3-and-2. Pity it was too late at that point.
Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington and Lee Westwood
Europe was considered a heavy favorite because of the combined Ryder Cup record of these three players -- 35-20-7 -- along with Harrington's new-found status as a major-championship assassin. Turns out that none of that seemed to mean much for the week. Garcia had a virus, Westwood fought blisters and Harrington simply looked worn out. Garcia and Westwood sat out a session for the first time in their Ryder Cup careers, and the three stalwarts combined to go a shocking 0-7-5. Harrington won't get the attention Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson have gotten for bad Ryder Cup performances, but the Irishman earned his place in the discussion about the best players in the world after winning three majors in two years. Now, he's also earned all the static he should get for whiffing in golf's biggest team event.
Let the second-guessing begin. Faldo opened himself up to Sunday-night quarterbacking by sitting Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood on Saturday morning -- when both men had previously played every session in their Ryder Cup careers. Garcia sat in a format -- alternate shot -- that he had never lost in, while Westwood rode around in a cart nursing blisters he said wouldn't have prevented him from playing. It's hard to say if the unconventional lineup choice happened because of the way Garcia and Westwood were playing, or if Garcia and Westwood continued to struggle over the weekend because they were angry about being replaced. Either way, the European team was in a hole leading to Sunday's singles, and the inspired American team wouldn't let them out. Kenny Perry's and Jim Furyk's birdies earned the cup back, but Euro fans are going to remember Faldo as the guy who couldn't bring the cup home for the sixth time out of seven tries. Faldo did a lot over the last two years to build up something of a reservoir of goodwill, but the 25 years of sourness as a player leaves less room for sympathy than we'd have for, say, Seve Ballesteros.
Mickelson struggled all week, losing with Anthony Kim six holes in a row in the Saturday morning alternate shot and finishing up with a 3-and-2 loss to Justin Rose that wasn't really as close as the score indicated. Of course, all is forgiven in the grand scheme of things. The great rookie performances cover up a lot of veteran sins.