Old school loyalty. In professional sports, it’s commonly accorded to aging greats who have been the heart of championship teams. Out of respect for all the displays of guts and glory, coaches grant their revered war horses the privilege of playing out the string after their time is past.
A recent case was last season’s San Antonio Spurs, so long anchored by Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker, getting run out the gym in the NBA playoffs by a younger, faster and ultimately better Oklahoma Thunder team, as the venerable Greg Popovich let the beat down play out as if bound by sacred ritual.
It’s the code European captain Darren Clarke followed in his captain’s picks for this year’s Ryder Cup team, and just as crucially in his lineup for the Saturday afternoon four-balls. And it cost him, as Europe lost that session 3-1 as his veterans—but not his youngsters—were found wanting. If Europe can’t overcome its 9½- 6½ deficit in the singles, this will go down as the Ryder Cup in which the core of the European team finally got old.
For as much as experience is considered crucial in this old-world-against-new-world contest, on merit (and particularly because of short game and putting weaknesses that are so destructive in match play) Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood—a combined 0-5 at Hazeltine—should not have been picked for this team. Russell Knox and Luke Donald, both excellent around and on the greens, should have been the choices. And that’s not to mention Paul Casey, who eliminated himself from consideration by strangely choosing not to join the European Tour. Off his performance playing mostly the PGA Tour, Casey would have made the European team on points. He denies that his decision was affected by being passed up as captain’s pick in 2010, but it’s the only reason that makes any sense.
On Saturday afternoon, Clarke had Westwood partner with Danny Willett and Kaymer with Sergio Garcia, instead of Chris Wood and Rafa Cabrera Bello, two rookies who had won in the morning and clearly were in better form.
It will never be known if Wood and Cabrera Bello would have made a difference on the scoreboard. But after the 43-year-old Westwood’s sad short misses, especially a final yip from 2½ feet for a tying birdie on the 18th that left his face bloodless, it’s hard to imagine Europe can bounce back. Westwood’s putt portends to reprise Craig Stadler’s infamous Saturday night flinch at the 1985 Ryder Cup, after which Europe blitzed the U.S. in Sunday singles to win 16½-11½ .
No doubt Europe looked just as beaten at Medinah in 2012, and at Oak Hill in 1995. And “Medinah!” will be the rallying cry the European team will carry in their heads through the night. But the tired play on Saturday afternoon of not just Westwood and Kaymer, but Garcia, Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose leaves the feeling that this European team can’t dig much deeper.
Of course, the U.S. team’s Ryder Cup task force has to be acknowledged. The final verdict on the whole enterprise has to wait until tomorrow, but so far, it’s fair to say that the Americans have exhibited an extra dimension of confidence and spirit that’s translated into execution.
“This team is more like a family,” said captain Davis Love III. “They’re bonded together. People haven’t given us credit for that in the past, but this time we’ve taken it personally. We know there is a long way to go.”
No one is due more credit than Phil Mickelson. The 46-year-old knows that as the lightning rod for the controversial formation and preachy principles of the easy-to-deride Task Force, he will be slow roasted if the U.S. loses. He admitted this week that the possibility has made him more nervous about playing than he has ever been in his long career.
Still, Mickelson accessed the champion within and used the considerable pull Love has granted him to get into the lineup in three of the first four sessions. He didn’t play particularly well, his erratic driving causing his former swing coach, Butch Harmon, to crack on Sky Sports, “I’m not sure Phil can spell fairway, never mind hit one.” But Rickie Fowler bailed him out in opening Friday morning foursomes, and Matt Kuchar was doing the same early in the Saturday afternoon fourball against Kaymer and Garcia.
Mickelson, though, then bailed himself out, producing four very clutch back-nine birdies that were vital in the 2-and-1 victory. Despite coming close to damaging team chemistry with an 11th-hour gaffe in his smarmy and unnecessary criticism on Wednesday of 2004 captain Hal Sutton, Mickelson ultimately has inspired by not only continuing to want the ball under extreme pressure, but for sincerely (and self-effacingly) apologizing to Sutton and then doubling down in his role as encourager-in-chief. Bottom line: Infuriating flaws and all, Mickelson again proved his true grit.
It’s a quality Westwood and Kaymer have demonstrated many times, and perhaps Clarke should be admired for having faith that they could find a way again. But this European team has a smaller margin for error than its most recent counterparts. While eight victories in the last 10 matches may appear dynastic, in truth the main carryover from one Ryder Cup to the next is that the differences in the quality of the teams will be minimal.
This year the U.S., even with the oldest player on either team in Mickelson, is discernibly deeper. In the coldest terms, Clarke didn’t have the luxury of loyalty.
Unless, somehow, a Medinah happens again.