Ryder Road 'Dogs
Jack's place: Jack Nicklaus designed Gleneagles' PGA Centenary Course, which will play at 7,243 yards, par 72. Here, the 516-yard, par-5 second.
The proper rejoinder by underdogs to an "on paper" projection of their chances is the phrase, "That's why they play the games."
Going into the 40th Ryder Cup, it should become the U.S. team's battle cry. In the history of the competition, the Americans have never been as outgunned as they appear going into this year's matches Sept. 26-28 at Gleneagles' PGA Centenary Course in Perthshire, Scotland. And that's coming after U.S. losses in seven of the past nine meetings with Team Europe, including five of the past six.
Ever since the biennial matches became hyper-competitive in the '80s, they have been pick-'em affairs, with the underdog basically determined by whichever is the visiting team. But this year there are so many factors going against the Americans that the possibility of a blowout—as big or bigger than the 18½-9½ beating absorbed by the historically weak 2006 U.S. team—looms large. Indeed, if Europe doesn't win, it will be as big an upset as when the Americans lost for the first time at home, in 1987. Consider these facts:
The Europeans are stacked like never before. Coming out of the PGA Championship, they had four of the top-five players in the world: No. 1 Rory McIlroy, No. 3 Henrik Stenson, No. 4 Sergio Garcia and No. 5 Justin Rose. The highest ranked American was Jim Furyk at No. 6, followed by Matt Kuchar at No. 7, Bubba Watson at No. 8, Phil Mickelson at No. 9 and Jordan Spieth, No. 12. In the past, the U.S. team's depth has always produced a better average position on the World Golf Ranking, but this year, for the first time since the ranking started, it appeared the European average (awaiting the addition of captains' picks) would be better. And for the first time, players from Europe won three of the four major championships. "No question we are big underdogs," says 2008 U.S. captain Paul Azinger.
Holding the matches at their northernmost latitude ever makes the European home-game advantage even bigger. Scotland is expected to be cold and wet, and with U.S. fan support likely in short supply, it's easy to envision the Americans looking forlorn in their rainsuits.
The U.S. also goes in knowing it has fewer top players at its disposal since Jack Nicklaus was sitting out three competitions because of a PGA of America rule that required a player to put in five years on the PGA Tour before being eligible for the team. Tiger Woods is out, and Dustin Johnson is unavailable after taking a leave from the tour. Jason Dufner certainly looked to be out when he withdrew from the PGA with a neck injury and announced he was leaving competition indefinitely. Kuchar also missed the PGA because of a back problem that could hamper his participation in Scotland. Woods, chiefly because of back surgery in late March, was unable to earn enough points to qualify for the team. Startlingly poor play at the PGA and his clearly hampered physical condition made him problematic as one of Tom Watson's three captain's picks.
Meanwhile, the team's nine qualifiers aren't exactly Murderers' Row. Mickelson, a veteran of nine teams, didn't officially earn his way on until his runner-up at the PGA, his first top-10 finish of the year. Furyk will play on his ninth team, and though he has had a year full of high finishes (but no wins), his Ryder Cup record of 9-17-4 and inability to win his singles match at Medinah in 2012 does not inspire confidence. Three first-timers—Spieth, Jimmy Walker and Patrick Reed—are among the leaders in the FedEx Cup, but based on experience and form, the two horses on this team figure to be Fowler, in his second Ryder Cup, and Zach Johnson, in his fourth. Doing their best to get a captain's nod on Sept. 2 was a large group including Keegan Bradley, Brandt Snedeker, Webb Simpson and Hunter Mahan.
So, does the U.S. have anything in its favor? Well, three things. First, revenge for the defeat at Medinah, in which the Europeans were akin to a boxer who gets off the canvas five times before scoring a knockout in the last round. Second, the possible pressure-reliever of being the underdog, with the accompanying hope that Europe will tighten up under the expectation of an easy victory.
And finally, there is the venerable Watson, 65. The last time the U.S. won on European soil was in 1993, when Watson was captain. PGA of America president Ted Bishop offered Watson the job this time because of the respect the eight-time major winner will engender from the players. Unstated is that Watson follows the PGA's pattern of switching leadership styles after a loss. Hal Sutton was tough in 2004 and lost; he was followed by the gentler Tom Lehman, who lost. This led the way to the hard-nosed Azinger, who won. The selection committee stayed tough with Corey Pavin, but after he lost, compassionate Davis Love III got the nod. The excruciatingly painful loss outside Chicago, blamed in part on Love acceding to Mickelson's plea to rest and thus break up a 3-0 pairing with Bradley, opened the way for Bishop to get Watson, who says, "We're tired of losing. I always said that in my playing career, I learned to win by hating to lose. That's the attitude that I hope my players have. It's time to stop losing." Besides old-school toughness, Watson has something else going for him. With his 1993 team down going into the singles matches, Watson got up in the team room on Saturday night and told his players not to worry. "We are going to win tomorrow," he said. "You know why? Because I'm the luckiest SOB in the history of golf."
Of course, he got the unluckiest bounce ever on the 72nd hole at the 2009 British Open. But perhaps that grand misfortune squared Watson's books, with his good luck ready to work for his players at Gleneagles. On paper or on the course, they're going to need it.