Henry's revised Ryder Cup forecast
|More Ryder Cup-related rhetoric|
• There's absolutely no way U.S. captain Tom Lehman will bench his four rookies until the Sunday singles. Lehman saw firsthand how that strategy can backfire in 1999, when Euro skipper Mark James sat his four rooks, then watched as each become roadkill in the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history. Jitters and rust are a bad combination. Throw in a serious inferiority complex, and you have a perfect recipe for failure.
• Brett Wetterich definitely will see action in one of the four-ball sessions, maybe both. The guy ranks fourth on the PGA Tour in driving distance (308.7 yards) and third in birdies per round (4.05). I see Wetterich getting paired with Chad Campbell, one of the streakiest putters on earth, or with David Toms, one of the best week after week from 15 feet and in.
• To those who disagreed with Stewart Cink and Scott Verplank as Lehman's two captain's picks, I ask: Whom should he have chosen? Davis Love III? If Lehman could find just one reason to add a guy who went the last six months of the qualification period without earning a single point, DL3 would be on the squad. Fred Couples? When's the last time he was in contention? Try February. Lucas Glover? This roster doesn't need another rookie. In final analysis, Lehman's options were very limited. Cink and Verplank were excellent choices: ideal alternate-shot players who might very well pair up in both foursomes sessions. Lehman is fully aware how tough that format has been on the Americans.
• When it comes to unlikely heroes on this U.S. team, my money's on Vaughn Taylor. This is a guy with attitude -- Taylor has annoyed a number of fellow tour pros with his temper, which Lehman gently referred to in his announcement of the captain's picks as an unabashed hatred of losing. If that's not a good enough reason to schedule a ticker-tape parade, Taylor is sixth on the tour in putting and fifth in birdie-conversion percentage. America's answer to Peter Baker, perhaps.
• After a great start to his Ryder Cup career -- just one loss in his first seven matches -- Phil Mickelson was a disappointment in 2002 and 2004. His overt lack of interest in tournament golf after Labor Day might be the reason for this decline, but I do know the U.S. will have a very difficult time winning overseas if Philly Mick shows up only semi-ready. His likely partnership with Chris DiMarco looks great on paper, but there's a risky downside -- neither player is all that adept at hitting fairways. If Tiger can find it within himself to assume a leadership role and get jacked up for these matches, so can Lefty. These Yanks can't run on half tanks. -- J.H.
When I spent some time with J.J. Henry right after he won the Buick Championship this summer, he seemed almost flabbergasted that he'd jumped into sixth place in the U.S. Ryder Cup standings. No question, he appeared apprehensive about the possibility of playing in golf's most pressurized event and about whether he actually deserved to be on the team. To say Henry had doubts about the situation would not be an overstatement.
A phone conversation with J.J. last week revealed an entirely different guy -- confident and eager to take on the Europeans later this month in Ireland. The longer Henry and I talked, the more it became obvious that, by taking the four Ryder Cup rookies to dinner last month at the Bridgestone Invitational, Tiger Woods totally changed the mental disposition of this squad.
How much this Tiger Effect will help the Americans once the matches begin is anybody's guess, but I think it could be huge. Henry, for one, has always struggled to realize how talented a player he is. "The biggest thing I got out of [dinner] is that all four of us earned our way onto the team," he said. "Tiger made that very clear. It's not like we were captain's picks. Say what you want about the system, but we played our way in, and Tiger really emphasized that."
As much as people tend to overvalue the importance of team chemistry at these events, Woods obviously is a special player whose attitude is felt by everyone around him. His stepping forward and finally taking the initiative as a leader makes this U.S. team at least two points better than it was in mid-August. The Yanks still face a very difficult task in beating the Euros in Ireland, but I'm no longer among those who don't think this squad has a chance.
And as much as I like the idea of Woods and Jim Furyk playing together in all four partnered sessions, a Tiger-Henry victory in a four-ball match could prove to be one of the biggest points of the week. The Europeans have taught the U.S. all about the value of momentum at this gathering. It's time the U.S. finally got the snowball rolling in the right direction. So far, so good.
John Hawkins is a senior writer for Golf World magazine.
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