Will Europe outflank U.S. at Ryder Cup?
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- My fellow Americans, these are trying times for our nation.
The economy. The oil spill. The presumably blind soccer referee.
And now I've come as the bearer of more bad news: We may be about to get our butts kicked at the Ryder Cup.
The biennial competition against Europe is more than three months away, but start bracing yourself to sing the blues over the red, white and blue.
Don't get me wrong: The U.S. team has plenty of world-class players. Tiger Woods appears to be regaining his form. Phil Mickelson has the green jacket in his closet. Jim Furyk owns two wins already this year. Toss in the likes of Steve Stricker, Zach Johnson, Dustin Johnson, Anthony Kim, Stewart Cink and Hunter Mahan and you'll find an ultra-talented roster seeking to defend its title in Wales.
Even so, everything about this season screams victory for the other guys.
Unlike previous years, the opponents haven't been content to ply their craft at home, simply challenging each other at European Tour events on a weekly basis. Instead, we've seen one of the greatest British Invasions since The Beatles played Shea Stadium.
Earlier this season, Ian Poulter claimed his first career U.S. win, taking the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship -- which just happens to use the same format as the Ryder Cup. He was followed last month by Rory McIlroy, who posted mind-boggling weekend scores of 66 and 62 to prevail at the Quail Hollow Championship on the eve of his 21st birthday.
And now we've seen three straight weeks of Europe being up. Justin Rose triumphed at the prestigious Memorial Tournament, Lee Westwood survived at the St. Jude Classic and Graeme McDowell became the first European winner of the U.S. Open since 1970.
That's right. Despite a faint Alabama twang from his college days infused into that Irish lilt, the recent winner of our national championship is indeed from Northern Ireland and will no doubt be part of the roster at Celtic Manor -- a course on which he just happened to win three weeks ago.
"This is going to be a seriously, heavily contested team," said McDowell, who competed for the losing side at Valhalla two years ago. "I firmly believe we've got the team to win the trophy back."
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The elite level of aptitude extends well beyond those five winners of U.S.-based events this season.
Other potential team members include Padraig Harrington, who owns three major championship titles since 2007; Luke Donald, who recently finished third or better in three straight events; Paul Casey, the eighth-ranked player in the world; Martin Kaymer, a sweet-swinging up-and-comer; Robert Karlsson, who lost to Westwood in that Memphis, Tenn., playoff; Henrik Stenson, a hugely successful Swede; Alvaro Quiros, the longest hitter in professional golf; Ross Fisher, a top-30 finisher at each of last year's majors; Edoardo and Francesco Molinari, blossoming brothers from Italy; Rhys Davies, an upstart from the host country; and yes, even Sergio Garcia, who has recently struggled but is a sublime Ryder Cup competitor.
Yes, that number is more than the allotted dozen spots for a roster, meaning captain Colin Montgomerie's toughest task may be separating his best and brightest. There are currently 19 players from Europe in the top 50 on the Official World Golf Ranking, which equals the number of Americans, though Monty's men have been finding the winner's circle more frequently than those of U.S. skipper Corey Pavin.
"You can put two [European] teams out that are very, very equal in standard and ability," Montgomerie recently said of his potential players. "It's a very difficult choice."
We learned something important at Pebble Beach this past week. No, it had nothing to do with the breakthrough of another unheralded yet skillful European golfer. After all, we already knew about the improved state of such players, especially when competing stateside.
Instead, we learned once again that an underdog can prove victorious on a grand stage. McDowell prevailed over the likes of multiple-major champions in Woods, Mickelson and Ernie Els, each of whom floundered in the final round as the winner remained the last man standing.
It should serve as a critical lesson for the United States' hopes in Wales. Just because optimism is running rampant for the opposing side doesn't mean such trying times for the country will continue at the Ryder Cup.
Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.
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