Euro team will always battle
So here's a switch: In most of the recent Ryder Cup years -- six of the last nine competitions -- the United States appeared to have the stronger team, yet Europe won.
Not so this year.
The U.S. squad is, at best, no more than equal to the team from the other side of the Atlantic. Always, it seems, there was a no-name European (at least a no-name to American fans) who stepped up to win a key point (see Paul McGinley's Cup-winning putt in 2002). This year at Oakland Hills both teams will be packed with players sporting little Ryder Cup experience.
The opportunities for an unlikely hero to emerge in Detroit this September are more than likely.
With the finalization of the European team Sunday, both sides will enter the competition with five players who have no Ryder Cup experience. In fact, the top-four Americans -- Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III and Jim Furyk -- account for 15 of the 19 total Ryder Cups on the 12-man team. Kenny Perry, Chad Campbell, Chris DiMarco, Fred Funk and Chris Riley will be making their debut in the high-stress competition. David Toms will be playing for just the second time and Hal Sutton's captain's picks, Jay Haas and Stewart Cink, have played in two and one Cup respectively.
On the other side of the ocean, Colin Montgomerie, who along with Luke Donald was the wildcard selection for captain Bernhard Langer, accounts for six of the 18 total Cup appearances by the Europeans. Ian Poulter, Paul Casey, David Howell, Thomas Levet and Donald are Ryder Cup rookies, Miguel Angel Jimenez and McGinley have played once, Padraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia twice and Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood three times.
Even more interesting is the fact that each team has only two players with winning Ryder Cup records. Garcia has six wins, three losses and one halve and Montgomerie is 16-7-5 and has never lost in singles play.
For the Americans, Mickelson is 8-5-3 and Toms is 3-1-1. Two of the veteran Americans -- Woods and Furyk -- bring in records of 5-8-2 and 3-6-2, respectively. The other experienced American, Love, is a more respectable 8-9-4. There are no major disappointments among the Europeans, although Clarke (4-6-2) and Westwood (7-8-0) have records that could be better. Harrington is a respectable 3-3-1.
If major championships matter as a measuring stick then the Americans have the clear advantage. Five members of the U.S. team have won majors -- Woods, Mickelson, Love, Furyk and Toms, with Woods being the only multiple major winner -- while no one on the European side has brought home a major title.
What the Europeans do bring to the competition is grit. While it might be a slight overstatement to say that winning the Ryder Cup means more to the Europeans than it does to the Americans, it would not be far off the mark.
The 13th man the Europeans bring into the competition every two years is a healthy chip on their collective shoulders that they do not get as much respect from the American fans and media as they should. That chip always translates into points. The history of the European team is cluttered with important points won by Paul Way (1985), Howard Clark (1987), Philip Walton and David Gilford (1995) and McGinley last year.
The European team brings in a record of 37-30-13, but that is deceiving because of Montgomerie. Without him, their record is 21-23-8. The U.S. side has a collective mark of 31-35-13.
If recent history has proven anything -- Europe has won five of the last nine competitions and kept the Cup another time with a tie -- it is that the European team needs to build up a big lead going into singles play. The top four Americans -- Woods, Mickelson, Love and Furyk -- have a combined record of 9-3-3 in singles play. But that foursome has a combined record of 7-11-2 in better-ball play and 7-10-4 in alternate shot.
The Big Four among the Europeans -- Montgomerie, Clarke, Westwood and Garcia -- are a combined 13-10-4 in better-ball matches, 16-7-1 in alternate shot and 4-7-3 in singles. But all four of those singles victories and two of the halves are by Montgomerie. Garcia, Clarke and Westwood are a combined 0-7-1 in singles.
The fun thing about match play and the compelling thing about the Ryder Cup is that the players do not have to perform at a high level to produce a top-notch competition. Match play is literally a format in which each hole produces a new competition. And while 72 holes of stroke play provides the time for the cream to rise to the top, the compressed action of match play creates more opportunities for upsets and the added demands of playing for a team -- and possibly letting down others beside yourself -- reveals more about the character of the players involved.
There is, quite simply, no event in golf like the Ryder Cup. It has a history (dating back to 1927) lacking in the President's Cup or the Solheim Cup and it has all those years when the Americans beat up on the team from Great Britain and Ireland.
That domination changed when all of Europe was added to the team in 1979, and part of the motivation the Europeans bring into the competition each time is the memory of those humiliations in which Britain won only once from 1935 through 1983.
There is a lot of talk in the United States about whether the Players Championship is the fifth major. In Europe it's clear what the fifth major is - it's the Ryder Cup.
The side Sutton sends out to compete at Oakland Hills better be darn sure of one thing: The Europeans will come prepared to play. They always do. It's all about that healthy chip on their shoulders.
Ron Sirak is the Executive Editor of Golf World magazine.