Sutton 'proud,' even in defeat

Updated: September 19, 2004, 9:41 PM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. -- He seemed to ride into town on horseback, with his giant black cowboy hat, reflective sunglasses, puffed-out chest and unflappable confidence.

The comparisons were to that of John Wayne. Bear Bryant. Or anybody else in American lore that spoke his mind, laid his neck on the line and didn't care what anybody else thought.

But by Sunday, when the Europeans were raising the Ryder Cup high above their heads for the fourth time in the last five matches, U.S. captain Hal Sutton was reduced to a pile of emotional rubble, still stunned that his foolproof plan had failed.

Tiger Woods and Hal Sutton
Sutton watched Tiger win his singles match, but it wasn't nearly enough for the Americans.

He didn't yell. He didn't cry. He just sort of sighed. A grown man defeated. Yet he described his emotions as "proud."

"I'm proud of the guys here, the friendships we've made, the battles we've endured," Sutton said. "We're bleeding but we're not dead. We'll get back up and we'll fight again."

He was the charismatic American all week long. As he rolled through the gallery in his captain's cart, he was greeted with thunderous applause and constant support. Everybody wanted Hal to "go get 'em" and "stick it to those Euros." Using words like "fixin'" and "y'all" can do that.

But in the end, this happened on his watch: It was Sutton's decision to pair Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods together. His thought to play 50-year-old Jay Haas 54 holes in 24 hours. His call to let Chris Riley sit Saturday afternoon's matches after he and Tiger Woods won in the morning. And they all failed.

"I second-guess myself all the time," Sutton said. "But you know what, I'm not going to lose any sleep over the way I've done this. I mean, I did it the way I thought we should have done it."

There are those who say Ryder Cup captain is one of the most overrated jobs in sports. Pick the outfits, pick the golf bags, put together the pairings and then it's out of your hands. Sunday night, almost to a man, the Americans apologized to their captain for not making putts and not getting him the Cup. They said it was their fault.

"It's awfully hard going out there and not handing Hal that cup at the end of the week," Davis Love III said.

But history won't be so kind. Sutton paraded into Oakland Hills attempting something no other U.S. captain had the gall to do -- pair Woods and Mickelson. He said from the beginning that this was what he wanted. That nobody would talk him out of it. And that he could live with his decision.

If it worked, he'd be a genius.

If it failed, he'd be a fool.

After Sunday, Sutton looked more like Vince Vaughn than Vince Lombardi. All talk, no action.

Sure the putts didn't fall, sure the Europeans seemed to catch fire, responding to every American challenge. But now that the Americans lost, now that Mickelson and Woods went 0-2 together and 4-1 apart, it's the decision that Sutton will be remembered by most.

"I thought the world deserved seeing Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson together," Sutton said. "I was determined to give them that. I mean, if they would have had good karma out there, if they could get it going together, they could have been grand. But they didn't."

But the Woods/Mickelson debacle wasn't Sutton's biggest regret of his captaincy. That came Friday night, when the sheet Sutton turned into the media with Saturday morning's pairings on it included a cross-out. On a hunch, at the last second, Sutton replaced David Toms with Jim Furyk to play alongside Chad Campbell. And the whole world got to see.

Furyk and Campbell lost to Ryder Cup rookies Paul Casey and David Howell, 1 up, after leading by one with two holes to play.

"That bothers me more than anything this whole weekend," Sutton said. "It was a hunch. Just a gut feeling. But I didn't intend for everyone to see it."

Sutton tried everything he could. Using a cart to parade around the course on Friday and then walking on Saturday, as a show of solidarity. Saturday night, with his team trailing by a Ryder Cup- record 11-5 after two days, he reverted to the rallying moment at Brookline in 1999, asking each player to go around a room and share what the Ryder Cup meant to them.

The night ended in tears, just like '99. Only this time there was no miracle.

Yet even in losing, even in the disappointment of a week in which everything Sutton touched seemingly turned to stone while Euro captain Bernhard Langer turned everything into gold, he rode off into the sunset with a soundbite.

It came in his final press conference as Ryder Cup captain, when a reporter referred to a comment from earlier in the week, when Sutton said he would have "bet the ranch" that Woods and Mickelson would have won. The reporter then asked how much Sutton would have bet Saturday night that the United States wouldn't lose by a record nine points.

"Whatever was left to bet," he said. "I'm a gamblin' man."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Wayne.Drehs@espn3.com.

ALSO SEE