Commentary

Americans fully prepared to play the underdog card at 37th Ryder Cup

Originally Published: September 16, 2008
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- It was in the aftermath of what was then the worst defeat in U.S. Ryder Cup history when Phil Mickelson acknowledged that the notion of the Americans having an advantage was waning.

[+] EnlargePhil Mickelson
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesPhil Mickelson and his American teammates have been outscored 37-19 in the past two Ryder Cups combined.
"I don't think we'll be the favorite the next time," Mickelson said after the 18½ to 9½ defeat to Europe. "No matter what the world rankings say, I think we'll be the underdog, and hopefully we'll play like they have."

Mickelson's remarks came four years ago after a somber performance at Oakland Hills.

Two years later in Ireland, the Americans got drubbed by the exact same score.

If the U.S. was not the underdog at the K Club, the Americans certainly are now, right?

There is plenty of conjecture about this point in the days leading up to the 37th Ryder Cup matches at Valhalla Golf Club, but it is tough to ignore one important factor: Tiger Woods is not here.

His presence in the past, despite a lackluster Ryder Cup record, has given the U.S. a perceived edge that is unquestionably missing this time.

"We've got to have more of a chance without him," said Ireland's Padraig Harrington of not having to face the world's No. 1-ranked player, who is not playing in the Ryder Cup due to June knee surgery. "There's no way you can say that team isn't weakened. That would be silly."

Woods' Ryder Cup record of 10-13-2 is not stellar, but his only singles defeat came in his first Ryder Cup appearance in 1997.

He was part of the big rally on the final day in 1999, played Jesper Parnevik to a conceded half in 2002 and won his matches in 2004 and 2006 when the final day was all but meaningless.

Wouldn't the Americans love to have him Sunday if the matches were meaningful?

"We will be an underdog," said U.S. Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger. "We are missing Tiger Woods. He is the greatest player on earth. That's a big blow to us.

"It will be unique to be on home soil as underdogs, but clearly, the European team is strong … one of the strongest teams I've ever seen them bring across here."

It all depends on perspective.

The European roster certainly looks strong with Harrington and his two major victories this year to go along with Sergio Garcia and his 14-4-2 career Ryder Cup record plus a win at the Players Championship in May. In addition, teammate Robert Karlsson is coming off a win Sunday in Germany on the European Tour.

In fact, the Europeans had three players finish in the top eight on Sunday and four in the top 16.

Meanwhile, no American team member has won a tournament since Kenny Perry won the John Deere Classic in early July.

And questions remain about the Americans' ability to come together in this format.

Maybe there are too many trainers, too many therapists, too many coaches, too many people in the way of that. On paper, the teams are probably very even. So it's an attitude. It's an outlook in which you create an environment that is off base with our guys. They may compete individually on a world stage for lots of money and play well. But throw them together for a week and all those dynamic forces that affect a player -- and I'm just guessing -- but there sure appears to be a big difference.

-- Former U.S. Ryder Cup player Hale Irwin on some possible reasons for the Americans' woes

"I don't know if they have that overall team spirit and that drive to succeed, the pride factor," said Hale Irwin, who last played in the 1991 Ryder Cup, where his half point in the final match against Germany's Bernhard Langer was the difference between a victory and a tie.

"Maybe there are too many trainers, too many therapists, too many coaches, too many people in the way of that. On paper, the teams are probably very even. So it's an attitude. It's an outlook in which you create an environment that is off base with our guys. They may compete individually on a world stage for lots of money and play well. But throw them together for a week and all those dynamic forces that affect a player -- and I'm just guessing -- but there sure appears to be a big difference."

The fact is, the Americans had been huge favorites in just about every Ryder Cup through 2004, with far more top 25-ranked players in the world than Europe.

Now, things are far more equal, which perhaps gives the Europeans the edge without Woods on the American side.

Each team has six players who are ranked among the top 20 in the world, with another six ranked among the top 60. The U.S. team has the two lowest-ranked players in J.B. Holmes at No. 56 and Chad Campbell at No. 57. And yet England's Oliver Wilson has never won a professional tournament.

As for this year, the U.S. team has combined for 12 victories while the Europeans have accumulated eight. Or, you can look at it like this: The average world ranking for Europe is 22.42, while for the U.S. it is 24.67.

In terms of numbers, the Americans are certainly not the huge underdogs they are being made out to be, and yet, there is a feeling that Europe is better.

"I think every team is looking to play the underdog card," Harrington said. "It's been that way in Europe because it's against the U.S. tour and there has been a point to prove, in that sense. The U.S. can play it up this time themselves and can use it to motivate themselves."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com