Commentary

Examining some Ryder Cup fallacies

Originally Published: September 28, 2010
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

NEWPORT, Wales -- The memorable moments, both good and bad, are too numerous to count. That is the nature of the Ryder Cup, an event that evokes passion and purpose unlike anything else in golf.

[+] EnlargeColin Montgomerie
Stuart Franklin/Getty ImagesHow much of a difference do Ryder Cup captains such as Colin Montgomerie have on the outcome of the biennial matches? The answer is eminently debatable.

It has seen top players melt under the glare, while unknowns shined for perhaps the only time in their careers. It has produced gut-wrenching pressure despite being played for pride and not a paycheck.

There undoubtedly will be plenty of nerves on the first tee at Celtic Manor, where the 38th Ryder Cup begins Friday.

But in the course of the past 25 years -- as the European team became a force and the matches grew heated -- plenty of misconceptions about the competition have come into play: Europeans bond better than Americans; match play is a difficult format to master; the captains play a crucial role in the outcome; strategy is key.

Don't misunderstand, there are many aspects that go into a successful Ryder Cup effort, as past results have shown. There have been teams that didn't mesh, struggles with an unfamiliar format, captains who made blunders and players who erred.

But, in general, such factors are overblown and overanalyzed.

The Ryder Cup, typically, comes down to who plays the best and holes the most putts, regardless of perceived errors by the captains or a lack of camaraderie among teammates.

Here, then, are a few examples of the fallacies associated with the Ryder Cup.

Chemistry and camaraderie

It certainly does not hurt to have players who get along. And it is especially important to have pairings in which the partners mesh, through personality or style of play.

But to suggest that the 12 Ryder Cup teammates must "bond" and become a "unit" and have great "chemistry" is a bit of a stretch.

Why? Because even in the most extreme example, a player can have at most four different partners in the course of the Ryder Cup. That means he will never tee it up with seven of his "teammates."

This became clear two years ago at Valhalla, where U.S. captain Paul Azinger instituted his "pod" system that had his team practice and play in groups of four. A player was never going to be paired with anyone outside of that group, meaning the other eight members of the team would have no direct impact on his play.

"If the players had not played great, we wouldn't have won no matter what," Azinger said. "The credit belongs to them and not to me.

"But I think the captain can create an environment, and that's what I did. I decided that, for the American team, 12 was too big of a number to be bonded in such a short space of time. I thought we would be better off bonding in small groups."

For all the talk of having good team chemistry, everyone plays by himself come Sunday singles.

Match play's pitfalls

Because only one tournament on the PGA Tour is contested by match play, there is a notion that the format is difficult to master. Hardly.

"You're hitting golf balls and trying to get it in the hole in as few strokes as possible," said 2002 U.S. Ryder Cup captain Curtis Strange, who will work for ESPN this week. "There is a different mentality, but it's golf. And they [the Europeans] don't play any more match play than we do. Bottom line: Go play good golf."

And even though the format is used only rarely at the professional level, match play is the mode of choice for most friendly wagers in practice rounds everywhere.

"It is great to play match play because it's one hole," said U.S. team member Hunter Mahan. "Then you go to the next hole and try to win it. There's nothing to get used to there. Getting used to alternate shot maybe is more different, but that doesn't have anything to do with match play. That's no big deal."

Said Steve Stricker: "I don't think there's too much adjustment. Instead of trying to beat up the course, you're trying to beat your opponent."

The captains
It has been said many times: They get too much credit when their team wins, too much blame when it loses. Consider the plight of captains Corey Pavin and Colin Montgomerie. Pavin had eight players who were automatic qualifiers, Monty nine. Both then had to fill out their teams with captain's picks, perhaps the hardest part of the job.

This week, they will come up with pairings, and dwell on the order in which they will send out their players. It's tricky, but not exactly brain busting. For example, putting the Molinari brothers together isn't exactly a tough call for Montgomerie. Neither is matching Northern Irishmen Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, rumored to be Monty's first pairing for Friday.

"The captain is definitely going to play some kind of a role, but at the end of the day, when you stand on that first tee, there's not an awful lot the captain can do," England's Ian Poulter said. "He might intervene at some stage, but hopefully the players don't need that to happen and you can just go out there and play the golf we know we can play."

Nick Faldo continues to be criticized for his captaincy two years ago at Valhalla, with U.S. Open champion McDowell recently suggesting that he wasn't much of a motivator.

And yet, was it Faldo's fault that his trio of Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington and Lee Westwood went 0-7-5?

In 1997, U.S. captain Tom Kite managed every aspect and European captain Seve Ballesteros was said to be less than the master of detail. The Europeans won by 1 point. Did the captains' different approaches matter?

"The players have to perform, obviously," Strange said. "It is the responsibility of the captain to make a very abnormal situation as normal as possible. Everything is so structured, very little free time. It is up to the captain to prepare the players to get the best out of their games. … Then you hope they do their jobs."

Strategy
The Ryder Cup consists of 28 matches, with eight each of the first two days. Of those 16 matches on Friday and Saturday, eight will be two-man teams playing foursomes, or alternate shot. There is some strategy involved in those matches. Players alternate hitting tee shots, so it is best to take a look at the holes and determine who is best suited for par-3s, long par-4s, etc.

The other matches are four-ball, or best ball. A two-man team takes the best ball and puts it up against the opponents' best ball. Common sense suggests that if your partner has hit a par-4 green in 2, you have the green light to go at the pin. Or if he has hit his approach in the bunker, perhaps you should play safe.

This isn't exactly the kind of stuff that forces you to study a playbook.

"It comes down to the players playing," said Stewart Cink, who will compete on his fifth U.S. Ryder Cup team. "The captain can make some blunders and pair up guys who shouldn't be paired together, but, for the most part, it's how you execute shots and the frame of mind.

"Once you get into the Ryder Cup, it's into the fire from the very get-go."

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

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com