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JIM MURRAY

It's Where U.S. Golfers Have Met Their Match

September 23, 1993|JIM MURRAY

The Ryder Cup historically was as one-sided as a lynching. The American team used to dispatch the British team with the kind of bored detachment the Yankees used in winning the World Series. Every match was what baseball calls a "laugher."

The Brits won only three times in the first 25 meetings, and all three times they had the home-court advantage--the matches were in England. The Yanks once won 13 consecutive times, which meant the Europeans went 28 years without a victory.

Naturally, no one paid much attention to this exhibition. It was like a Joe Louis fight--over before you could find your seat, as foregone as a Russian election.

Popular theory is that this began to change with an idle suggestion from Jack Nicklaus, no less, that Britannia extend its rule to the continent of Europe, which had the effect of including the Spaniard, Seve Ballesteros, on its side since he was playing all his golf in Blighty anyway.

To be sure, the competition stiffened with the inclusion of Seve. The European side won for the first time in 28 years in 1985. The next meeting, they retained the Cup in Ohio, beating the Yanks on Nicklaus' course at Muirfield.

In 1989, they retained the Cup in England with a tie. The British-European side held the Cup three times in succession.

Two years ago, at Kiawah Island, S.C., in one of the great international competitions in sports history, the Europeans came within a six-foot putt of retaining the Cup again.

Conventional wisdom says this is the addition of Super Seve and the German, Bernhard Langer, and the No. 2 Spaniard, Jose Maria Olazabal, to Europe's lineup.

I'm not so sure. Consider this: The Ryder Cup, besides adding a patriotic tinge to the great game, also returns it to a basic form of competition the Americans have long abandoned and have no real truck with.

The Ryder Cup is match play in its extreme form. You have alternate-shot foursomes--this may force you to go out and play a shot from the gorse you didn't put there--a best-ball team matchup and, finally, head-to-head match-play singles.

American pros never play those kinds of games. Our PGA Championship, the last stand of match play in the professional game, hasn't been match play since 1957.

Americans play a kind of pool-table golf. A drive and an eight-iron. Manicured fairways, minimal rough, fast but predictable greens.

It is the notion here that the Yanks lost the nuances of this other kind of play. The Ryder Cup got the game back to competition between players, not merely between player and course. It is golf the way it used to be, man to man, hand-to-hand combat, not a solo aria, not a performance where you played a golf course like a guy playing a piano. Not a recital, a fight. Not Van Cliburn, Jack Dempsey.

We won Ryder Cups early on because we sent over guys who cut their eyeteeth on this kind of game. When it came to gamesmanship, no one was better at this cat-and-mouse intrigue than Walter Hagen.

The early pros were not even intimidated by the kind of run-up, roll-the-ball golf you had to play on British courses, which were watered by God and mowed by sheep. You had Americans then who had learned to play on sand greens and unmowed Texas fairways. They could handle any kind of trouble shot.

To be sure, the British courses today, notably the Belfry, where the Ryder Cup is contested this weekend, have long since gravitated to the agronomy and artificiality of American courses. So, the problem, now, it seems to me, is can the Americans handle the subtleties of the game, now that the subtleties of the course have been eliminated? Can they handle the unfamiliarities of match play?

Look at it this way: Did you ever see such a succession of shots in the water, off-line chips, sudden spasm-ridden putts as those perpetrated by great American players in the last two Ryder Cups?

The American player, on the spoor of another 65 or even 63, gets into a rhythm and locks out everything but the course itself. He hardly even knows whom he's playing with. He's in a cocoon.

You may remember some years back when Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer complained that they found themselves paired an inordinate amount of the time. They hated it because they began to play each other, to the detriment of playing the golf course.

That's what a Ryder Cup is. It forces you into that mano a mano game. It's like getting into a poker game on a riverboat. It's un-American. It's golf.

It's golf where you concede putts, rattle your opponent. It's a game where, theoretically, you can shoot 68--and lose to a guy shooting 78. Not likely, of course, but if a guy shoots eight on a hole and you make three, all you win is the hole.

You shoot an eight on the tour and you're on your way out of town by nightfall.

Americans never come up against this psychological game anymore. To be sure, the Brits and other Europeans don't encounter it as much as they used to. But more than we do. Americans shoot an eight or hit the ball in the water, they wilt like yesterday's roses.

This is why Captain Tom Watson picked a player off the senior tour to anchor his 1993 Ryder Cup team playing this weekend. Raymond Floyd has been in enough $10,000 Nassaus not to get a lump in his throat and a loop in his swing when facing a par-three that's 90% water and he's already one down.

The Yanks don't need those guys who shoot 63s at Phoenix. They need hustlers who don't care what their medal score is. So long as they're 2-up on a guy who thinks he's shooting the lights out.

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