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United Straits

The Americans have been routed in the last two Ryder Cups, and this week they won't have Tiger Woods when they face the favored Europeans.

September 15, 2008|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

As a golf event, it's become a biennial tradition, and not a good one for the United States. The Ryder Cup rolls around, the European team rolls over the U.S. team, the U.S. captain says he can't for the life of him understand why the ball rolls the way it does and the criticism rolls in and swamps the whole mess.

Starting today, it's Ryder Cup week, so let's get this thing rolling one more time.

No, it hasn't been a great nine years for U.S. Ryder Cup fortunes, and despite encouraging words from captain Paul Azinger, the fact that Tiger Woods is sitting this one out while the matches start Friday at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky., means it's likely to get worse before it gets better.

If that's true, maybe Davis Love III will be able to figure it out, if he's named the next U.S. captain for 2010, as many figure.

As for Azinger, he's got his hands full, even though the team room will be one Tiger emptier.

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

And the U.S. team?

"We will be an underdog. We are missing Tiger Woods. . . . He is the greatest player on earth. Arguably the greatest player ever. That's a big blow to us."

And in the world of understatements, that's like saying there's bluegrass in Kentucky.

Woods is famously absent from the Ryder Cup scene for the first time since 1995. He has said he probably won't watch much at home in Florida and will spend the time continuing to rehabilitate his surgically repaired left knee.

Although the U.S. has won only once in the five times with Woods as part of the team, it's difficult to develop a scenario that playing without him is going to represent a great opportunity for improvement.

Lanny Wadkins, who in 1995 was the last captain of a U.S. team that actually held the lead going into the Sunday singles (and still lost), said the inexperience of the U.S. team with six first-time players may actually help. After all, they've had no part in any previous losing.

But then again . . .

"If they don't win, they've got the ultimate cop-out at their disposal," Wadkins said. "They didn't have Tiger. That's probably going to save their butts."

What saved their butts in 1999 was the biggest single-day comeback in Ryder Cup history. Down 10-6 at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass., the U.S. team won 8 1/2 of a possible 12 points and edged Europe, 14 1/2 -13 1/2 . It remains the only U.S. victory since 1993.

Ben Crenshaw, the U.S. captain in 1999, insisted it would be wrong for the U.S. to offer the Tiger cop-out if it doesn't win this week.

"I certainly hope they don't lean on that at all," he said. "I know that Tiger's not going to be there, but he'll be there in spirit for mental support. But, look, they can't fall back on that no-Tiger excuse or idea. They can't afford to."

Taking a painful walk down memory lane, Tiger's presence hasn't actually made much of a difference, especially in the last two Ryder Cups.

At the K Club near Dublin, Ireland, in 2006, Woods was 3-2, but the U.S. was shellacked, 18 1/2 -9 1/2 , equaling the most lopsided U.S. loss ever. He was 2-3 in 2004 at Oakland Hills Country Club in suburban Detroit, when the U.S. again lost, 18 1/2 -9 1/2 .

In his five Ryder Cup appearances, Woods is 10-13-2.

Wadkins insists that the core of young players on the U.S. team -- Anthony Kim, Hunter Mahan, J.B. Holmes and Bo Weekley among them -- will make some noise in Louisville. Ben Curtis is also a Ryder Cup rookie. But maybe missing Woods isn't going to hurt as badly as many believe, Wadkins said.

"Yeah, I think it's going to work the other way," he said. "For some reason, everybody else gets psyched up to play Tiger, so that's affected his record. And I think he intimidates his partners a little bit. They try too hard to impress him, especially in alternate shot.

"But I have to say I like the American lineup this year. I like the youth. I think it could be a huge coming-out party for Anthony Kim, maybe Mahan. And I'd love to see J.B. and Kenny Perry play together. They might birdie every hole."

Wadkins suggested pairing Kim with Phil Mickelson in best-ball matches.

"Anthony reminds me of me," Wadkins said. "He's not afraid of anything."

Then there is the putting situation, the ball rolling into the hole, an act that strikes fear into the heart of every U.S. captain. For some reason, the Europeans always outplay the U.S. players on the greens; it's just that no one can figure out the reason.

"No idea," Wadkins said. "Maybe Europe's not used to seeing greens this great and their eyes get as big as saucers, and our guys are so used to them, they're spoiled."

Crenshaw is equally dumbfounded for an explanation of the continuing poor putting by the U.S.

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