Steve Eubanks: Pressure got to U.S. team's veterans

Jim Furyk was one of several 40-something Americans who lost crucial matches on Sunday.

Eubanks: Pressure got to U.S. team's veterans

When the Ryder Cup came down to the wire Sunday, says Steve Eubanks, some key U.S. veterans flinched. It’s the latest example, he notes, that golf at this level is a young man’s game.

By Steve Eubanks,

MEDINAH, Ill. -- It’s no format for old men; no place for the nerves of 40-something-year-olds who are closer to cart-and-cooler golf and than they are to their heydays where five-footers were nothing more than a formality; no spot to put someone who is closer to the day he can no longer lift a club than to the day he first swung one.    

There will be plenty of detailed analysis on how and why this U.S. Ryder Cup team, like so many before it, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Should Captain Love have played Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson on Saturday afternoon? Should he have sat Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker more? And should he have countered what was obviously going to be a front-loaded singles lineup from Jose Maria Olazabal with more firepower of his own? 

Interesting questions all. But the indisputable fact – the indelicate-bordering-on-harsh reality of this final day – is that when it came down to the wire with everything on the line, the men with the most gray hair and “experience,” the men Captain Love championed as the anchors of this team, flinched.  

Certainly there were youngsters who failed to live up to expectations. But, really, who thought Bubba Watson would run away from Luke Donald or Keegan Bradley from Rory McIlroy? Everyone could have contributed more. 

But in the clutch, when a win was imperative, the men who had leads late and blew them were Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk, both 42 years old. And when it was critical for the United States to pull out a half point, 45-year-old Steve Stricker three-putted the 17th to all but seal the victory for the Europeans. 

There have been older Ryder Cup winners: Kenny Perry in Kentucky comes immediately to mind. And there have been elder statesmen who have come out of nowhere to win majors like Jack Nicklaus in 1986 at age 46. Of course, the oldest winner of a major was Julius Boros, who won the PGA Championship at age 48. But that was back in 1969 when the expression “350-yard drive” only applied to the entry road to the clubhouse. Even Jack’s Masters win was on a shorter golf course that he knew like the back of his hand.  

The cruel fact is: Golf at this level has become a young man’s game. 

Raymond Floyd had success in the Ryder Cup in his 40s, but he also had a young Fred Couples backing him up. And Hale Irwin clinched the winning point late in his Ryder Cup career. But for those who has watched the “War by the Shore” replay, Irwin chili-dipped his pitch shot on 18, and only won because Bernhard Langer failed to made a five-footer.  

Beyond that, the list gets grim: Lanny Wadkins, Curtis Strange and others: men who were stalwarts in their 20s, 30s, and up through age 41 who wilted under the Ryder Cup heat-lamp late in their careers.  

Yes, Paul Lawrie is 43 and beat a much younger man in Brandt Snedeker. And, yes, Mickelson had a 3-1 record overall with some of the most lopsided victories of these matches, all with 26-year-old Keegan Bradley by his side. But there are very few instances where, with a putt on the line to win the Ryder Cup, a player on the downside of 42 has come through. When the eyes of the world are on you, older nerves simply aren’t up to the task. 

Mickelson was 1-up with two holes to play. In his 20s and 30s, that was an almost automatic win or at the very least a halve. Instead, he lost 17 and 18 to walk away empty-handed and give Europe a much-needed late point. Granted, he lost to birdies, but when the putts had to be holed, it was his 32-year-old opponent, Justin Rose, who holed them.  

Furyk was also 1-up on the 17th tee. He then found two bunkers, had one three-putt and made two bogeys, capping what had to be the most gut-wrenching year of his career. Not only did he blow the U.S. Open with one ill-timed snap hook, he double bogeyed the final hole of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational to lose to Bradley before this debacle. 

“It’s been a low year,” Furyk admitted. “I played very well this year but haven’t closed the door. I’m pretty sure Sergio (Garcia) will tell you that I out-played him today, but I didn’t win and I lost the match. I’ve had a lot of that happen this year. As far as team versus individual, it’s the lowest point of my year.”  

But, other than Tiger Woods, whose disappointing performances have become as common as flags and face paint at the Ryder Cup, the biggest letdown had to be Stricker who was put on the team because of his good play and, of course, his experience.  

He was the only player on the American side to lose every single match. Even Tiger squeaked out a half point against Francesco Molinari after the outcome was decided.  

And his biggest loss came when his team needed him the most.  

“When I went past the board on 10 tee, saw a lot of blue up on the board, started doing the math, and kind of figured that I was going to come down to Tiger or me in the last two groups. I knew it was going to be important. I didn’t get it done. Just let a couple of putts slip by, a couple of shots here and there.”  

The pressures on a younger man are so much easier. The hole looks so much bigger, the future seems brighter, and the naïve sense of history appears so innocent and pure. 

It’s why a 23-year-old can roll out of bad an hour late not realizing he’s in a different time zone than the tee time he reading on his phone, ride to the course in a police car at 90 mph, step on the tee without hitting a single warm-up shot and win 2 up.  

The average age of the U.S. point-earners on Sunday was 33, right in the historical sweet-spot for golfers. And the man of the matches, Ian Poulter, is 36. 

Martin Kaymer, who couldn’t hit his bottom with both hands until Sunday, when he made the toughest six-footer in golf to clinch the Ryder Cup, is 27. 

“We had a lot of matches get flipped late,” Davis said. “A lot of guys didn’t lose, they got beat.”  

Among them were the “experienced” guys, the guys who were put on the team to keep just such a thing from happening.