Ryder Cup Logo Ryder Cup: Team USASeptember 22-24 2006, The K Club, Straffan, County Kildare, Ireland

Everything's coming up aces for the European team

Saturday, September 23, 2006 3:53 PM

STRAFFAN, Ireland -- Everything you need to know about the afternoon foursomes could be found at the 14th hole. In the first match, Phil Mickelson's tee shot at the 213-yard par-3 was airborne as he yelled, "C'mon, honey, be right!" Honey wasn't listening. The shot landed a good 40 feet short of the hole.

A few minutes later, Paul Casey said nothing as his tee shot at the same hole flew toward the green. It didn't stop until it hit the bottom of the hole. That one shot was the fifth and sixth holes-in-one in Ryder Cup history. Casey's ace clinched a 5-and-4 win for himself and David Howell over Stewart Cink and Zach Johnson, technically meaning the Euros conceded a 1 to the Americans. You know things aren't going well when your team's best shot all week is one it didn't even hit.

This seems to happen every year, and each year you wonder how it gets to this point. How do the top three players in the world combine to go 0-2 in this morning's fourballs? If you want to talk about the quirkiness of alternate-shot play, that's one thing. But fourballs is essentially each guy playing his own ball. And Woods and Furyk were the two hottest players in the world coming in. But apparently something happens when American players start dressing alike, and that something's not good. Maybe Seinfeld was right when he said it's all about the uniforms.

I was standing behind Jim Furyk this morning after he teed off at 10. He looked behind him toward a giant banner featuring a picture of Ian Woosnam and this quote: "For me there can be no prouder moment in my sporting career than this week leading Europe in the greatest team event in the world." I had the feeling Furyk was thinking, "This guy's no bigger than my golf bag. How is he doing this to us?"

On the other side, you wonder what else Tom Lehman could've done? He's drawn rave reviews on his leadership from American players. He somehow convinced Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson to rearrange their schedules to join the entire team on a two-day reconnaissance mission here last month. He even brought Tex Mex over on the team plane. What he didn't anticipate was his team folding like a soft taco once play began.

Maybe Lehman has the Europeans right where he wants them. He played a significant role when the U.S. rallied from the same 10-6 deficit they face going into Sunday singles this year. In fact, Lehman was the first man out on that Sunday at Brookline when Ben Crenshaw stacked his best players at the top of the lineup to try to close the gap as quickly as possible. Lehman waxed Lee Westwood that day, 3 and 2, and the comeback was on. Sunday, Captain Tom will send out Toms (Montgomerie), Cink (Garcia), Furyk (Casey), and Woods (Karlsson) in the first four matches and ask them to even the score.

Will Lehman's lineup card be right? The U.S. can only hope his depth perception is better than Mickelson's and that Europe doesn't have another ace up its sleeve.

Ireland's not in the UK, and the U.S. stars are not in attendance

12:06 PM

STRAFFAN, Ireland -- Breaking news from The K Club: the Republic of Ireland is not part of the United Kingdom. Earlier in the week, I loosely lumped the two together, even though Ireland's had its independence from the British Empire for a decade or eight. Thanks to faithful reader, M, for pointing out my mistake. And keep making those cool gadgets for James Bond.

It appears the U.S. team will Die Another Day. Desperately needing momentum after falling behind Friday 5-3, the Americans' top two tandems, Woods/Furyk and Mickelson/DiMarco, came out this morning and collectively laid a giant goose egg, going 0-for-2 to put their combined total for three matches at 1-4-1. Turns out, the problem with this U.S. team isn't the presence of four Ryder Cup rookies. It's the absence of their stars.

In fact, the first-years are about the only Americans playing well. Zach Johnson, after getting a half-point with Stewart Cink in the foursomes Friday, single-handedly took down Padraig Harrington and Henrik Stenson. Scott Verplank was technically paired with Johnson, but contributed about as much as the walking scorer. Johnson is the Joaquin Phoenix look alike, and he Walked the Line this morning, making seven birdies, the sixth of which answered a pitch-in from Harrington at the 15th and the last of which was a birdie pitch of his own at the 17th to close out the match. (While we're playing Separated at Birth, please note that Robert Karlsson will be playing the role of Dolph Lundgren and Paul McGinley that of William Devane.)

St. Patrick drove the snakes from Ireland, but a Horned Frog's running free. Former TCU star J.J. Henry rallied his team to a half-point Friday morning and did the same today with an eagle at the 16th and a conceded birdie at the 17th. But nothing's easy for the Americans this week. As great as Henry played, he three-putted for par at the 18th and opened the door for Paul Casey to make birdie, win the hole, and steal half a point from the Americans.

While the U.S. begs for scraps, Sergio Garcia's turning cartwheels around The K Club, firing up his European mates and breaking American hearts. Garcia's now 12-1-2 in Ryder Cup foursomes and fourballs after teaming up with his amigo Jose Maria Olazabal for the second morning in a row and delivering another win. I saw former Euro captain and still-current Spaniard Seve Ballesteros following that group, pumping his fists and leading the cheers while listening to the other matches on the radio. I kinda got the feeling Seve still thinks he's captain, and no one wants to break the news to him that he's not. I wonder if anyone's told him about Ireland.

We've seen this before, and before, and before

3:15 AM

STRAFFAN, Ireland -- Stop me if you've heard this one. Nearly every match on the first day of the Ryder Cup went down to the wire. Then with points on the line, Europe played better and took a commanding lead. The Euro coaches and players talked about not getting ahead of themselves. Their U.S. counterparts spoke of how close the competition was, how the point totals could've been a different story with a good bounce here or a dropped putt there. And at the end of the day, Europe led.

This has been the Friday night bedtime story for the last decade. In this particular chapter, Europe leads the U.S. 5-3 with the first day now fast asleep. It's the fifth consecutive Cup in which the Yanks have trailed after the opening matches. Same story, umpteenth verse.

This has become golf's version of "Groundhog Day." Every other September, a band of European players comes out of the shadows and sees an American team that can't seem to consistently produce when it matters most. And it usually means two more years of Ryder Cup winter for the United States.

Perhaps the only difference this year is that the Europeans are, top to bottom, at least as good as the U.S., if not better. Case in point? Ian Woosnam used every one of his 12 players Friday, and each contributed something toward Europe's total. You get the feeling Woosie could squeeze half a point from the two guys in the Guinness commercials. Brilliant! There's no other way to describe Europe's team play over the last 10 Cups.

In the old days, Europe won by hiding the pack mules and riding the studs. Now, it's the American team wondering how to mix and match the Brett Wetterichs and Vaughn Taylors. Taylor's actually still waiting to tee it up. He didn't play Friday and wasn't in Tom Lehman's lineup for Saturday morning fourballs.

But you can't pin this latest Friday flop on the rookies. J.J. Henry and Zach Johnson earned as many points -- a whopping half -- as one of America's dynamic duos, Chris DiMarco and Phil Mickelson, who went 0-1-1, which is not bad if you're looking to dial internationally but stinks if it's your record at the end of Day 1.

Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk's mark of 1-1 was barely better but not good enough from two of the top-three ranked players in the world. Furyk was the steadier of the two on Friday but that snapper he hit on 18 -- with a half-point hanging in the balance -- was, as of press time, still hooking.

The Americans' timing at the Ryder Cup is every bit as impeccable as Squiggy's. Remember when either Laverne or Shirley would say something like, "That's the stupidest thing I've ever seen," just as Squiggy walked through the door saying in that high-pitch whine, "Hellaw." It's not that the U.S. side never hits good shots; they just don't hit enough of them when there's no margin for error.

If we're assigning each team a '70s TV character, the Euros favor Vinnie Barbarino when it comes to blows in that they tend to be a bit braver in a pack. Sergio Garcia and Luke Donald, who beat Woods and Furyk Friday afternoon, may as well have been yelling, "Hey, Carvelli! Ya mutha! Ya mutha!" These are the same guys who were wholly skewered by Tiger in the final rounds of the last two majors of the year, respectively.

But this isn't a major. It's the Ryder Cup. And until they make the entire competition a series of singles or the U.S. learns to play better as a team, there may not be many Happy Days anytime soon.

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