Ryder Cup Logo Ryder Cup: Team USASeptember 22-24 2006, The K Club, Straffan, County Kildare, Ireland
Story Image Veteran Scott Verplank (l) is high on J.J. Henry and his fellow rookies. (Photo: Getty Images)

U.S. rookies confident they can be an asset to the team

Through the years, captains have handled their Ryder Cup rookies in a variety of different ways. But the 2006 quartet of Americans believe they can contribute to the cause as well as some of Europe's have in recent years.

September 21, 2006

STRAFFAN, Ireland (AP) -- Everybody has a theory on what to do with rookies.

Saddled with a half-dozen in his only stint as Europe's Ryder Cup captain in 1997, Seve Ballesteros simply persuaded the one he liked the least to disappear. Nine years later, American Captain Tom Lehman is leaning heavily on two of his four from the get-go, sending out J.J. Henry and Brett Wetterich -- though not together -- in Friday's opening session.

"At some point, you're a rookie," Lehman said Thursday, less than 24 hours from the opening tee shot. "When I was a rookie, I played the very first match and hit the very first shot at Oak Hill."

To quiet his jangling nerves, Lehman recalled focusing on something Lanny Wadkins, his captain in 1995, said just before he sent Lehman out: "'I put you here because I know you can do it."'

"And I think," Lehman added, "that's why you play the guys you play."

Henry, though, has a slightly different take on why he and fellow rookies Wetterich, Vaughn Taylor and Zach Johnson might see a lot of playing time.

"Let's be honest," Henry said recently. "We've lost four of five. We haven't been setting the world on fire. We might not be household names, but a lack of history might not be all that bad a thing in this case."

Besides, it's worked out plenty of times before -- for the Europeans, anyway.

Under the current format -- four better-ball and four alternate-shot matches both Friday and Saturday, followed by a dozen singles matches Sunday -- every one of the 12 team members has to play at least once. But because their teams have had fewer bona fide superstars and even fewer overheated egos to ice down, the Europeans haven't been afraid to trot theirs out early and often.

In that same 1995 Ryder Cup where Lehman made his debut, an obscure Irishman named Philip Walton sank the winning putt in the next-to-last singles match Sunday against the much more experienced Jay Haas. In 2002, it was another, slightly less obscure Irishman named Paul McGinley who clinched Europe's win with a 6-footer to halve his match with Jim Furyk.

The only U.S. win in the last five cups, in fact, came at Brookline in 1999, when European Captain Mark James ignored the philosophy of his predecessors. He sat three of his seven rookies until the singles matches, then watched the strategy backfire as the Americans steamrolled the trio en route to a 6-0 lead and the greatest comeback in Ryder Cup history.

Ian Woosnam, this year's European boss, has only two rookies on the squad, Swedes Robert Karlsson and Henrik Stenson. Karlsson gets his feet wet in Friday's second match, pairing with HSBC World Match Play winner Paul Casey against Henry and Stewart Cink.

Karlsson might feel he has something extra to prove, since the Swede was mysteriously left off the 1999 team by James in favor of Scot Andrew Coltart, even though Karlsson amassed more qualifying points. But that wouldn't make him much different from any of the other rookies.

"So what if we're rookies? So what if it's our first time in the Ryder Cup? It's still just golf," said Taylor, who, like Wetterich, has never officially competed in match play. "I've played golf for 20 years. I know I will be nervous, but I don't think we're all suddenly going to forget how to play."

Not the way Chris Riley did, anyway.

He was a rookie on the 2004 team that suffered the Americans' worst pummeling ever. Riley had to sit until Saturday morning just to get a game, but after pairing with Tiger Woods to win a better-ball match, he begged off playing alternate-shot in the afternoon and Captain Hal Sutton reluctantly went along. In a recent book, Jackie Burke, a two-time U.S. captain himself and Sutton's assistant in 2004, recalled how that little bit of momentum Riley and Woods managed to generate was quickly squandered.

"If Chris had told me he had no experience with the foursomes," Burke wrote, "I would have told him, 'Most of us have little or no experience with it. But it works like this. He hits it, then you hit. Now get your ass out there."'

Of course, that's easier said than done.

Ballesteros had so little faith in rookie Miguel Angel Martin in 1997 that he convinced his fellow Spaniard that a wrist injury was worse than Martin thought, sent him home with a uniform and a team photo, and replaced him with another countryman, Jose Maria Olazabal.

Because they often play such a pivotal role at the Ryder Cup, advice on how to handle rookies has become something of a cottage industry.

No less an authority than Jack Nicklaus, a two-time Ryder Cup captain, was asked awhile back whether he would let a rookie paired with a veteran at the peak of his game hit the opening drive. He answered by explaining that when he plays with one of his sons in a tournament, he always had them tee off first.

"It's best to know," Nicklaus said, "that they have Dad in reserve."

If only everybody had that option.

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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