Ryder Cup 2008Posted on: 19 September 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves
Can Europe make it four straight Ryder Cup wins or will Tiger-less USA regain the crown on home soil?
Two years ago Europe were basking in the glory of a third straight Ryder Cup win with just the odd thought for whether Nick Faldo’s side could keep the run going in 2008.
Six months ago the idle speculation moved up a gear and in the last few weeks the debate has reached fever pitch.
But this weekend, Europe will take on the US in the 37th Ryder Cup at Valhalla in Kentucky with trans-Atlantic bragging rights once more at stake.
For the first time since 1997, we are facing a Ryder Cup without the world number one. Tiger Woods, America’s dream is missing through injury but will his absence harm the US challenge? Can America use their absent star as motivation? And what will a Tiger-less three days mean for the Ryder Cup?
Europe are led by Nick Faldo, a six-time major winner and the highest points scorer in the Ryder Cup. Jose Maria Olazabal is his vice captain.
America’s Paul Azinger is a four-time Ryder Cup player, who beat off cancer in the 1990s. He has Dave Stockton, Raymond Floyd and Olin Browne as deputies.
Some former players, pundits and supporters have felt that a team room without Tiger would boost Team USA. Far from being bolstered by the presence of the world number one, the American players were overawed to be playing with the man who destroyed them each week on Tour while the Europeans were inspired by the chance of having a crack at Woods in a format that he didn’t feel comfortable with.
But this view doesn’t really stand up against a judge. The player in question is the best in the world and his Ryder Cup record is not as bad as people suggest. He has been beaten only once in the singles and that was after one of the all time great Ryder Cup performances by Constantino Rocca. Surely, any team, anywhere in the world, would want Tiger Woods.
The stats don’t lie and Tiger has a 44 per cent record in the Ryder Cup with ten wins, 13 losses and two halves. That’s not a great record – six of this year’s European team can boast of better – but only Phil Mickelson of Woods’ fellow Americans can match it. Since 1997 Woods has won more points than any other American.
Three points out of five last time around wasn’t earth shattering but it represented the best American performance of the week as Woods accounted for almost a third of his team’s points. In 2002 and 2004 he was their second highest points scorer. The last three American teams have been poor but if they had all performed like Woods they wouldn’t have been on the end of three consecutive defeats.
Who Will Step Up In Tiger's Absence?
The common charge against Woods is that he just doesn't care. Certainly his disposition at the event suggests he'd rather be elsewhere. It's true other players care more. Kenny Perry cares so much that he was determined to do anything and everything to get on the team. Justin Leonard became a national hero for caring so much at Brookline in 1999. Both of them care more than Woods.
Europe have three players in the world’s top 10, seven in the world’s top 20 and all 12 in the world’s top 50.
The US have four, six and 10.
Captain Paul Azinger will no doubt welcome their patriotism in the team room. But he’ll also be acutely aware that Leonard and Perry have never managed to win a Ryder Cup match.
Caring only gets you so far. Woods doesn't like the control he loses in the pairs formats as you can see from his face when his partners mess up. Even in the Ryder Cup he cares about winning. And Azinger will have had to change his plans.
Since 1997 Tiger has played every game at every Ryder Cup. He does so without a smile but also without complaint and Azinger would have fully expected his best player to bring that grudging self sacrifice to Valhalla.
On paper, then, winning back the Ryder Cup looks like a massive task. It would be hard enough with Tiger, it might be impossible without him although there are no foregone conclusions.
People talk of Europe as odds-on favourites but maybe the old adage of playing away from home could leave the Europeans in a sticky situation. They may have the best players in their line-up but just like any sport, a trip to a new climate, country and continent can bring its own pressures.
Faldo and Azinger have been sparing ever since the Englishman pipped the American to the Open title in 1987. Faldo riled Azinger with a “tough luck, old boy” comment and the fuse was lit for several more Ryder Cup clashes.
Azinger once called Faldo a “prick”, while Seve Ballesteros once said of the US team, “The Americans are 11 nice guys and Paul Azinger”.
The Ryder Cup has been very gentlemanly since the “Battle of Brookline” in 1999 but sparks could fly once again at Valhalla.
The cauldron has been built up, the Ryder Cup has become golf’s Olympics, and dealing with the pressure is important.
With so many newcomers the captains will look to their more experienced players to lead their teams. For some people Tiger's absence is a great chance for Mickelson to stamp his authority on the event.
In the past few years Mickelson and Woods have seemed too caught up in their dislike of each other to unite against Europe. With Tiger gone and Europe looking less experienced than they have for years, Mickelson has the chance to prove that he is the best player at the event.
Mickleson has that capability. With three majors he should be the leader for America as Padraig Harrington should be for Europe. Indeed for all the talk of favourites America come with four major champions in Mickelson, Jim Furyk, Justin Leonard and Ben Curtis while Europe only have Harrington. So America, even without Tiger, still have a six to three advantage in majors won.
Europe also have adjustments to make. The loss of players such as Jose Maria Olazabal and Luke Donald has been underplayed along with Colin Montgomerie, Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley - there is a lot of experience from the last few European Ryder Cup sides that is missing. Harrington, Westwood and Garcia will need to be the new heartbeat of the side.
Who will win the Ryder Cup? Can Europe hold on to the trophy? Who will be the star of 2008? Will the US miss Tiger Woods? What's your greatest Ryder Cup memory?
Let us know by leaving a comment in the box below. Alternatively, share your thoughts with other 50connect members in the forums.
By Mark O'Haire
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