As most of you know, the US Ryder cup team had its collective hat handed to it this weekend. It’s the fifth time in the last six of these bi-annual competitions that the US team has lost to a collective European team. And, only a final day collapse by the Europeans in the 1999 edition has prevented it from having won six in a row. This is a competition that the US once dominated, so there’s been plenty of hand-wringing about the demise of American fortunes in this much ballyhooed event. To take one example, Bob Ryan in the Boston Globe wondered aloud:
“Has it occurred to anyone that perhaps it is both an international fallacy and an American conceit to think the US still should be competing against an entire continent? European dominance is no longer a concept; it is a reality.”
Given the thoroughness with which the Europeans beat the Americans this weekend, there’s really been little positive to say. But, I have been interested in the Ryder cup coverage for one main reason: to see whether the sports commentariat would read into the declining American fortunes in Ryder play a larger cultural message. That is, would the fact that the Americans are now losing to the world in an event which they once dominated be viewed as evidence of a larger cultural decline, whereby selfishness, bad attitudes, a decline in team focus and an abandonment of timeless competitive principles be identified as key reasons for the their demise? This is, of course, the persistent trope about American men’s basketball in international competition and, while I readily concede that the comparison is not a perfect one, I couldn’t help but be curious about whether any such deficiencies of character would be ascribed to American golfers.
The Daily News was at a loss to explain the drubbing:
“What's wrong, and can it be fixed? Lehman and his 12
American players were equally puzzled.
‘Weeks ago, I was quoted as saying that I felt like we approached the Ryder Cup tight, that we didn't play loose, that our team had a different look on their faces when the gun went off in the first round of the Presidents Cup than the Ryder Cup,’ Furyk said. ‘You know, I think a lot of us made an effort to make sure it didn't happen again this week.’
‘Everyone wants answers out there . . . what happened, why, what's the difference between 181/2 and 9 1/2? And I don't think there's a guy up here who can give you that answer.’ "
The Denver Post pointed out that the Americans appeared to have significant advantages on paper, which nevertheless were counteracted by the Europeans’ emotional edge:
“But it takes more than depth to explain the Europeans'
success. The sight of burly Irishman Darren Clarke, sobbing on the green after
closing out Zach Johnson, or sharing an embrace with teammates Paul Casey and
Sergio Garcia, only hints at the emotions that come so naturally for Europe
during this event.
Emotions that somehow transcend golf shots.
There hasn't been a European major champion since Paul Lawrie won the 1999 British Open. Meanwhile, the Americans entered play with the top three ranked players in the world - Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk.
Along with the top-heavy strength, the U.S. made a great to-do about its team being closer than other recent U.S. sides. But none of it translated into many made putts or match victories.
‘I felt like a lot of our guys played pretty good golf individually this week. As a team we didn't seem to play great at times,’ Toms said. ‘We just didn't pick each other up when we needed to like they did.’ "
In the Washington Post, Thomas Boswell also was at a loss, though he didn’t question the team’s heart and effort:
team finds itself fresh out of excuses. Since '04, the United StatesU.S.
team that included the top three players in the world -- Tiger Woods, Phil
Mickelson and Jim Furyk -- a major champion in David Toms and two other players
in the world top 24.
The players Lehman sent to the post were a truly representative cross-section of America's best golfers. Even his four little-known rookies played better than expected, especially Zach Johnson (1-2-1) and Henry (0-0-3).
Yet, in a format that seems to put American players extremely ill at ease, the United States was absolutely squashed, becoming the first Ryder Cup team ever to lose all five sessions. Wake up; lose. Have lunch; lose. Then sleep and repeat. A conclusion, which has been building since 1985, has crystallized in the 21st century. In team play, a perfectly valid form of golf, Europe is not just better, but overwhelmingly so. Only that splendid comeback in '99, aided by an unsporting heckling crowd, has obscured it.
streamlined its qualifying standards to ensure that more hot players, rather than aging favorites, made the squad. Team captain Tom Lehman made few mistakes in handling a solid
Lehman insisted that his players were "prepared" and played "their best" with "heart and courage." Because it's presumably true (my emphasis), that only makes these back-to-back 181/2-91/2 scores more damaging to the PGA Tour's reputation.”
Dave Anderson, in the NY Times, says the problem is that our captains are too nice:
“Golf is a gentleman's game, and the matches must be conducted in the gentlemanly tradition, but the United States captains have been too gentlemanly with their golfers. If only Vince Lombardi were available to light a bonfire under their emotions. There's nobody in golf with Lombardi's mystique, but Azinger would be the most prickly candidate. As a Ryder Cup golfer, he had on-course disputes with Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo.”
Disciplinarians are what is typically called for these days to deal with attitude-laden basketball players. But, Anderson isn’t suggesting that we need a Paul Azinger because the players’ natural unruliness needs to be checked. Instead, the problem is that our team, uninspired by nice guy coaches like Tom Lehman, doesn’t have enough attitude:
“At the K Club outside Dublin
over the weekend, the Europeans showed the value of emotion -- Sergio Garcia's
theatrics, Darren Clarke's tearful resolve six weeks after the death of his
wife, Heather, from breast cancer, and the robust roars by the Irish-dominated
galleries, mostly for the Europeans but also for the visiting Americans.
With waves of his putter and with his jaunty stride, Garcia dominated four victories in the Friday and Saturday fourballs and foursomes for a 10-6 European lead before Stewart Cink surprised him, 4 and 3, in Sunday's singles.
In contrast, the Americans had no spiritual leader… ”
Some commentary did focus on the soft, pampered nature of the American team. Ryan’s column began with this line:
“Our lads have got their private jets, their sumptuous homes, their seven and eight figures socked away in the bank, and, with this group anyway, their 17 majors. What they do not have, for the third straight time, is possession of the Ryder Cup.”
Lee Trevino, on 850 in Raleigh with Adam Gold yesterday was alone in following this idea to its logical conclusion, telling Gold that our guys were rich, spoiled, selfish and not interested in team play. Talent, he argued, was not the problem – commitment to this event was.
As I noted above, the comparison is not perfect and I don’t particularly agree with Trevino’s diagnosis. I am quite sure the American golfers over there very much wanted to win – professional athletes are competitive to a degree that I think it’s hard for most of us to imagine, and more than money, it’s their egos that are on the line when they go out and play. But, I don’t think that’s any less true of our basketball players. What’s striking is how different the narratives are, when the results look pretty damn similar – a high-priced, supremely talented group of guys that has made a habit of underachieving at a major international event.