3 veteran players let U.S. teammates down
By Mike Blum
Another Ryder Cup, another American loss. That makes it Europe 7, United States 2 over the past nine competitions, with the U.S. winning exactly once since the comeback at the Country Club in 1999.
U.S. captain Davis Love has received some of the expected post-matches criticism, based on the age old belief by the knee-jerk reaction types that the losing coach must be responsible for the defeat.
The second guessing was aimed at Love on three fronts.
1) The decision to pick Jim Furyk over Hunter Mahan. Furyk had a dismal 8-15-4 record in seven Ryder Cups, 4-13-3 in team matches, and had wilted down the stretch with opportunities to win the U.S. Open and WGC Bridgestone Invitational.
Mahan played well in both his Ryder Cup starts (3-2-3), but had just one top 10 since his win in Houston the week before the Masters, all but forcing Love’s hand.
2) Sitting out Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley in the Saturday afternoon 4-ball session. Mickelson took the bullet for his captain, asserting that he and Bradley went into the morning match knowing they weren’t playing in the afternoon and decided to put everything they had into that match.
Mickelson and Bradley routed Lee Westwood and Luke Donald 7&6 to complete a 3-0 mark in team matches, but were scheduled to sit out in the afternoon regardless of their record, as no U.S. duo played all four sessions.
Love sent out Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson, who were 2-0 in alternate shot, and they led Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter 2-up through 12 holes, before the European duo birdied the last six holes – the final five by Poulter – to win 1-up.
3) Sending Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker out for Saturday four-ball after the two lost both their matches the day before.
Woods and Stricker were terrible in a 2&1 loss in alternate shot against McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, but were 9-under in best ball, losing 1-up because European rookie Nicolas Colsaerts was 10-under on his own ball.
The U.S. team struggled on the front nine Saturday other than an eagle by Stricker to fall 4-down, but rallied with six birdies on the back – five by Woods for the second day in a row – to lose 1-up.
Love was the first U.S. captain to ever sit out Woods in a match, for which he deserves praise. Sitting him out an entire day was simply not realistic, and considering how well he played the previous afternoon, was unjustifiable.
Stricker was another matter. But Love apparently made the decision not to mix and match his players, alternating the same six teams in each session. Johnson-Dufner and Furyk-Brandt Snedeker were the alternate shot teams, Bubba Watson-Webb Simpson and Dustin Johnson-Matt Kuchar were the best ball teams.
How well did that work? Those four teams went 7-1 in their designated specialties, the only loss coming when Furyk and Snedeker bogeyed the 18th hole in the first match of the tournament to lose 1-up to McIlroy and McDowell after erasing a 3-hole deficit with six holes to play.
When those teams played in the other format, they were 0-2, with Watson and Simpson struggling on the back nine in a 1-up loss to Rose and Poulter in the poorest played match of the Cup.
The U.S. has traditionally struggled in team matches, but whipped the Euros 10-6. It took an incredible stretch of play by Poulter late on Saturday to keep it from being 11-5.
Considering that the U.S. was ahead 10-6 going to singles with the seemingly mighty team of Woods and Stricker losing all three of their matches, it’s pretty hard to find much wrong with Love’s decisions, especially if Mickelson and Bradley were set on sitting out Saturday afternoon.
In Bradley’s defense, Mickelson may have made that decision for him, but it’s hard to fault a team that went 3-0, thrashing all of their opponents.
With that 10-6 lead and the U.S. history of success in singles, things looked good for the Americans going to Sunday.
European captain Jose Maria Olazabal sent out four of his five best players in the first four matches, and all of them responded.
Donald methodically took apart Watson, who matched Donald’s six birdies but did not win a hole until he was 4-down after 14.
Poulter gave Simpson a chance with three early bogeys to fall 2-down, but Simpson could not fully capitalize and lost after being all square after 16.
The late arriving McIlroy ran off three straight birdies early in the match, and won 14 and 15 with birdies to win 2&1 over Bradley, who did not have a birdie after the 10th hole.
In what was almost certainly the key match of the day, Justin Rose fired a 66 against Mickelson to win 1-up with birdies on 17 and 18 to erase a 1-up Mickelson lead. Mickelson has consistently brought out the best in his singles opponents, and this Ryder Cup was no exception, with Rose hitting several brilliant shots early in the round before his fantastic finish.
Mickelson lost his match, but unlike several of his teammates, it was because his opponent played better.
Snedeker seemed to hit the wall in singles and was decisively beaten by Paul Lawrie 4&3. After Dustin Johnson (who went 3-0) and Zach Johnson won their matches against opponents who were not at their best, the U.S. appeared in pretty good shape, especially with Dufner leading comfortably in his match.
The first American to falter down the stretch was Kuchar, who was all square through 11 against Westwood before losing back-to-back holes with bogeys at 12 and 13, losing 3&2.
In the second most important match of the day, Furyk played superbly for 16 holes against Sergio Garcia, lipping out his birdie try at the 16th to take a 2-up lead. But after making just one bogey to that point, he bogeyed both 17 and 18 to lose 1-up in the match that turned the momentum to Europe’s side.
After Dufner finished off his win over Peter Hanson, that left Stricker and Woods against Martin Kaymer and Francesco Molinari, with the four a combined 0-9 in team matches.
Stricker was all square after 10, but bogeyed three holes coming in, the most costly at 17 to fall 1-down. Although he made a key par putt at the 18th, he lost 1-up in a match in which both players were shaky on the back nine.
Woods made exactly one birdie the entire round and wound up with a half against Molinari, halfheartedly losing the 18th after missing a short par putt to keep the match from being a tie.
In seven Ryder Cups, Woods is 13-17-3 and has played on exactly one winning team. The best performance by an American team in the past three decades came at Valhalla in 2008 with Woods sidelined with an injury, and there is mounting evidence that may not be coincidental.
With Stricker and Furyk, his last two primary partners, likely having competed in their last Ryder Cup, the next U.S. captain will have to find a new partner for Woods, assuming he makes the 2014 team.
The U.S. would likely be better off without him, but ESPN and NBC would not be too thrilled with the prospect of a Tiger-free match. The U.S. is undergoing a generational shift, with Mickelson the only one of the team’s four veterans who fits in with the team’s young blood.
Bradley probably could have played Saturday afternoon in place of Stricker, but can you envision his emotional style of play meshing comfortably with Woods?
Other than Snedeker, who was 1-2, every American player had at least a winning record excluding Woods, Stricker and Furyk, who were a combined 1-9-1.
The numbers don’t lie. Anyone who watched the matches knows who was responsible for the loss.
It wasn’t the captain.