They've Met Their Match

The Washington Post's Len Shapiro previews the Ryder Cup, which begins Friday morning at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky.Audio: Len Shapiro/The Washington PostPhotos: Getty, AP, ReutersEditors: Francine Uenuma & Jonathan Forsythe/
By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 19, 2008

LOUISVILLE, Sept. 18 -- When the American Ryder Cup team motorcade makes its way to Valhalla Golf Club on Friday, the players might be wise to pay close attention to the curbside marquee at the Prestige Car Wash on Shelbyville Road, a mile from the course.

"U.S.A.," the message board reads. "Make More Putts."

After two years of deep analysis as to why the U.S. team hasn't won the Cup since 1999, losing three in a row and five of the last six, that's what this biennial event ultimately comes down to. The team that sinks the most critical putts over the three days of match-play competition almost certainly will keep the trophy until the 2010 event at Celtic Manor in Wales.

The Americans enter play without Tiger Woods, arguably the greatest clutch putter ever, who will be watching the action from Florida, where he is rehabilitating his surgically repaired left knee. Woods, a 14-time major champion, will not play for the first time since 1995, when he was a Stanford undergraduate.

His absence is one reason the Europeans are favored in an event they have dominated over most of the last three decades. Still, some schools of thought suggest the Americans might somehow be better off without Woods, who has a career record of 10-13-2.

American captain Paul Azinger doesn't buy it.

"I honestly still can't tell you how you can paint a positive picture for the greatest player on earth not to be here." Azinger said. "It's a huge blow, and I really wish he was on the team. The only positive I could see is that maybe the Europeans have fed on the fact that Tiger was on the team in the past and maybe got a little more up. That's not to suggest that Europe is not going to be up for this. I can just see where it would really fuel those guys to want to beat him."

European captain Nick Faldo had no qualms mentioning another possible American advantage without Woods.

"The positive might be that the American team might want to show the rest of the golf world, the rest of America and maybe Tiger that they can play and they can perform better and they can win without him," Faldo said. "On my side, I reckon this is the one that Tiger was going to . . . win every match. I think they have lost out on a few points."

The European side is missing former Cup stars Colin Montgomerie of Scotland and Darren Clarke of Ireland, whom Faldo passed over in favor of Englishmen Ian Poulter and Paul Casey.

Montgomerie won 20 career matches, three short of Faldo's record 23, and halved seven others in his eight Cup appearances. He also was 6-0-2 in singles, a heroic figure to many of his teammates and all of Europe. Clarke, 10-7-3 in five Cups, formed a formidable duo with his friend Lee Westwood in the alternate-shot and best-ball formats. He, too, was considered a popular and vocal leader in the team room. Several Europeans clearly were miffed when Faldo left the two off the team, but this week, they've all taken the high road and not complained publicly.

"We know it's not going to be easy at all," said Spaniard Sergio GarcĂ­a, 14-4-2 overall in the Cup. "Obviously they're missing Tiger, but we're missing Monty and we're missing Darren Clarke and we're also missing Luke Donald [out with a wrist injury]. The first moment we think we're favorites and we're going to win easily, that's when we're going to feel it and we're going to struggle. You've got to get on the horse and ride it the right way."

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