'Underdogs' Pull Off Inspiring Triumph at Ryder Cup

By John Feinstein
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, September 22, 2008; 5:37 PM

The United States finally won the Ryder Cup again this weekend, defeating Europe by the stunning score of 16½ to 11½ in a place aptly named Valhalla, since it proved to be heaven for the U.S. team.

To call the victory much-needed is a vast understatement. Not only had the Americans lost the last three matches -- two of them by embarrassing scores -- and five of the last six, one could almost feel the prestige leaking from the event in the run-up to Valhalla. The golf geeks still cared but the rest of the world appeared to be a lot more interested in football, pennant races and the death of Yankee Stadium.

That's not to say the Ryder Cup was about to become the Davis Cup, once a major event in the sports pantheon that barely gets a mention on sports pages these days. (Anyone reading right now know that the U.S. lost to Spain in the semifinals this past weekend? Anyone really care, other than the 18 people who write in to say tennis is still wonderful whenever this point is made about their sport?).

All that said, golf needed the U.S. to win almost as much as it needed Europe to start winning in the mid-1980s. Of course when Europe won in 1985 at The Belfry few people imagined that would be the start of a 7-3-1 string for the boys from the continent. It is entirely possible that this U.S. win, built around people like Anthony Kim, Hunter Mahan, Boo Weekley and J.B. Holmes, may be the start of a sustained U.S. run of success.

Here's why: The U.S. won at least in part because Tiger Woods was home in Orlando resting his wounded knee. This is not a second-guess. Check this column's archives. When Woods underwent surgery in June, a number of us predicted that his absence would help the U.S. team. There were several reasons we said this: Woods has never especially liked playing Ryder Cup (the only thing he likes less is the Presidents Cup) because it has nothing to do with his Quest for 18.

His feelings about the event were best summed up a couple years ago when someone asked him how he felt about having a losing record (he's currently 10-13-2) in Ryder Cup play. Woods shrugged and said, "Anyone know what Jack's record was?"

It was 16-8-2 for those of you scoring at home but Woods' point had nothing to do with those numbers. It had to do with the fact that everyone knows how many majors Nicklaus won and that's what Woods's career is about.

Do you think for one minute the other American players weren't aware of Tiger's disdain for the event. Stewart Cink, who would sooner cut off an arm than insult anyone, made that point in a roundabout way last week when he noted that this U.S. team was just 12 guys as opposed to the past five (which went 1-4) that were 11 guys and one Tiger.

It was never easy for the captain to find partners for Woods. David Feherty may have summed up Tiger's approach to team play best a few years ago when he said, "When he was in Kindergarten, Tiger's teacher wrote on his report card, 'does not play well with others.'"

Add to that the pressure the Americans felt because, after all, how can you possibly lose with Tiger Woods on your team, and the emotional boost the Europeans got whenever Tiger did lose, and you can see why Tiger's absence was an example of addition by subtraction.

For one thing, it allowed the Americans to be the underdogs. When Captain Paul Azinger told his players nobody thought they could win he wasn't being Joe Gibbs telling the Redskins they were the underdogs against some 1-7 team. He meant it and his players knew it was true. All of a sudden, it was Europe facing pressure. European captain Nick Faldo was questioned (correctly) for leaving Colin Montgomerie off the team. Just so you understand how great a Ryder Cup player Montgomerie has been, look at this way: if Michael Phelps had a bad race leading into the medley relay at the Olympics, would you have left him off the relay?

The Euros missed Monty (a lot). The Americans didn't miss Tiger. Azinger can talk all he wants about Tiger texting him and how into the whole thing Tiger was. That's all fine. But this team was about Kim, Weekley, Mahan, Jim Furyk, Justin Leonard, and Kenny Perry -- although one wonders if the event hadn't been held in Kentucky, whether Perry might have opted to play the Viking Classic in Jackson, Mississippi instead.

Two things happened this past weekend that should make life a lot better for Davis Love III, or Jeff Sluman, or whomever captains the Americans in Wales two years from now.

First, Kim emerged as a star, especially in singles when he thrashed Sergio Garcia and was so intent on what he was doing that, after sinking the clinching putt on 14, he turned and began walking to the 15th tee before someone told him the match was over. Kim is 23. He just might be the rival for Woods the world has been waiting for while Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh have scooted underground at the first sign of his shadow.

Second, and even more important, Woods will care about the Ryder Cup in 2010. No one has more pride than Woods. When he hears and reads, as he will, that the U.S. team was better off without him, he will burn inside. One of the few qualities he has copied from Michael Jordan that has served him well is taking all slights, real or perceived, and turning them into an advantage. Here's an early prediction: Woods will go 5-0 in Wales. He will go 5-0 and then he will march into the media tent and begin pointing fingers at all those who said the U.S. team was better off without him in 2008.

Of course one has nothing to do with the other, but you can bet the word "redemption," will get thrown around a lot. His teammates will rise to Woods's defense (almost all of them genuinely like him) and will talk about how much he was missed in '08. But the truth will remain the same: Twelve guys (without a Tiger) went out to find redemption at Valhalla.

Azinger did a superb job of reshaping the team -- changing the selection system so he could have the hottest group of players he could find on his squad -- and of pairing up his players the first two days. Sending Kim out first in the singles was a masterstroke because he knew Faldo would put on of his stars out first and Azinger believed the kid wouldn't be the least bit intimidated by Garcia or anyone else. He wasn't and the U.S. ending up cruising to its largest margin of victory since 1981 -- four years before Kim was born.

The underdog role suited this American team well. Azinger was the right captain at the right time in the right place. And the biggest bonus for future captains is that they will be leading 11 guys and a Tiger -- one that will now be on a mission.

Remembering Garber

It would not be right for me or anyone else in the sportswriting business to not pause for a moment to pay tribute to Mary Garber, who passed away yesterday at the age of 92.

To call Mary a pioneer is an understatement. She began writing for the sports pages of The Winston-Salem Journal during World War II because, as she would tell people later, there weren't enough men around to cover everything. She continued to write sports for the Journal until 2002. For years, she wasn't even allowed to sit in the press box while covering games -- she sat in the stands, often with the wives or relatives of the athletes she was covering. She never complained about anything, just did her job, wrote wonderfully and helped out countless young reporters, male and female, along the way.

I was one of those fortunate enough to know her when I first started in the business. She often commented to me about stories I'd written in The Chronicle, Duke's student newspaper, sometimes complimenting, other times coaching. I remember her saying to me once: "You don't have to shout to make your point, just say it."

I forget that more than I should but when I remember, I think of Mary. One of the greatest honors of my life was being inducted into the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame along with Mary. My only complaint was she should have gone in years before. I was glad though to have my name associated with hers that day.

Bill Cole, Mary's long-time colleague in Winston-Salem, wrote a wonderful piece this morning about her friendship with Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski. saying any woman who could earn the respect and admiration of those two had to be quite special.

Mary Garber was all that, and much more.

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