There is one good thing about having fewer great players. No juggling. No brain drain. No risky hunches. Little, if any, second-guessing.
U.S. captain Ben Crenshaw has 10 of the top 16 players in the world at his disposal here. So many, it might have been counterproductive to America's chances of catching Europe in the 33rd Ryder Cup.
While Crenshaw changes pairings and rides hunches in an attempt to manage such a loaded team, his European counterpart, Mark James, has a less problematic task. With "only" six players in the top 25, all James has to do is put his best to work twice a day and ride them.
The European philosophy is to use a core group of players, use the old reliables until they fall out from exhaustion. And if they don't, it just might be good enough for a third straight Ryder Cup triumph. So far, the story of the competition is that Sergio Garcia, Colin Montgomerie and Jesper Parnevik have been the best players this weekend, definitely better than America's Tiger Woods, David Duval, Phil Mickelson, Mark O'Meara and Davis Love III, all more decorated players over the last 18 months.
The Europeans used only nine players in the alternate-shot and better-ball competition Friday and Saturday. Seven have played 36 holes back-to-back. Three less-heralded players with no Ryder Cup experience--Andrew Coltart, Jarmo Sandelin and Jean Van de Velde--didn't play at all in the foursomes. Hide your weaknesses, right? There's no democratic notion of spreading things around.
James sent the same pairs onto the course at The Country Club on Saturday that he did on Friday. He wouldn't dare mess with the duo of Garcia-Parnevik, Montgomerie-Paul Lawrie or Lee Westwood-Darren Clarke. The European players are certain their extreme level of comfort with one another is one of the primary reasons they are so at ease in this team format, and therefore ahead 10-6 going into Sunday's singles.
The Americans, however, are a different story. Woods and Hal Sutton are the only players who participated in all four matches Friday and Saturday. Woods has played with Tom Lehman, Duval, and most recently Steve Pate. Duval and Pate are only the most different human beings you'll find on the face of the earth; Duval is a rock, Pate a volcano. Comfort level? Rhythm? Flow? Not a chance.
And Crenshaw's decision to break up the team of Sutton and Jeff Maggert in Saturday's afternoon session left him open to being second-guessed.
On Friday, the U.S. team won one of eight matches. Guess who won it? Right, Sutton-Maggert. On Saturday morning, when the U.S. had to have two matches in the morning foursome session, it was Sutton and Maggert who defeated Montgomerie and Lawrie to help gain the split.
But in the afternoon, Crenshaw replaced Maggert with Justin Leonard, who struggled desperately Friday, the same Justin Leonard who entered the day with a record of 1-9-4 in Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup competition. Why break up what is clearly your best pair when you desperately need to win the afternoon 3-1? "Just a complete hunch," Crenshaw said after announcing the switch. He added that he was counting on Leonard's putter to spring to life. Maggert, unless he was just keeping a stiff upper lip, didn't seem to mind, hinting he would actually like a little rest in order to be ready to rip in Sunday's singles.
Okay, it's true that the players who played in all five matches two years ago in Spain went 0-4-1 in the singles, the conclusion being they had nothing left in the tank. The problem for the U.S. is, they needed every half-point available on Saturday. Leonard's putter was directly responsible for his team gaining one-half point less than it could. Is 9 1/2 to 6 1/2 a big deal? It is when you consider that the aggregate score of the last six Ryder Cup competitions is 84 1/2 for Europe and 83 1/2 for the U.S.
The Europeans, on the other hand, haven't even considered the notion of having guys rested for singles play. Asked if his players might be tiring, if it was wise to ride so few horses this long, James said, "These horses are fit." And then he offered an insight into the differences between the approach of the two teams. "I've got [extra] players," James said, "but I want to play the pairs that will take us into the singles in the best possible position. To leave [his top players out] would have been very dangerous."
The European plan is to patiently stick with what they thought all along would work.
The American plan, particularly after a 2-6 start, is to scramble, to make something happen.
Then again, it's probably the best way for this U.S. team and these personalities to respond. Get angry, stay angry, be more assertive, try something new for crying out loud.
My favorite tactic change of the day belonged to the stylish Mickelson, who did what every weekend hacker wants to do: He trashed the putter that had failed him on Friday and showed up with a different one. Mickelson sank several huge putts and led his partner, Lehman, to the only U.S. victory of the better-ball session.
The question now is, how big a deficit is 10-6? The obvious answer is that all the Europeans have to do is win four matches Sunday, or even win three and tie two, to keep the Cup. But Crenshaw and the Americans are betting the Europeans who've played so much--Montgomery, Garcia, Parnevik, Westwood, Clarke, Lawrie, Miguel Angel Jimenez--will be tired. And that rookies Coltart, Sandelin and Van de Velde--Oh my goodness, how about Vandy standing on the 18th tee with the Cup at stake!--will be too overwhelmed in their Ryder debuts to possibly beat U.S. players who are already battle scarred.
The Americans, even now that they're a little shaken and stirred, believe that winning nine of 12 singles matches is doable. But perhaps it's time to believe our eyes instead of the promises we've been hearing for the last two years.