Tough to win the Ryder Cup without a plan
NEWPORT, Wales – The clock started ticking for Corey Pavin and the rest of the U.S. Ryder Cup brain trust as soon as Francesco Molinari holed the putt that hurt the most.
One hour was all they had, 60 minutes to come up with something that would work because all their best laid plans of the last two years didn't.
The obvious choice was to take a page from the past, send out the best early and hope to somehow, some way, get some momentum to turn the Ryder Cup around. You know, the way Ben Crenshaw so famously rallied the troops 11 years ago at Brookline.
The problem is, no one knows who the best U.S. players are anymore.
Tiger Woods? Not after the whipping he and Steve Stricker took Sunday. The $10 million man Jim Furyk? He seems to be suffering a FedEx Cup hangover.
And where do you hide Phil Mickelson, well on his way to making his mark as the worst Ryder Cup player of recent history?
"There's nobody to hide, but thank you for asking," Pavin said.
One hour to come up with a plan. Pavin barely needed 30 minutes to scribble down his names.
If there is a comeback, Woods won't be the one igniting it. If the momentum is to shift, it will happen while Mickelson is still having breakfast.
If the U.S. is going to somehow retain the Ryder Cup, guys like Steve Stricker and Stewart Cink are going to have to lead the way.
And if Pavin has some grand strategy, his opposing captain seems as perplexed by it as everyone else.
"It does surprise me that match eight and 10 contain the No. 1 and 2 in the world," European captain Colin Montgomerie said.
Surprise might be an understatement for Pavin's decision to put Woods out eighth in the day and Mickelson two pairings later. It's almost like the taciturn U.S. captain looked at Woods' balky swing and Mickelson's lousy putter and decided they had little chance of giving him points anyway.
But emotions are everything in the Ryder Cup, and relegating the best two players in the world to support roles can't do much to inspire a U.S. team that kicked away any realistic chance of winning Sunday afternoon after briefly rallying to make it a contest. By the time Woods and Mickelson make the turn Monday, the Europeans might already be celebrating in front of crowds who care as much about this competition as they do.
It's not as if the odds weren't already stacked against the Americans. Molinari's final putt to pull out another half point for Europe made the score 9½-6½, meaning the U.S. would have to pull off the second biggest comeback in singles to take the Ryder Cup home with them.
The biggest, of course, was at Brookline, where the U.S. rode the wave of early wins on the final day after being down 10-6 to win one of the wildest Ryder Cups ever. At Brookline, though, the European team was so weak that three players were benched until the final day and a raucous crowd helped fuel the Yanks' charge.
Here, the Euro team was favored to begin with and is playing with tremendous confidence on its home turf. The fans will cheer wildly every good iron shot, and roar on every made putt.
It doesn't help that this U.S. team is captained by a man who now seems to be winging it as he goes along. Pavin couldn't explain why he thought the No. 8 pairing was such an important slot for Woods, just as he couldn't explain why his players kept leaving putts short all day while the Europeans made sure the ones they hit got to the hole.
And how can you explain a captain claiming to be happy to see steady progress by his team when there's just one day to go in this, the longest Ryder Cup ever?
Don't bother asking the U.S. players, as if you can find them. They got off the course as fast as they could and hid in the team room, safe from inquiring minds of reporters who wanted to know.
"I left it up to the players to do whatever they would like to do," Pavin said. "It's their choice to talk or not to talk."
The choice was an easy one. From the safety of the team room they issued a few quotes talking about battling hard and trying to win on Monday, but there was no insight into why they thought they could start playing better or how they planned to do it.
Not that it really matters. They're being outplayed, Pavin is being outcoached, and it won't be long before the Americans are out watching the Euros celebrate on the balcony of the Celtic Manor clubhouse.
Montgomerie seems to be in a hurry to get it over. He penciled in his powerhouse trio of Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy and Luke Donald to lead off, clearly hoping to stop any whiff of an American comeback before it even begins.
It's a good move, and Monty has the better players. It's a tough combination to beat.
Especially tough for a team that doesn't seem to have a plan.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org