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Ryder Cup fate lay with players not captains

The last captain to have a measurable influence on the outcome of the Ryder Cup was Arnold Palmer in 1963.

And it wasn't because of the genius of his final-day pairings.

Palmer was the last captain to play in the Ryder Cup, winning four of his six matches in a 23-9 victory over Britain, the second-biggest rout in history.

That should be one lesson that comes out of The Belfry: When passing out the blame -- or the credit -- start with the players.

No matter where they are in the lineup, no matter how high their world ranking or how many majors they have won, no matter what the other players are doing around them, they still have to hit good shots and make putts.

It's that simple.

Sunday's thrilling conclusion to the Ryder Cup provided a case study in captain's strategy, as both took enormous risks with their lineup for the dozen singles matches.

Sam Torrance put his best Europeans at the top, hoping to get points on the board early to swing momentum in their favor. It was like a heavyweight going for the early knockout, knowing he wouldn't have the strength to make it all 12 rounds.

Curtis Strange saved his best for last, putting Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods in the final two spots. If it came down to the final matches, he figured the Ryder Cup was in good hands.

One captain got the greatest reward of his life.

The other got all the blame.

Torrance sipped champagne from the gold cup Sunday night after Europe captured the Ryder Cup by winning the singles series for only the sixth time.

"Momentum is a great thing," Torrance said. "From about match 6, or even from match 4, these guys are going to be on the range watching the leaderboard, and it's really important to get ahead early and just surge to the finish."

Colin Montgomerie made six birdies in 14 holes, a performance that could have beaten anyone that day. Phillip Price was equally unstoppable, hitting shots out of hazards to tap-in range and making five birdies in 16 holes.

Then there was Strange, who spent the night in a defensive mood, deflecting questions about a lineup that kept Woods from making a contribution when it mattered.

"You figure it might come down to the end, especially when we saw the draw and saw that they top-loaded," Strange said.

It didn't work out that way.

The Ryder Cup is hardly ever decided by the final match. It has happened only once since 1969, although that was at Kiawah Island in 1991 -- which also was the last time the matches were tied at 8 going into the last day.

Three years ago at Brookline, U.S. captain Ben Crenshaw sent out his best players to build momentum because he had no choice. The Americans were trailing 10-6, and that was their only hope.

This time, the matches were tied, and the Americans tend to dominate singles.

"To anchor the team was great strategy," Paul Azinger said, adding that the Europeans "played great. There's not a whole lot you can do about that."

Strange's players didn't live up to their end of the bargain.

Even if Woods had been moved up higher in the lineup, there's no guarantee the Americans would have won the Ryder Cup -- or that Woods would have won his match. He made only one birdie and shot even-par 72.

All Strange wanted was 1 1/2 points from the first four matches. David Toms and David Duval delivered with two outstanding performances, both rallying from early deficits and hanging on with clutch putts down the stretch.

It all came down to Strange's bottom four players, all ranked in the top 10. He only needed three out of the four to win.

But here's what happened:

Jim Furyk, undefeated in his previous two Ryder Cup singles matches, couldn't hold a 2-up lead with six holes to play against Paul McGinley, a journeyman who was hitting the ball sideways earlier in the week.

Davis Love III couldn't put away Pierre Fulke, who was ranked 88th in the world and hasn't won in two years.

Mickelson couldn't handle Price, the 119th player in the world. Lefty also missed the kind of putt that usually hampers his bid to win a major -- from 18 inches on No. 5.

Woods couldn't take advantage of the par 5s because he didn't hit the fairways, and he missed enough short putts to keep Jesper Parnevik in the match.
So Strange's strategy worked to perfection. Only the execution failed.

"If it came down to Tiger Woods, and he birdied the last three holes, Curtis would have looked like a genius," Love said.

Instead, Strange has some explaining to do.

To suggest the United States lost the Ryder Cup because Strange wasted his best player overlooks the fact that Europe hit better shots and made more putts from top to bottom.

Europe now has won the Ryder Cup six of the last nine times, despite bringing players that don't stack up to the Americans.

"Although on paper we might be favored, that doesn't mean anything during the match," Mickelson said. "You still have to play your best. And if we don't play our best, we don't win very many points."

All the Americans needed was six out of 12 points Sunday, and they couldn't even get that.

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