Sutton made several key errors of judgement
Leading up to these 35th Ryder Cup matches Hal Sutton appeared to make all the right moves -- or at least many good ones. How two years of earnest effort were scuttled in one week can't fully be explained without injecting esoteric theories about the powers of male bonding, conspiracy theories and intangibles.
Sutton's American team, one of the best ever assembled -- at least on paper -- was thoroughly demoralized at Oakland Hills Country Club, 18 1/2 to 9 1/2, by a European team that was deeper, more determined, more ebullient and more closely knit than their U.S. counterparts. What the visitors didn't make on the greens in one of the great putting exhibitions in the history of this biennial competition they made up for with congeniality and cohesiveness that was just too much for America to overcome.
If preparation sows seeds of success, Sutton appeared to have a handle on how to win back Samuel Ryder's glittering gold chalice. His wild card selections of Stewart Cink and Jay Haas were anything but a risk, but they were solid choices taken from a small pool of legitimate candidates. He familiarized himself with a difficult layout, the South Course at Oakland Hills, touring it on numerous occasions to get a feel for how it would play and how it would fit his pairings. His enthusiasm and willingness to subjugate his career to his responsibilities as captain radiated dedication. His idea to bring the old sage, Jackie Burke, on board as an assistant captain was inspired. Inviting the caddies into the team room was a nice touch.
"So far I've done everything that I wanted to do," he said Tuesday. And he promised to continue doing things his way, saying, "I'm going to stay decisive about what I'm doing. I'm going to remain positive."
Just three days later, after America unraveled miserably on Black Friday and Europe galloped out to an insurmountable five-point lead, Sutton was neither positive nor decisive. He excoriated his team publicly for its tepid effort, and then he admitted that, "he was at a loss ... in trying to mix and match," his Saturday four-ball pairings.
Sutton, as Davis Love III noted, was saddled with some very poor play, particularly from Phil Mickelson who inexplicably changed some key equipment -- woods and balls -- just two weeks prior to the Ryder Cup.
Having said that, for all the good he did leading up to the matches, Sutton, though he tried hard and agonized over his options, proved to be a sub-par tactician. He steadfastly refused to believe that a Tiger Woods pairing with Mickelson in Friday four-ball and foursomes matches offered a potential downside. When Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington dispatched the pair handily in the day's first match, Europe felt like it had won twice. It had, both in numerical and psychological points.
Marching the top two-ranked players back out in foursomes -- despite the knowledge of Mickelson's struggles to get comfortable with his new equipment -- was an egregious mistake when you take into account that Sutton clearly had other options at his disposal based on successful pairings from the 2002 Ryder Cup (Woods with Love, Mickelson with David Toms).
Like General Lee at the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 18, 1862 (the day after the bloodiest battle of the Civil War), Sutton tried to get his charges to launch a counteroffensive on Saturday morning, but they couldn't crack the European front lines. Sutton's indecisiveness played a role in that, too.
He scratched Toms from the Saturday morning four-ball pairings sheet at the last minute in favor of Jim Furyk, a talented and competitive bulldog who, nevertheless, has never won a four-ball match. When rookies Paul Casey and David Howell stunningly stole a point from Furyk and Campbell by winning the last two holes, any momentum America had built in the morning evaporated.
Sitting Mickelson down for four-balls also didn't seem sound considering Lefty's rank as the second most prolific birdie maker on the PGA Tour behind Woods.
Perhaps his two biggest missteps came from simply not following through on the assertiveness he promised to maintain.
Mickelson didn't step on the South Course at Oakland Hills the final two days before the start of the matches. He took Wednesday off, as is his custom at major championships. Fair enough. But then Thursday Lefty worked on the North Course with his swing instructor, Rick Smith, trying to dial in distances on Woods' Nike One ball instead of joining his teammates on the South Course for a final warm-up.
A bigger error was letting Chris Riley, fresh off a successful four- ball pairing with Woods Saturday morning, talk him into taking Saturday afternoon foursomes off because Riley was tired. Meanwhile, Jay Haas, 50 years old and 20 years Riley's senior, went out for his third match in 24 hours Saturday afternoon.
Sutton should have marched Riley out again with Woods instead of letting him cower in the rooting section. Riley explained the next day that his lack of alternate shot experience made him a poor choice to play. Forget for a moment that Riley teamed with Woods in alternate shot at the 1992 Canon Cup, a junior team event. Just think of all the Ryder Cup rookies who have faced the same conundrum. You can't get experience if you don't play.
"It's difficult to be a captain. You feel helpless," Sutton said Saturday night, after Europe extended its lead to a mountainous six points. "You'd like to make a difference."
As poorly as the Americans played the past three days, there was nothing Sutton could have done to change the outcome. But he did admit that he second-guessed himself too much these past few days. In fairness to Sutton, an upstanding guy and genuinely sincere, anyone would have. The ignominious result, however, fairly or not, is going to be pinned largely on him.
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