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Ryder Cup is getting serious for US Team

It was just a coincidence that President Bush and Tom Lehman stepped before podiums at the same time Monday for televised news conferences.

Bush was at the White House discussing peace in the Middle East. Lehman was at the PGA Championship announcing his Ryder Cup captain's picks.

World events, of course, are serious stuff. To some in golf, the Ryder Cup seems nearly as important.

So there was Lehman, flanked by a couple of PGA types in suits, giving the golf world the breathless news that kept most of them up all night: that Stewart Cink and Scott Verplank were his picks to fill out the 12-man Ryder Cup team.

"Their heart is the reason I picked them," Lehman said of the two.

You will, of course, hear a lot about heart during the next month as the United States tries to snap a losing streak in the only event that can bring Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson together over a pingpong table.

There will be plenty of flag waving, tears shed, and a lot of talk about guts and courage. If you didn't know these guys were going to the Irish countryside to hit some golf balls around, you might think they were on their way to Iraq.

Serious business indeed, this Ryder Cup stuff.

So serious that next week a private jet will whisk the American players across the pond to the K Club so they can get a look at the course where the actual battle -- er, competition -- will play out.

Tiger and Phil likely won't be on board. It seems they already had some commitments that will preclude them from spending a few days in Ireland bonding with their new teammates.

Lest you think they're not taking this seriously, though, Lehman assures us they are.

"If I ever hear somebody question Tiger Woods' desire to be a part of this team again, I'm going to go crazy," he said. "Tiger Woods cannot wait to play in this Ryder Cup."

That goes ditto for Mickelson, apparently. Forget that players grumbled he spent too much time handicapping NFL games at the cup in England four years ago, or that he went to another course by himself when his teammates practiced together the day before the last Ryder Cup.

With oil at $70 a barrel, the practice round trip figures to cost a fortune. But money is nothing to the PGA of America, which thinks nothing of spending lavish amounts to pamper players in the style they've become accustomed to.

Lehman's idea isn't new. He wants to get some serious male bonding going and get the team to come together as a team.

"We're going to play some golf, we're going to do some fishing, we're going to drink some Guinness, we're going to have some fun," Lehman said.

Sounds like a great plan. But Lehman really doesn't need to go to all the bother.

Nothing wrong with some fishing and beer drinking, but Woods and Mickelson could spend a week doing it and still probably wouldn't talk to each other the next day. Those marathon pingpong sessions at other Ryder Cups, after all, didn't seem to help them win any points.

Besides, there's only so much you can do to mold guys into a team who spend the other 103 weeks every two years trying to beat each other's brains out.

The Europeans have an advantage in this anyway because they spend a lot of time together drinking and eating away from the course on their close-knit tour. The American stars, meanwhile, go their separate ways when their rounds are finished, and often the only words they speak on the course is "Here's your card."

A lot was made at Brookline in the last American Ryder Cup win in 1999 about how the team pulled together on the final day after being inspired by a speech the night before by Bush that included a quote from a soldier at the Alamo who intended to fight until the end.

But what really happened was that captain Ben Crenshaw sent off his best players -- including Lehman -- early and they got some momentum that got the raucous crowd going and seemed to shake the Europeans. And, if not for two big putts by Justin Leonard on the back nine, the Europeans may have won that one, too.

The American players know what's at stake, and they know how much it means in the world of golf. They're representing their country, and the last thing they want is to be embarrassed the way the team was when Hal Sutton's decision to pair Woods and Mickelson together led to an European rout at Oakland Hills.

The United States has the three best players in the world on its team, while the Europeans barely have one in the top 10 (Luke Donald). It shouldn't be that hard to be a Ryder Cup captain when the odds are stacked like that.

Lehman said he sought out legendary basketball coach John Wooden among others in recent weeks for advice on how to coach this team. He didn't need to because it's really simple.

Begin by canceling the trip, and any lavish parties the week of the cup. Get everyone a room in different hotels and don't let them near a pingpong table or video game all week.

Tell them their tee times, and throw them a sleeve of Pro V1's.

Then get out of the way and let them play.

Who knows, it just might work. Nothing else has for the Americans recently in the Ryder Cup.

August 23, 2006


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