Will Faldo flop?

2008-09-12 00:00

It is arguable that the Ryder Cup, which starts on Friday in the heart of Yankee redneck country, is the biggest event on golf’s calendar — even if it is only played on a biennial basis.

Ever since the European team was broadened in scope from an uncompetitive collection of UK and Ireland golfers to include continental stars such as Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer, it has proved to be a troublesome handful for the Americans.

Recent victories have been thin on the ground for the Americans, and those they have achieved have been tainted by poor behaviour from both their players and supporters. Considering that the last American win was in 1999 at Brookline and that this coming match is being played in Kentucky, a most partisan state, it may well be that the Europeans encounter hostile galleries that are vociferous in their support of the local team.

They may also find that the American golfers revert to the blatant stirring up of the emotions that got everyone going at Brookline and eventually contributed to the scenes that so angered the European team.

There is a feeling that the Americans have had enough of finishing second to a team that they have always regarded as inferior. They are tired of being thought of as a disparate group of individuals who have been unable to gel as a team. They are weary of their comparison to the one-for-all and all-for-one spirit that has characterised the efforts of the Europeans.

There are two reasons why some believe that, for the first time in years, the Americans may be on the front foot in terms of team unity.

The first is the absence of Tiger Woods. His has been such a dominant presence in the American team that successive captains have been unable to get past the stature of the man. They have deferred to him on matters of clothing and practice times. They have fretted about who should play with him in the foursomes and four-ball matches.

None of this may have been Tiger’s fault, but it has not helped that his Ryder Cup record, apart from his singles’ matches, has been poor. The fact remains that he has been the elephant in the American team room. Now that he is not there, Paul Azinger, the captain, may find it easier to capture the team spirit that has eluded the Americans.

The second reason is that the European captain for this match is Nick Faldo, the greatest loner in golf since Ben Hogan. Although Faldo has the best Ryder Cup record of any player, he has never been anything other than a golfer who has done things on his own terms. In a failing common to the best players in many sports, Faldo may not have the understanding of the mental fears and weaknesses that occupy the minds of lesser performers.

It is this appreciation of the state of mind of others that is so essential to the skill of being a good Ryder Cup captain. A succession of American captains have simply picked the best players and allowed them to get on with it. This worked during the American days of overpowering talent, but has failed during this more competitive era.

European captains, on the other hand, have understood that the whole can be greater than the sum of their team parts and have worked hard to ensure that this happens.

Their own captains’ picks have often taken this more into consideration than who might be playing the best golf.

Has Faldo shown an early inclination to depart from the style of captaincy that has served the Europeans so well? There are some who think he has by his omission of the two giants of Ryder Cup competition, Colin Montgomerie and Darren Clarke.

These are the men who have been at the heart and soul of European efforts over the past years. Both have shown a matchless ability to raise their games for the Ryder Cup. Both have been feared by the Americans who will be rejoicing at their absence.

Yet Faldo has opted for the foppish Ian Poulter, despite his recent poor form.

Poulter angered some of his team mates by failing to appear for the last event counting towards automatic selection, thus fuelling rumours that he had an inside track with Faldo. It is these little things that can ruin team spirit, however much each individual wants to win.

There are also some who believe that the captain should be a current player on the tour. He should be mixing with the candidates for his team on a weekly basis. It is this bonding over two years that builds the determination of a team to play for their captain.

Similarly, the captain’s choice of vice-captains, so essential to providing him with additional eyes and ears, should come from current tour players.

Faldo’s time is now spent in the U.S. in his capacity as a television commentator. He has had little contact with the European tour. It seems to be no coincidence that his two picks are participants on the American tour.

He has also chosen not to have a vice-captain. The ultimate loner is choosing to do it his way, but it may not lead to another European victory.

•Ray White, a former United Cricket Board president, is also a South African senior golf champion.

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