Singular precision cuts up U.S., gives Europe Ryder Cup


SUTTON COLDFIELD, England - Gentlemen, start your second-guessing. Now that the Ryder Cup is staying here on the continent, we need answers to a few vital questions, and we need them quickly.

For instance ...

How could Phil Mickelson lose to Phillip Price?

What happened to the singles party the United States planned? How could the U.S. team win two, yes, only two singles matches yesterday with the identities of those two players being Scott Verplank and David Toms?

Did Sam Torrance outfox Curtis Strange by stacking the first part of his lineup with his best players?

Was Europe's decision to slow the greens, narrow the fairways and grow the rough that much of an edge, and should the U.S. players have adjusted better?

Uh, Paul McGinley?

And so it goes, but that always happens when you lose, as the United States did, 15 1/2 -12 1/2 . There probably are always going to be a lot more questions about why you lost than why you won. But for the time being, it's going to be open season on the question front, probably until the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills in Birmingham, Mich.

Mickelson's quixotic relationship with big events is a good place to start. He's known as the best player never to win a major championship, and now Mickelson has another unhappy label to wear - the player who couldn't beat Price with the Ryder Cup on the line.

It's far from certain the United States would have won anyway, once McGinley's putt on the 18th hole clinched the Ryder Cup with two matches still out on the course, but yesterday at The Belfry will not rank high among Mickelson's accomplishments.

How exactly does the second-ranked player in the world lose, 3 and 2, to the 119th-ranked player? At least we know how he felt about it.

"I'm not too thrilled," Mickelson said.

He had every right not to be, but what actually transpired yesterday in the fourth Ryder Cup held in the North Berwickshire countryside deserves to rank high in the thrill department, regardless of the outcome.

Europe won four of the first six matches and halved another, then held on to upset the Americans to reclaim the Ryder Cup for the first time since 1997.

"Once we saw the draw, we knew we were going to win," Jesper Parnevik said. "Sam did exactly the right thing."

Afterward, Europe's captain, Torrance, swigged a bottle of champagne and was thrown into the lake near the 18th green to celebrate, his counterpart admitted the obvious.

"They just played well," said Strange, the U.S. captain. "They just beat us. We got a European butt-whipping today. Sam, I think he gambled a bit at the start, but it paid off.

"And look at Phillip Price. He beat Phil Mickelson into the ground."

It's unfair to place too much of the blame on Mickelson, not when the supposedly superior U.S. team won only two of the 12 matches and halved five others.

Not even Tiger Woods could do much about the outcome. By the time Woods reached the first tee, Europe led the first six matches and seven of the first eight. Woods earned a half-point, conceding a par putt to Parnevik with the matches decided.

McGinley had made sure of that. The 35-year-old Ryder Cup rookie from Dublin, Ireland, watched his 8-foot putt fall to earn the half-point that made a European victory certain.

Verplank's 2-and-1 victory over Lee Westwood had kept the U.S. boat afloat and within two points at 12 1/2 -10 1/2 , but Mickelson couldn't keep up with Price, who had five birdies and no bogeys. Mickelson lost two holes with bogeys and missed a 3-footer for birdie to drop another.

"I knew my match was going to be a critical point, and that seemed to put a little bit of pressure on me to get off to a fast start," Mickelson said. "When I didn't, it made it difficult to come back."

Except for David Duval, who earned a difficult half-point in his match against Darren Clarke, most of the early going was fairly brutal for the United States.

Colin Montgomerie, who was 4-0-1 during the three days, began the charge with six birdies and a 5-and-4 rout of Scott Hoch. Padraig Harrington won, 5 and 4, over Mark Calcavecchia, who had four bogeys and no birdies. When Bernhard Langer finished off Hal Sutton, 4 and 3, the tone for the day was established.

Toms reduced Europe's lead to 11-9 with a 1-up victory over Sergio Garcia. The match turned when Garcia had a 2-up advantage and tried to drive the 10th hole. His ball landed in deep rough, and he wound up losing the hole to Toms.

After Duval's clutch half-point, Stewart Cink lost to Thomas Bjorn, 2 and 1, and Europe had 12 1/2 points - two shy of clinching. Verplank stalled that drive, but when Mickelson fell to Price, Europe had 13 1/2 points and was only one point short.

It would not come easily, though. Paul Azinger was 2-down to Niclas Fasth through 13 holes and needed a big break. He got it at the 18th when he made a bunker shot to birdie the hole and halve the match.

"It was lucky," Azinger said. "It went in. I wish it would be enough."

Now it was 14 1/2 .

For the Americans to win, they needed victories in the three matches left: Furyk-McGinley, Davis Love III-Pierre Fulke and Woods-Parnevik.

As it turned out, the McGinley match would decide it. Furyk led 2-up after three holes, was 2-up again after 12, but found himself tied when McGinley birdied the 17th. Both players missed the 18th green, and Furyk nearly duplicated Azinger's feat from the bunker but just missed it. McGinley chipped out of the rough, made the putt and raised both arms in triumph.

With 14 1/2 points, it was all over except the final accounting. Love and Fulke decided to end their match as they stood in the 18th fairway and Woods halved his match with Parnevik.

At 15 1/2 -12 1/2 , it was the biggest margin of victory in 17 years, since Europe scored a 16 1/2 -11 1/2 victory in 1985 at The Belfry.

Speaking of The Belfry, Sutton wryly pointed out that the setup favored Europe's players.

"Every golf course is set up to benefit a certain style of play," Sutton said. "This week, it was stay out of the rough and hit your putts hard."

It also helps if those putts go in and no one was better at that than the team that won.

"Anybody can beat anybody in the world if you only play 18 holes," Mickelson said. "On paper, you might be favored, but that doesn't mean anything when you play."

Thomas Bonk is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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