John Huggan: 12 points on offer in singles round

WHEN it comes to the often bloody and sometimes saccharine history of the Ryder Cup, tales of glory, tragedy and heroism abound. Some of them are even true.

WHEN it comes to the often bloody and sometimes saccharine history of the Ryder Cup, tales of glory, tragedy and heroism abound. Some of them are even true.

But one of the most enduring is that which perpetuates an ever-touching myth. You know the one. How the Europeans are supposedly all pals together, united in a common biennial cause – beating the big bad Americans.

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While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to refute that cosy contention, it logically follows that the Old World must therefore be superior to the New when it comes to the esoteric business of fourball and foursomes play. Indeed, the numbers fully support such an argument. Before this year and since 1979 – when the Continentals joined their British and Irish counterparts – a total of 272 team matches have been played, the Europeans holding a fairly significant 16-point edge.

The history of the 12 singles that will today decide the destination of the 40th Ryder Cup tells a different story, however. When it comes to head-to-head Ryder Cup play, the Americans are 11 points to the good since those far-off 1979 matches at The Greenbrier.

“Playing in the singles is a lot different,” says Frenchman Thomas Levet, one of Europe’s heroes in a record-breaking victory at Oakland Hills in 2004. “Now you are out there in front of everyone, with nowhere to hide. However your game is, it is going to show. In foursomes, you play only half of the shots. So if your partner is exceptional you have not much to do. The same is true in fourballs. You can have two wins without playing that well. Equally, you could lose twice having played great both times.

“In singles, none of the above applies. It doesn’t work that way. Plus, there are 12 points on offer instead of just eight on each of the first two days. On Saturday night you are only just over halfway there. So every game is very important.”

Which brings us neatly to another Ryder legend: The notion that Uncle Sam’s nephews are not good when it comes to sharing and so are far happier off in a quiet corner, playing with their own toys.

“I don’t really feel like the Americans have that same sense of connection between each other,” contends Nicolas Colsaerts, a member of Europe’s winning side at Medinah two years ago. “When you look at the atmosphere in the two team-rooms, they are very different. The European boys have more fun and take the piss out of each other a bit more. I don’t really feel like the Americans have that same sense of connection between each other.

“That’s maybe why they do better in singles. They grow up as individuals and are more comfortable playing alone. They don’t seem to understand that winning as a team or partnership can be just as satisfying.”

It can also be argued, of course, that the Americans’ unfamiliarity with the tactics, strategies and ethos of fourball and foursomes play can only make the first two days of any Ryder Cup an uncomfortable experience. If so, the last day then becomes a blessed release from the self-imposed shackles that naturally restrict any kind of freewheeling play.

“It’s a big adjustment from days one and two to day three,” says Mark James, seven times a Ryder Cup player and the (much-maligned) non-playing captain in 1999 at The Country Club, when Europe squandered a four-point lead going into the singles. “It’s completely different on a Sunday morning. When you come down to the team room there is hardly anyone there. Which is a big contrast from all being there together. It’s the same on the first tee and once you get going. There’s not as many people watching and there’s not as many inside the ropes.”

Once out on the course, things are very different too. And, as the pressure builds, the temptation to check out the scoreboard is ever-present.

“Ryder Cup Sunday is just a bit odd,” continues Colsaerts. “For two days you have had someone beside you to back you up. Then all of a sudden you are sent out on your own into the arena. My mistake last time was looking at the scoreboard when I should have been tending to my own business. That threw me off a little bit, especially as I did it so early in my match. I felt especially bad because I was the first guy to lose my single. When I was interviewed at the end I burst into tears.”

Still, the genial and out-going Belgian is far from alone in allowing his concentration to waver.

“I remember everyone from Bernhard Langer to Colin Montgomerie to Thomas Bjorn to Lee Westwood told me the same thing: don’t look at the scoreboard,” says Levet. “It is tempting fate to look before it is all over. But I paid no attention. After three holes – I was playing at number six – I was two up and had a look at the board. It was shocking. The first five games were all down. And so were the two games behind. I should never have looked. Only Ian Poulter and I were up.

“I never looked at a board again. It was good that I did it early, so that I had time to recover. I got rid of the mistake. I concentrated on my match after that.”

As for the order of things today, the overnight score will have the biggest influence on who plays where.

“I think it’s harder for the team that is ahead to play aggressively, or at least as they would normally,” says James.

But there are other factors, not least the relative speeds at which team members like to play. There would, for example, be little benefit in sending the slowest players out early. One of the reasons Colin Montgomerie – unbeaten in eight Ryder Cup singles matches – tended to go out at the head of the order was to avoid the inevitable irritation and/or impatience he would feel if forced to stand around waiting.

“Who is playing well and who is not has to be taken into account when it comes to the singles order,” says Levet. “If you are behind and put struggling players at the start you could lose the Ryder Cup very quickly. So you have to pump up the first few games. But it can also be worth having a [punt]. We did 
that with Paul Casey. He wasn’t playing so well and he ended up against Tiger Woods. Paul did not win but it was a gamble worth taking. Over 18 holes anything can happen.”

Staying on the course even in an ultimately unavailing cause is another largely underrated boost to those coming along behind.

“It is so important to keep going to the end,” agrees Colsaerts. “Peter Hanson did that two years ago at Medinah. He was down the whole way but pushed his opponent to the last green. His fighting spirit definitely elevated the rest of us. When you see a team-mate hanging in there, it gives you a lift. Fighting for your point is what the last day of the Ryder Cup is all about.”