GUIDONIA MONTECELIO – The Americans have won more majors. The Europeans have won more Ryder Cups.
There's really no connection, except that it might explain why the Americans always seem to be the favorite on paper, and Team Europe has more often left the Ryder Cup with possession of the 17-inch gold trophy since they were invited to this raucous party in 1979.
It doesn’t mean the Americans don’t care. That’s an insult to think otherwise. But an argument can be made the Ryder Cup means more to Europe as a whole.
“In America, it's in our head. We desperately want to win,” Paul Azinger said. “But over there, it's in their blood. It's part of the fabric of their souls. It's what they deem as the most relevant thing in their life.”
Consider the many Europeans whose careers were defined by the Ryder Cup:
— Ian Poulter, whose Ryder Cup legacy was cemented when he birdied his last five holes at Medinah in a fourballs match (Rory McIlroy was along for the ride) that sparked Europe to the greatest comeback by a visiting team. His career ended with a 15-8-2 record.
— Colin Montgomerie, who played in eight Ryder Cups and never lost in singles.
— Lee Westwood, whose 47 matches are tied for most with Phil Mickelson in Ryder Cup history (Westwood had one fewer appearance).
The obvious ones are Seve Ballesteros, the very embodiment of European strength, and Sergio Garcia, who has scored more points than anyone in history. What sets them apart from the others is they also won majors. But their passion was the Ryder Cup.
Who has been that guy for the Americans?
The consensus from those who played with him was Lanny Wadkins.
“It was a big part of my life,” Wadkins said.
He won his first seven Ryder Cup matches and ended his career with a 20-11-3 record. He famously hit wedge to a foot on the final hole in 1983 for a key half-point, later telling his captain, Jack Nicklaus, “It was only the most important shot of my life.”
This was six years after Wadkins won the PGA Championship at Pebble Beach in the first sudden-death playoff in a major. Wadkins lived for the Ryder Cup.
“Lanny was our last true Ryder Cup stud,” Azinger said. “There's was nothing more in his blood than the Ryder Cup. Raymond Floyd was like that, too. But once it became less of an exhibition, it became Lanny's thing. It went right into his blood.”
It's not just passion. Azinger had passion. His four Ryder Cup appearances were marked by testy exchanges, one of which prompted Ballesteros to refer to the U.S. team as “11 nice guys and Paul Azinger.”
Did he not live for the Ryder Cup?
“It was in my head,” Azinger said. “But it wasn't in my blood.”
That's what Azinger saw in Wadkins. That's what he sees in Europe.
“It’s in their blood. They're bonded by that blood,” he said. "They’re bonded by the very thing that causes wars.”
And part of him believes that’s what is missing with so many Americans over the years.
What struck Azinger about the last Ryder Cup was not the Americans' largest margin of victory over Europe (19-9) at Whistling Straits, but McIlroy in tears on Sunday.
“The Americans beat Europe so bad it made Rory cry,” Azinger said. “There's no American ... I don't see anyone breaking down and crying.”
Tiger Woods, the greatest of his generation, was never that guy. Woods also was under enormous scrutiny in all he did, the Ryder Cup included. He was defensive at times about his Ryder Cup performance, especially after starting out 5-8-2 while on two of three losing teams.
“I'm sure all of you guys probably know what Jack's record is in the Ryder Cup, right?” Woods said in 2004, looking around a crowded room and not getting any takers. “Anybody? No? How many majors did he win?"
Jack Nicklaus is defined by 18 majors. Woods knew that. Everybody does.
Phil Mickelson was never that guy. He played in more Ryder Cups (12) than anyone in history. He played on only three winning teams and had a losing record (18-22-7).
Justin Thomas is one player who has a chance to be the American face of the Ryder Cup. He was roasted at the start of 2018 when he said he'd rather win the Ryder Cup than win a major. He is the first name mentioned by Europeans as a player they want to beat. Thomas will be under more scrutiny this year as a captain's pick in the midst of a slump.
“Jordan Spieth has got the intensity,” said Wadkins, whose son grew up playing with Spieth in Dallas. “Justin Thomas, I don't know him as well. But I love the way he plays.”
For now, Wadkins and his Ryder Cup legacy is unmatched for the Americans.
“He was a tough competitor and he thrived in that atmosphere,” Curtis Strange said. “Lanny was physically and emotionally invested in the Ryder Cup. The Ryder Cup means a great deal to him.”
That's what Strange has seen from Europeans. They had a chip on their shoulder in the early days. They were playing for their tour, a chance to prove it was not to be overlooked by the might of the richer PGA Tour.
“When you have guys who do incredible things, guys who play their best golf in the Ryder Cup," Strange said, “it's not a coincidence."
AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf