US Captain Paul Azinger has had to endure a lot of second guessing about his strategy for team selection. What leader doesn’t? But ‘Zinger did a lot to shake things up. He changed to rules to favor players where came into the week at the top of their game. So, half his squad has never been to the Ryder Cup and two players are not rated in the top 50. A strategy unheard of in American Ryder cup teams. This is the kind of strategy that make a leader a hero if it works, and a goat if it fails. Today at least, it worked.
One other thing impresses me as important to the American team’s chances. Despite previous losses at the Cup over the last decade, some by embarrassing margins, the US has not quite adapted the understanding of being the underdog. Hubris makes for a poor team mate. But some combination of losing many Ryder Cups in a row and the absence of Tiger Woods has allowed the team to understand the power of being the underdog. When everyone expects a victory- and perhaps an easy one at that- then the pressure is more than that of competition. This year, that monkey is on Padraig Harrington’s back.
Now the American side must not lose the concentration and enthusiasm that supported them to a 3 point lead on day one. Nothing will undo the confidence and calm of a day’s competition well played faster than swagger and bravado.
As I have said, I do not cheer for one side over the other over much. (Although I have bet a fiver on the Americans with my mate Martin Mackay in London and drinking a pint with him will be all the sweeter if he pays because the Americans won!) But, I personally thrill to see golf played as it was today at Valhalla. It is the quality of the competition as well as the courteous respect accorded to each player by fellow competitors that makes this event so remarkable.
So, for their own sake, and for the sake of another outstanding day’s golf- I hope that the American side will keep the team culture of confident focus in place for another day. I hope that the galleries will not over use the ever present USA chant so that the fans support their side rather than insight vitriol for the other. An underdog need not and in fact cannot take the field with his tail between his legs. But healthy respect for a competitor and the competition itself is the best guard against hubris.