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Team spirit key to Cup

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Rob Hodgetts | 20:55 UK time, Thursday, 11 September 2008

"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers..."

Shakespeare's Henry V speech before the Battle of Agincourt could have been written for European Ryder Cup teams of yore. But not any more.

In fact, it could apply to Paul Azinger's US side at Valhalla, which, incidentally, was the great hall in Norse mythology where those slain in combat went upon death.

But enough of all that.

Europe go into this year's Ryder Cup as favourites having won the last three events, and the last two by record margins.

For possibly the first time ever, the Americans will be underdogs on their own soil, and not just because they are missing the world's best player Tiger Woods.

Stats and reality don't always match up, of course, and home advantage, a canny captain, luck and a fair wind could yet see the US triumph.
Europe's victorious 2006 Ryder Cup team
One reason the Europeans have turned the tables on the once-unbeatable Americans is because the trans-Atlantic - and global - rift in calibre and strength-in-depth of players has narrowed significantly in recent times.

But Europe have for many years now added up to far more than the sum of their parts. And the theory generally trotted out is because of a greater team spirit and a collective desire to prove themselves.

"When a group of people feel a common bond in any situation it's a massive advantage," said Dr Karl Morris, a top sports psychologist and Graeme McDowell's mind man.

"The underdog mindset is huge. There's an old saying that if you're not afraid to lose, you're not afraid to win. If you have nothing to lose, there's real freedom in that."

The consensus is that the closer European bonds stem from the European Tour, where players tend to spend more time together, travelling, eating, sharing hotels and transport to tournaments. In short, they are used to being in each other's company.

The Americans, on the other hand, tend to keep themselves to themselves.

"When you go to a tournament hotel in America, there will be one player dining at each table," said former US and European Tour pro and 5 Live golf commentator Jay Townsend. "For the Europeans it would be bad etiquette to do that.

"The Americans are all of a sudden thrust into a team format at the Ryder Cup and they don't know what to do or how to act and think. They want to win but they're not really sure how to go about it."

Of course, the Americans have won plenty of Ryder Cups over the years - the last in 1999 - so they must have bonded, if that's what it takes, at some point.

The paradox to all this is that earlier this year Nick Faldo berated some of the European players for being too chummy, claiming it was holding them back in the individual pursuit of majors. Faldo said he would never have done it with the likes of Seve, though the pair of them played on successful Ryder Cup teams together.

"Without question one of the things that creates team spirit better than anything else is winning," added Morris. "Success has an amazing way of binding people together, as has happened with Europe recently, and failure has a way of opening cracks in the armoury."

But as with Europe in the past, so with the US now - the expectation of failure can be an equally potent galvanising force.

"What we underestimate at our peril this time is that the Americans will have a 'backs-to-the-wall' mentality," said Morris.

"Europe have got to be very careful that they don't play too much on this team spirit aspect and expect that they just need to turn up to win."

The spine of the US Ryder Cup team: Phil Mickelson (left), Stewart Cink (centre) and Jim Fury

Before the last Ryder Cup, US skipper Tom Lehman took his players to the K Club for a two-day bonding exercise, while in the days leading up to the event he organised more team-building stunts, such as making each player sing a song, including Woods, who apparently tried to get out of it before giving a rendition of his college ditty.

"I love Tom Lehman but I thought some of that stuff was kind of hokey," said Townsend. "You're not going to create that atmosphere in a couple of days."

There's a school of thought that suggests Woods's absence at Valhalla might help the rest of the US team to perform better.

"Tiger is an icon. And while he has a great sense of humour and loves to tease people - and is happy to have it done in return - that greatness often leaves people around him in awe," said Townsend.

"And if the people around him are uncomfortable, that can affect how they perform on the golf course."

Morris reckons Azinger's priority should be to create an environment in which all players feel comfortable to air their views.

"A fundamental human desire is to be understood," he said. "Instead of being dictatorial, team meetings should make everyone feel involved."

Townsend, though, reckons Azinger's way will be substance over style.

"Azinger is a unique character. He speaks his mind and he won't sugarcoat anything," he said. "He will have no problems kicking somebody in the butt if he thinks they're not holding up their end. Nobody's going to get a free ride.

"The Ryder Cup is meant to be played in the spirit that golf is the ultimate beneficiary, but for Azinger anything less than victory will be considered absolute failure."

Big-hitting US Ryder Cup rookie JB Holmes

One area that Azinger can exploit is the home advantage and he has been instrumental in setting up the course.

"The golf course will definitely suit someone who is a long hitter," Valhalla's head pro Keith Reese told 5 Live. "We haven't grown the rough up real long and our landing areas are fairly generous."

This explains why Azinger chose as one of his wildcards the Kentucky local and big-hitter JB Holmes. The prospect of Holmes and fellow Kentuckian Kenny Perry in the first fourball on Friday morning is arousing plenty of excitement in the locals.

The captains, their manouevrings and their attempts at fostering team spirit will garner plenty of headlines during the Ryder Cup week.

But, ultimately, the result is about the 24 men bashing a white ball around a field.

"We've got to be careful not to get too carried away by the importance of the captaincy," said Morris.

"It is still 99.9% about each individual hitting good golf shots."


  • Comment number 1.

    Good article. Really looking forward to next week. USA by about 16/12 is how I see it going.

    Like that image of Tiger having to sing a song in front of the rest of team having tried and failed to get out of it. No wonder he doesn't enjoy the Ryder Cup!

  • Comment number 2.

    Well, what a surprise - a UK/European journalist talking up the USA.

    These blogs on the BBC just get worse and worse.

    If you can't say something sensible, then say nothing.

  • Comment number 3.

    I think your last statement sums it up exactly. It's all about hitting good golf shots.

    Too much emphasis has been placed on this team spirit thing, it's all about the quality of your individual golfers.

    There are plenty of football teams with great team spirits who win nothing.

    The result will come down to individual quality.

    Did the European team only have a great Team spirit when they started to win the trophy.

  • Comment number 4.

    I think this year will be a US win.

    Faldo was the wrong choice as captain, and I'm not criticising his wildcard picks - they were brave and could possibly work, although I would have gone with Clarke rather than Poulter.

    What I think is wrong is that he undermined his position of authority by making silly remarks about respected players like Monty "he's probably off shopping somewhere..."

    What a highly immature thing to say - it shows his inability to manage players correctly. People played for Woosie and Langer because they had respect for them as decent men.

    I fear that a lack of team spirit could unsettle individuals - especially if the going gets tough.

    Wood's missing will probably have a positive impact on the rest of the US team, who will feel rightly more responsibility.

  • Comment number 5.

    Genuinely, I would pick USA to win the Ryder Cup this year. I thnk Paul Azinger could be a great captain, and the US team isn't made up of stars this time around. It'll be interesting to see how Phil Mikelsen steps up, but my guess is he could be a better 'team leader' type figure than Woods has been.

    And I am not sure how much team spirit Nick Faldo has been able to generate. Are players really going to play for him as they did for Jacklin and Seve and Torrance and Woosnam in the past?

  • Comment number 6.

    Nice one Rob.

    When you get over here, pick up a copy of SI's golfplus Ryder Cup Special Issue.

    Wonderful article on Kenny Perry, if you like that sort of thing, and lots on the esprit de corps, or otherwise, of the respective teams.
    Including contributions from the always compelling "anonymous pro"! Great stuff!!

  • Comment number 7.

    Sorry but i cannot understand this negativity towards Nick Faldo. He is one of the greatest if the not the greatest European golfer produced post war. If this doesn't get respect then I what does. Every player in the European team will respect him, and all will be happy to take his advice. Clarke is a big fans favourite but Poulter has a higher world rating so what is the problem. Yes Clarke is more likeable but that doesn't win you matches, so lets get behind Europe and see another big win.

  • Comment number 8.

    I think team spirit is the key addition to the European team, which has helped make them so successful.

    Obviously, good golf is essential but team spirit really can be the difference between winning and losing - I've seen this first hand for myself when captaining a side.

    As for Faldo not being 'the right captain', this is utter nonsense. Nick Faldo is Europe's most successful golfer in both Major's and Ryder Cup. This in turn means he automatically gains the respect of his peers, whether they like him as a person or not.

    Personally, I think the USA might just nick this one. The fact that they have so many rookies in the side will not hinder them in my opinion and come Sunday afternoon in the singles, the home support could prove decisive.

    Still, I'll be crossing my fingers that 'Team Europe' do the business and then we can look forward to Celtic Manor in 2010....... ;o)

  • Comment number 9.

    I think the Faldo comment about Monty shopping..? - might have been a very good way of lightening the subject ...? He could have said ' Monty didn't want to pick up to hear the bad news ' or whatever.
    I believe the Eurolads will win by 2 points but personally think Faldo is wrong by not having a 3rd assistant as the previous winning Captains have ALL said the days are really tough and as much contact with the players and info from the course is essential.
    Faldo is full of surprises so watch for odd pairings, but all of these players will give him their respect and the best they have on the day.
    It WILL be good enough.

  • Comment number 10.

    I have loved watching the Europeans put it over the Americans for the past decade or so, but think this one will go the other way.

    Nick Faldo can be a real loner and an arrogant man. He has fallen out with pros for years, and I can see him falling out with team members during the tournament. I think team spirit and wanting to give that little extra for a good captain and your team, will be better on the US team for Azinger than for Faldo.

    Tiger is clearly head and shoulders above everybody in individual play but he hasnt had the same devastating success in either the Ryder Cup or the Presidents Cup, and I think it affects his team mates. If you have that guy on your team you expect him to give everyone a spanking and when he doesnt, I think it erodes the confidence of a few others.

    The Ryder Cup is about a point here and a point there. This will be close, but I pick Azinger over Faldo.

  • Comment number 11.

    Here we go again- the old "The USA will be better because Tiger Woods isn't playing" arguemnet- have you ever heard such a load of rubbish?

    Please eplain to me how a side which could have had the best golfer in the world by some distance in it's ranks is supposed to perform better by not having him there? TW obviously doesn't consider the Ryder Cup a priority, but the guy has still never lost a Sunday singles match. Let's put it this way, if you are in the European Team, come Saturday night at least half the team would be losing sleep if they thought there was a chance they would going toe-to-toe with the greatest golfer currently playing. IT's often said Tiger has his opponents beaten before they've hit a single shot because of his rep- Why is missing the one player who has a hoodoo over any player he faces a good thing?

    With Wodds out the picture, who have the European team got to fear? Mickelson? Do me a favour- the guy's driving is as bad as it's ever been and at the PGA his short game started to go as he got too cute on a number of rescue shots. And let's not even mention that 9 at US Open when he had to play the same approach shot 4 times! Holmes? After his last round collapse at the PGA I'm suprised he's even in the team. Kim still has a long way to go, as far as I'm concerned. Furyk hasn't won on the PGA Tour all year. Perry ducked out of plaing the majors in order to qualify, which says to me his game isn't up to it. Interesting fact- there hasn't been a US-born winner on the pGA Tour since July- in the event played opposite the Open, and therefore featured none of the big names. Also this will be the first time in Ryder Cup History that the US will go into the match without a single holder of one of the four Majors. If Europe can;t beat this lot, something is seriously wrong!

    oNe last point: all this talk of a course that favours big-hitters overlooks the fact that Robert Karlsson, Henrick Stenson and Lee Westwood hit the ball as long (and straight)as anyone.

    Europe to win 16-12.

  • Comment number 12.

    Cheers Sagamix and Kwini. I'll certainly check out SI.

    TonyGreeg - not quite sure what your point is, what's wrong with a UK journo saying the US have got a chance? It's sport, of course they have.

    Stephensta - agree with you totally. Team spirit's one thing but your players have got to hit the shots and make the putts first before they go around high-fiving each other. But I guess the point is that if having this "spirit" makes you play better, then it is important.

    Ross1981 - you're right in that of course you would want Tiger in your team. But his absence may just help others to relax more and play better. It's quite hard to quantify whether someone is playing better because he's not there than they would have done if he was, so we'll never really know. And even if the "spirit" is better, the final and only real arbiter is points, of which he would have won some.

    As for the other US players not being up to scratch - well that reinforces the argument that they are underdogs in the same way that Europe's "lesser lights" have been for so long.

    And yes, Europe have big hitters too. But actually Paul Casey is the longest on the PGA Tour stats at an average of 299.2 yards (Holmes is tied second at 310).

  • Comment number 13.

    Whilst I would agree that team spirit is important in these events, I think it may have been slightly overplayed in recent times. My view would be that the arrogance of the US Tour has been the biggest driving force to inspire the European players over the last 20 years.
    By the time Jacklin took on the captaincy of what had become a European team, the US had got used to the fact that they just needed to turn up to win the Ryder Cup. Many US commentators would point to the team sheets and say there could only be one winner. When Europe did start winning the US maintained a line of it being a fluke and the normal order would soon be restored. European players were driven by taking on the so-called big boys from the states and beating them. How could any European pairing not want to beat a combination as irritating as Azinger and Pavin for example?

    Now the Ryder Cup has moved full circle and the USA are genuine underdogs. The question is - will they be inspired enough to want to beat Harrington and Garcia? Will they want to take the cocky Poulter and Casey down a peg or two? Will Faldo prove to be a more galvanising force to the US team than to his own?

    It is going to be a tight and exciting Ryder Cup with the US to edge it on Sunday.

  • Comment number 14.

    I've got this USA 16 Europe 12 scoreline in my head and I just can't seem to shake it.

    It's keeping me awake at nights.

  • Comment number 15.

    I dont think teamwork is that apprpriate this time, it's all about pride and desire. Nick has these in abundance as have all the team. I have met Nick when he was giving a training lesson to a host of juniors. Very humourus and the kids loved it. This is his other side, he will prove a great captain of a great team - just wait and see.


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