You wouldn't know it from the unprecedented demand for tickets, the 23� hours of television coverage or the voguish label of "golf's greatest spectacle," but the Ryder Cup may be headed for a fall. As most of the golf world takes for granted that Oak Hill will produce yet another spellbinding cliff-hanger, there are forces at work that could mark the 31st Ryder Cup as the beginning of the end of the biennial event's golden era.
On the strength of 12 years of tight matches (the cumulative score in the six meetings since 1983 is Europe 85�, U.S. 82�), the Ryder Cup has come to be perceived as a fail-safe showcase for some of the purest competition in all of sports. But although nobody wants to talk about it, the possibility of a rout looms large at Oak Hill, and a blowout would severely damage the Ryder Cup's main hook—the promise of a nerve-jangling photo finish. If Europe can't win, or come as stirringly close as it did in 1991 and '93, the Ryder Cup will take a giant step backward to its former life as an exercise in goodwill, diplomacy and butt-kicking.
Consider Europe's very significant problems, first in the short term. The team that will come to Rochester, N.Y., is a ragtag bunch. Jos� Mar�a Olaz�bal has withdrawn and Nick Faldo has a bad wrist, while Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer have bad backs. The team's emotional leader, Ballesteros, is in the worst slump of his career. Another stalwart, Ian Woosnam, was a late replacement. Of Europe's best players, only Colin Montgomerie has been in top form.
With all but one of its Big Six either hurting or absent, the team will almost surely need strong performances from its traditionally weak second tier—this year made up of Sam Torrance, Costantino Rocca, David Gilford, Mark James and Howard Clark, plus two unimposing Cup rookies, Philip Walton and Per-Ulrik Johansson. Further steepening the mountain before the European team is a golf course doctored to prey specifically on the visitors. U.S. captain Lanny Wadkins knows that among the opposing squad, only Faldo, Montgomerie and Olaz�bal have finished better than 18th in a U.S. Open since 1988.
So it doesn't look good for Europe. But should an isolated European loss on U.S. soil, even a bad one, hold so much portent? Yes, because European golf has other problems that are less immediate but even more fundamental. In the 1990s Europe has been passed as a spawning ground for golf talent. While players like Ernie Els, Robert Allenby, Tiger Woods and Michael Campbell are coming from the warmer climates of other continents, a conspicuous dearth of exceptional prospects has risen from Europe. As a result the European team is still looking for a group that can uphold the legacy of Ballesteros, Faldo, Langer et al. Moreover, it is becoming clear that Europe is not the best place for a good player to get better. Last year, when Faldo made the decision to become a member of the PGA Tour, the implications were enormous. Coming from Faldo, whose quest for improvement is an obsession, the move pointed to Europe's inferior courses and practice facilities, and the lack of depth in its tournament fields. It also provided a compelling rebuttal to the idea, which rose out of the European successes in the Ryder Cup, that the variety of weather and turf conditions found in Europe was producing a breed of player superior to those playing the more standardized courses of the PGA Tour.
But the European team's most profound problem is a diminishing sense of mission. After years of being bullied by smug U.S. Ryder Cup teams, the Europeans, led by captain Tony Jacklin and Ballesteros, battled with single-minded fervor. The victories of 1985 and 1987 and the retention of the Cup in 1989 exacted revenge and proved a point, but once the point was proved, the hunger dissipated. The subsequent bloodletting at Kiawah Island was cathartic for both teams, and the 1993 matches, though brilliantly played, lacked the sense of vendetta that had been palpable since 1985. The Europeans now seem resigned to the idea that the U.S. will always have greater depth and that they will always be underdogs. "We've got nothing to lose," says Faldo in assessing Europe's approach to Rochester. "We've got a free shot."
Going in totally loose may be their best chance, but if the Europeans think they have nothing to lose, they arc wrong. In fact, if they don't play well at Oak Hill, it will be hard to find a winner.