— So what's on the line here? What are we really talking about: gift bags, cocktail parties, patriotic pomp? Or is there really something of substance on the line at Celtic Manor?
On at least one level, albeit somewhat undefinable, there is.
From late April until the start of the FedExCup Playoffs, non-Americans won 12 of 17 events on the PGA Tour, also known as the American tour. The season started with Phil Mickelson's feel-good story at Augusta National. It ended with foreign-good stories, as the next three majors were won by players not fully affiliated with the PGA Tour. Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell won the U.S. Open, South Africa's Louis Oosthuizen won the British Open and Germany's Martin Kaymer captured the PGA Championship.
Moreover, 10 of the top 17, 14 of the top 25 and 20 of the top 35 in the Official World Golf Rankings are non-Americans. If this keeps up, it will be the term “Americans” that requires a prefix. There seems to be a pattern, one certainly not discouraged in 2010 by the MacGruber-like implosion of the No. 1 ranked player in the world, American Tiger Woods.
Woods was the ultimate trump card on the landscape, irrefutable accreditation for American golf, the only planet in the universe that mattered. Television ratings, golf course revenue, equipment and apparel sales ... all are impacted by the Woods brand more than any other. A conversation about the prominent influences in the game need go no further.
But Woods' stock crashed this year, unraveling in awkward moments and scandalous headlines. There was mistress revelations, sexaholic therapy, a breakup with coach Hank Haney and, most recently, a divorce settlement. In between, there has been a lot of uncharacteristically average and inconsistent golf from a guy who had 14 majors and 71 PGA Tour wins at the age of 33.
Woods is still No. 1 in the world rankings, but he is winless in 2010 and an almost unfathomable 63rd on the PGA Tour money list. He is still highly respected for his talent, but there is evidence to suggest he is no longer feared, evidence that first started gathering when Y.E. Yang ran Woods down on the final day of the 2009 PGA Championship.
Meanwhile, the No. 2 player in the world, Mickelson has added another season of wild fluctuations and unpredictability to a sometimes-perplexing resume. In fairness, the Mickelson family is dealing with a lot these days. Just because it's not making headlines doesn't mean the health of Amy Mickelson (Phil's wife) and Mary Mickelson (Phil's mother) are inconsequential. In addition, "Lefty" has been bothered by symptoms of psoriatic arthritis.
Although he had an opportunity to bump Woods from his No. 1 seat for weeks, Mickelson has been stifled by his own erratic play. The Masters in April represents his only win and he has only three other top-10s to go with it.
The Americans have tried to paint themselves as Ryder Cup underdogs in years past. Without Woods in their lineup at Valhalla in 2008, it was an easy sell. But this time, it's no bait and switch. This time, as the teams gather in Wales, the Americans are clearly the underdogs, and we're not just putting up bulletin-board fodder.
The Europeans may not be as top heavy, but they're thick through the middle. The Americans have the big hitters in Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson and Woods, a team former skipper Paul Azinger has called “the biggest hitting U.S. Side in history. That would be great if there were longest drive skins. But Celtic Manor will not reward a bomb-and-gouge game. Accuracy will be essential.
Only two players on the European teams are without victories. One, Francesco Molinari, has nine top-10s this season and the other, Padraig Harrington, fired a 64 in France on Sunday. The Europeans have won five of the last six Ryder Cups contested on their soil. This is their house.
Consider the personalities of the teams. For all his faults and idiosyncrasies — and you will read all about them in the tabloids this week — Colin Montgomerie is an animated, emotional leader. For years, he was the best player in Europe and he has been a standout in several victorious Ryder Cups of the past. The Europeans seem to have plenty of color and charisma, what with Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Miguel Angel Jimenez and the Molinari brothers.
U.S. captain Corey Pavin won a U.S. Open and earned a reputation as a fierce Ryder Cup competitor. But wife Lisa Pavin, aka the “Captainess,” has been the more visible personality, sparring with Golf Channel's Jim Gray and posing for a provocative magazine cover. For his part, Pavin has demonstrated about the same amount of spark and personality you would find in a fence post.
It's hard to imagine him as an inspiring leader, but appearances can be deceiving ... or revealing, depending on which Pavin it is. The most colorful aspect of the U.S. team would be Rickie Fowler's wardrobe, which won't be in play.
The bottom line is the Red, White and Bland has its work cut out, as well as something to prove. The game may not have been invented in America, but for many years it was perfected here. That is becoming less obvious as the PGA Tour becomes increasingly cut with European, Australian, South African and global talents.
The integration hasn't quite reached the flush level of the Asian presence on the LPGA Tour, but the trend is undeniable. The balance of power in golf is shifting, and the Ryder Cup is the perfect backdrop for an American rebuttal.
Our preppie pros truly are competing for some semblance of American pride. This time, it appears the Boys of Ashworth have a statement to make, an affirmation that says the backbone of competitive golf still resides in the good, ol' U.S. of A.
Both sides have pledged not to use Twitter accounts during the tournament, otherwise our side might tweet that message from the mountaintops of Wales this week.
Or they might tweet “S.O.S.”