Lehman Puts the Finishing Touches on U.S. Ryder Team

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The New York Sun

With a quartet of players already on his team who have little or no familiarity with team golf — let alone highly pressurized international team golf to be played a few thousand miles from home in front of a friendly, knowledgeable, and respectful gallery but a gallery that wants you to lose nonetheless — U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman had to find some more experience from somewhere.

Yesterday, Lehman added Stewart Cink and Scott Verplank as his two captain’s picks. These two will join the top 10 players in the U.S. standings to complete the team.

The top six players who qualified are Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, Chad Campbell, David Toms, and Chris DiMarco, who have 17 Ryder Cup appearances between them. They will obviously form the core of the team and be expected to perform far better than they did in ’04.

In contrast, the four players who finished 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th in the U.S. standings this year, have barely set foot outside the states and boast just five wins between them.

Vaughn Taylor, JJ Henry, and Brett Wetterich each made their overseas debut at the British Open in July, in fact, while Zach Johnson, a relative veteran, made his third appearance at the Open Championship this year.

Every Ryder Cup team has rookies, of course. The European side that cut through the U.S. team at Oakland Hills in Detroit two years ago had five of them. But their first timers — Luke Donald, Paul Casey, Thomas Levet, Ian Poulter, and David Howell — were all well traveled and had already contended in major championships or won multiple tournaments around the world.

It’s not surprising that Lehman felt picking players with some Ryder Cup experience made more sense than choosing either John Rollins, who impressed many with his win at the BC open in July and finished 11th on the list, or Lucas Glover who started the year well but slipped slowly down the table to 14th after a disappointing run of results through the summer.

What is surprising, however, is that instead of opting for Davis Love and Fred Couples (or Corey Pavin and Steve Stricker who were also in the running), Lehman went with Scott Verplank and Stewart Cink, both highly respected world-class players for sure, but neither a major champion or likely to cause the Europeans any sleepless nights.

Couples has three points from five singles matches at the Ryder Cup and once beat Ian Woosnam, Europe’s captain this year, 8&7 in the singles. He’s won the Masters and recorded a PGA Tour victory more recently than Verplank who last won in 2001. His performance at the Presidents Cup last September when he topped Vijay Singh on Sunday, must also have been given some consideration.

But he has had a fairly miserable summer by his standards with four missed cuts in his last seven tournaments and not a single top 10 since the Masters in April. Plus his back continues to give him grief and the last of his five appearances in the biennial competition came nine years ago at Valderrama in Spain.

The more glaring omission, however, is surely Love who didn’t do quite enough at the PGA Championship this weekend — he finished in a tie for 34th after sharing the lead at one point during Saturday’s third round — to convince Lehman he was still the right man for the job.

A stalwart of six Ryder Cups and a great team man popular with all the players, Love had every right perhaps to feel confident of his place. “Davis, to me, was a difficult, difficult phone call to make,” Lehman said following the announcement. “Out of respect for him, out of my admiration for him, I had to hang onto him for as long as I could. But he just hasn’t played well enough, plain and simple. He’s been injured. He’s still slightly injured.And with all of his experience and all of the things he’s accomplished, I still want to have guys who are playing well. I think he has definitely struggled.”

In the end, slightly better form and reliability won out over booming drives and superior past records. Love and Couples may still be able to bomb it past a few of the European youngsters and have a few good stories to share from Ryder Cups past, but Verplank’s unerring accuracy (4th on Tour for fairways hit this year) and superb putting (3rd on Tour) together with Cink’s solid work on the greens (he topped the putting stats in 2004) proved crucial.

“Stewart is a straight hitter, a good putter and a great chipper,” Lehman said. “Scott hits it straight, straight, straight, hits a lot of greens, and is also a great putter and chipper. The K Club has thick rough and trees so you need guys to put the ball in the fairway and who can putt and chip.”

Verplank and Cink had better find some fairways, chip it close and make some putts in four weeks’ time or Lehman’s decision to leave out Davis Love might haunt him for the rest of his life.

The New York Sun

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