Jack Nicklaus said it before, during, and after the emotional Ryder Cup matches: Europe's top golfers are tougher down the stretch than Americans. Gulp. Nicklaus was the captain of the United States team that lost the Ryder Cup at home Sunday for the first time since the biennial competition began as a US vs. British Isles rivalry 60 years ago.
To make matters even more embarrassing, the defeat came on the famous Muirfield Village course that Nicklaus himself designed. The final score, with one point awarded for each match in a variety of formats (foursomes, four-ball, and singles), was 15-13.
``They were better on the finishing holes than we were,'' Nicklaus said. ``They were inspired to win in our country, and they simply outplayed us when it counted in too many matches.''
In an important late match, Bernhard Langer of West Germany and PGA champion Larry Nelson halved the point by conceding each other's short putts as they stood all even on the 18th green. The conclusive match then saw Spain's Seve Ballesteros close out Curtis Strange, the leading money winner on the American tour, on the 17th hole.
Ballesteros won four of his five matches during the three days and was the intense leader of the European squad. The Americans lacked a player of his lustrous quality to rally around.
``He's a genuine superstar,'' admired Nicklaus. ``We didn't have a player like that. I wish we saw more of him in America.''
When he is emotionally aroused, as he always seems to be in international play, Ballesteros is the most exciting player in golf. His stride suggests a man who cannot wait to conquer the world and has absolutely no doubt he will.
The United States, which had dominated the cup under the original format, continued doing so when it was changed to include all of Europe in 1979, winning in that year and in '81 and '83 before the Europeans finally prevailed in England in 1985.
Said Ballesteros, ``We used to have a complex playing the Americans. Not anymore. We respected them here, but we knew we could win.''
Whenever the visitors needed a crucial shot, Ballesteros seemed to be there to sink a long winding putt or chip in from the top of the green. When others sat out a match in the rigorous schedule, he played and played with rare passion. ``He has great feel,'' said Nelson. ``You knew he could keep it for three days.''
Nicklaus lamented that,``Ours is a tour without stars like Seve.'' He offered a strong logic why. ``It's so hard to win nowadays with the depth on the US tour, our players don't taste victory enough. They aren't in the hunt at the end of a tournament very often and they don't learn to win.
``The Europeans also play courses that aren't uniformly well manicured the way our courses are. They have to improvise more shots - use their imagination.
``Maybe our young guys need to go over to Europe and play for awhile to gain confidence. Bob Tway and Corey Pavin went that route, and it paid off for them.''
Nicklaus said he would favor the idea of splitting the American tour into two divisions, to double the number of winners. ``Winning breeds winning,'' he said emphatically. He, of course, should know.
Living legend that he is, Nicklaus did not escape the Ryder Cup without being second-guessed. Some leading golf thinkers wondered why he put his best players at the end of his lineup Sunday even though his team trailed badly. Others felt he played his weaker players too much (all 12 members of each team play singles, but the captains make up the foursome and fourball groups). Still others wished he had lobbied for the right to handpick a few members of his squad the way winning captain Tony Jacklin does.
The US team is selected entirely on the basis of a two-year point system, from the time of the last Ryder Cup, which means a player who is off his form this year can make the team on the strength of last year's performance. Furthermore, the argument goes, Nicklaus needed on his side some experienced match-play battlers like Lee Trevino, Raymond Floyd, Tom Watson, and - yes - Jack Nicklaus.
As it was, Tom Kite turned in the best American record, 3-2, on a roster which also included Masters champion Larry Mize, US Open champion Scott Simpson, Ben Crenshaw, Lanny Wadkins, Andy Bean, Payne Stewart, Hal Sutton, Dan Pohl, and Mark Calcavecchia.
In any case, the Ryder Cup provided the most stirring golf of the season and demonstrated yet again that match play, with its pressurized head-to-head competition, can be vastly more invigorating than 72-hole stroke play. Unfortunately there is no match play, the original form of golf, on the American tour today.
The Ryder Cup has never quite captured the interest of the American sporting public, but perhaps it will now that the opposition has won it on US soil. That, after all, is how interest was heightened in sailing's America's Cup and tennis's Davis Cup.