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Cash or country: Ryder Cup records give clear answer

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The Ryder Cup, which pays nothing to the players, pits a country against a continent and gives the world a reason to scream at the TV. In the U.S., people are still screaming.

Never has a golf competition spurred so much debate. By comparison, majors fall flat. Perhaps Americans feel denied the right to brag, or perhaps it’s just that, one week removed from the most lavish payout in golf, there is evidence that the best U.S. players play harder for that money than for their country. 

The Europeans staged the biggest comeback on foreign soil in Ryder Cup history. That's stunning because it’s their seventh victory in the past nine competitions and because they are consistently considered the underdog. Yet they consistently win. Those wins raise questions that challenge our beliefs about the best players in this country when we see them win millions.

Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk, with 130 wins on the PGA Tour, rank 1, 2 and 4 on the Tour's career money list with more than $220 million in combined earnings, have left their mark on the Ryder Cup over the last 15 years. It’s a scar. If they can win all those tournaments, why can’t they win the Ryder Cup? 

They don’t choke when they play for money; is it reasonable to suggest they choke when playing for their country? If that's the case, why don’t their “lesser” opponents choke to the same degree? 

Choking can be attributed to caring too much. If that's not the case, then is it the opposite – caring too little?

The questions are swirling like a dust devil, because we want to believe that players, who are insanely compensated the rest of the year, will play just as hard for free, for their country, one week a year. 

Perhaps it’s something else: 'our' system versus 'theirs.' It’s been suggested that Americans are spoiled by going to college before they begin their pro careers, whereas Europeans, who largely skip college, become blacksmith-hard by struggling through their early years on tour. There is tangible evidence to support this theory, as 12 of the 16 players who have ascended to the No. 1 spot in the world are from outside this country and none of those 12 except Luke Donald went to college for any significant time. 

Furthermore, the majority of the players who have been in the top five in the world are from outside this country as well. When the world rankings debuted in April 1986, there was only one player from the U.S. in the top five. In the 25 years since, if one looks at the rankings in the first week of January every year, it is not dominated by Americans. From April 1986 through January 2012, the top five included 51 Americans and 79 from outside this country. But this fact has been obscured by Tiger’s dominance and Phil’s supporting role.

Still, Tiger and Phil, with their records suggesting they are so much better than the vast majority of the Europeans they have faced, should leave in their wake a disemboweled leadership on the opposing roster. But that never happened and when they were paired together, rather than play to their potential, which was stratospherically higher than their opponents, they were pathetically oblivious to their roles as leaders.

Another theory about the United States’ continued caving is that Europeans have the team concept in their DNA, from generations of soccer madness, which, the argument goes, makes American interest in football look laid-back. Of all the reasons people spit out for Europe’s dominance, this one makes the least sense, but then so does watching a 90-minute contest that ends 0-0. Maybe Europeans do grow up on soccer and are fervent followers, but no less so than U.S. players follow their alma mater’s wins and losses.

Argue this out any way you want because it defies logic. To me, the losses boil down to one simple conclusion: If the Ryder Cup were as important to Tiger, Phil and Furyk as winning titles and money, then their Ryder Cup records would be in step with the rest of their Hall of Fame careers. I’ve seen enough Ryder Cups to dismiss the idea that it is the randomness of match play that gives us unpredictable winners. Look at Tiger’s individual match-play record (33-7 in the WGC Match Play), look at his playoff record in Tour events (11-1), and then look at his Ryder Cup (13-17-3) and Presidents Cup (20-14-1) records and consider the difference between his record when he plays for himself and when he plays for the United States. 

That’s why people are screaming.