Europe posts yet another win for the ages

Monday, September 25th 2006, 6:14 am
By: News On 6

STRAFFAN, Ireland (AP) _ Darren Clarke stood at the edge of the balcony and gulped down a pint of stout. The stuff never tasted so sweet.

He and the rest of the Europeans romped to another Ryder Cup victory Sunday. It was an 18 1/2-9 1/2 blowout over the Americans that re-emphasized the gap between these two teams and proved that Tiger Woods isn't the only man who can win his sport's biggest events.

Every European player chipped in at least half a point over their commanding three days at The K Club. And peering down these two teams' lineups, there were inklings that things might not change soon.

The European squad is filled with 20- and 30-somethings who play on a European PGA Tour that is growing and getting better. Woods, meanwhile, dominates the PGA Tour, where there is only one American player younger than 30 _ former British Open champion Ben Curtis _ with even a single victory.

``We could have sent two teams out here,'' European captain Ian Woosnam said. ``I'm not saying that we would have got this result, but it just shows the potential of European golf.''

The future looks bright. The present, meanwhile, is a sure thing.

Europe dominated the week from beginning to end. This marked the first time either side had won all five sessions of the competition.

Clarke was the ringleader, both emotional and on paper. He went 3-0, and his celebration was poignant. He was playing six weeks after his wife, Heather, succumbed to cancer. Everywhere he turned, he was embraced _ by teammates, opponents, the roar of the crowd.

``This means everything to me,'' Clarke said.

Meanwhile, Sergio Garcia lost his match Sunday, but he barely cared. He won his first four to set the table for this dominating weekend.

Colin Montgomerie beat David Toms 1-up to improve to 6-0-2 lifetime in singles. At 43, he's the oldest player on the team.

Luke Donald, 28, wrapped up the match that secured a tie and guaranteed the Europeans would keep the cup. Moments later, 30-year-old Henrik Stenson sealed it. The real celebration started a few minutes after that, when Clarke ended his match and the hugs and tears started flowing on the 16th green.

``There's one reason and one reason only,'' Paul McGinley said when asked for the secret of Europe's success. ``It's talent. Nobody understands how good our tour is. The tour is good, the standards are good. We're heading in the right direction. We still don't play for the same amount of money as they do in America, but we'll get there.''

The U.S. team came into Sunday trailing 10-6, the same score by which they trailed in 1999, when they pulled off the miracle at Brookline. They won 8 1/2 points to pull off the victory that day and they were hoping for a repeat.

Instead, they got a repeat of 2004 _ another 18 1/2-9 1/2 thrashing.

It could have been worse.

After the cup had been secured, McGinley did the gentlemanly thing by conceding a 25-foot putt to J.J. Henry to end their match in a draw. Had McGinley gone for the extra half, it would have been the biggest blowout in Ryder Cup history.

``I'll have a talk with Paul McGinley later,'' Woosnam said jokingly.

A streaker dashed across the 18th green just before McGinley made his concession, part of the comic tragedy the Americans endured all day.

Woods played without his 9-iron through the middle part of his round after his caddie, Steve Williams, stumbled and dropped it in the River Liffey while trying to rinse it off near the seventh green.

``It was him or the 9-iron'' going into the drink, Woods said. ``He chose the 9-iron.''

Scott Verplank made a hole-in-one on the 14th to go 4 up on Padraig Harrington in the last match of the day. An unforgettable moment on most days, except that the match meant nothing. And it wasn't even the best hole-in-one of the tournament _ that belonged to Paul Casey, who ended his foursomes match the day before on the same hole with an ace.

``I don't know in the history of the Ryder Cup any European team that has played better than you guys,'' U.S. captain Tom Lehman told the Europeans at the closing ceremony.

Lehman was hardly perfect as a captain.

He left Verplank, one of his wild-card picks, on the bench for three matches and did the same with Henry. Neither player lost. And maybe Lehman could've done something extra with the pairings to coax more out of Woods and Furyk, who went 2-2 as a team, or from Phil Mickelson, who didn't win a single match.

But in a blowout this big, all those points feel like mere nitpicking.

Woods said it came down to making putts and playing better on the 18th hole when the matches reached that point.

``If you look at the way the matches went for the entire week, the Europeans did better on both occasions,'' Woods said.

They were better at everything _ putting, ball-striking, coming together as a team and, of course, celebrating.

When it was over, sunshine turned what had been a rainy, dreary mess at The K Club into one of those picture-perfect scenes.

David Howell wore a funky clown's wig. Garcia gave the ``Number One'' sign to the camera. All the players sprayed champagne on each other. Clarke swigged his Guinness.

They had good reason to believe they could be doing all this again in two years at Valhalla.

``I think we've got strength and depth for a long time to come,'' Woosnam said. ``And I think the future of the Ryder Cup is going to look great for Europe.''