Plenty of blame to share in epic choke

We need a reason, a theory why the U.S. can have the best golfers in the world but can’t win the Ryder Cup. The Americans lost again Sunday, after holding a huge lead.

Did U.S. captain Davis Love III screw up the lineup? Do Americans just not care about the Ryder Cup as much as the Europeans do? Is there something about our culture that keeps us from understanding how to play golf as a team, rather than a bunch of uptight individuals?

Did Tiger Woods let down the team?

Well, yes. A little of all those things. But they seem like awfully big reasons when you see Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker miss 6-foot putts, and then Martin Kaymer, ranked lower than every American here, sink his 6-footer to allow Europe to keep the Cup.

Time and again, the Americans missed putts on the final two holes, in crunch time, when the Europeans made theirs. A bigger reason?

What happened is this: The U.S. choked. Just choked. I guess you could say it was contagious, but each player who missed led to more pressure on the next guy, who missed, too, which led to more pressure. It was the worst choke job in Ryder Cup history.

Plain and simple. The pressure enveloped the Americans and spurred on the Europeans.

“There’s a lot of expectations on us,’’ said Stricker, who played worse than everyone else on the team. “We put a lot of expectations on ourselves to perform, you know. And sometimes it’s good and bad.

“I mean, when you’re going good, it’s great. And when you’re not, it can be a negative because you feel like you’re letting the crowd down.’’

Woods never did win a point for the U.S. team. Four rounds, three days and he went 0-3-1, tying Francesco Molinari on Sunday. That’s a little unfair to Woods, actually. He would have won on Sunday if it had mattered.

After a terrible first round on Friday, he played well on the back nine holes in his second round Friday and his round Saturday. As the day went on Sunday, and the U.S. team fell apart, the whole Cup seemingly was going to come down to Woods’ final nine holes.

Finally, he was going to be the hero again.

He took a one-hole lead after making par at No. 17. And after his drive on 18, he stood in the middle of the fairway while Kaymer made his putt in the match ahead of him to clinch the Cup for the Europeans.

Thousands of European fans ran onto the fairway, waving flags and singing “Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole.’’ Then, they cleared out to allow Woods and Molinari to finish. The Europeans had retained the Cup by clinching a tie, but still hadn’t actually won outright.

Woods set himself up with a 4-foot putt to clinch a personal win over Molinari, and a tie for the team overall. But with the Cup gone, he didn’t bother.

He missed, then conceded Molinari his putt. Just gave it to him.

That gave Europe a 14.5-13.5 win. And the European flags and fans charged back out onto the course again.

“After that all went down, my putt was useless,’’ Woods said, still standing on the green a little dazed while the European celebration went on around him. “It was inconsequential. So I hit it too quick, and gave him his putt. It was already over.’’

He said he was left on the fairway in the 2002 Ryder Cup, too, with meaningless shots to hit. And Woods was making a good point: Why was he left in that position at all?

It was one of Love’s big mistakes. He had put Woods on the course as the last match of the day, a safety net in case Team USA collapsed. But it also meant that Woods wouldn’t matter unless it came down to the very end.

All day long, the Europeans were building momentum for each other. Why not put Woods out there earlier to give him a chance to matter?

Woods certainly was not his old dominant self, where he was 50 percent better than everyone else. But he still was better than most of the other golfers, and still is ranked No. 2 in the world.

“In hindsight, we would have done a lot of things differently, I guess. . .’’ Love said. “I’m going to second-guess myself for a long time.’’

How about this one: Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley won their first three matches, and then Love benched them for the second round on Saturday.

Love started to take the blame when Mickelson interrupted and said he had told Love that he needed to sit out the second round. He had given all he could that day already.

What? Mickelson tapped out?

Well, then Love should have paired Bradley with Woods to help pull Tiger out of his slump. Stricker, who had been playing with Woods, could have sat out.

You can pick away at things like that. But the truth is, the lineup shouldn’t have mattered.

Of the top 17 ranked players in the world, 11 were on the American team. That’s 11 of 12 U.S. team members. And six of Europe’s players are ranked below the lowest American, Furyk, who’s No. 23.

This shouldn’t have even been close, especially on U.S. soil.

But the Ryder Cup is about emotion and momentum more than anything. Kaymer suggested that this meant more than his PGA Championship title.

“The major win was just for myself,’’ he said. “But I can see the guys behind me . . . Sergio (Garcia) ran onto the green. It’s so much more behind me.’’

It feels better to win a Ryder Cup than to win a major? Can you imagine a U.S. player saying that?

The U.S. made plenty of long putts through the first 16 holes Sunday. But then Justin Rose sank a long putt against Mickelson on 17, Furyk missed, and everything just took off.

The Europeans were coming together all over the course. It was like watching other nation’s basketball teams, with far-lesser talent, beat the U.S. in past Olympics. It was a teamwork thing, a style of life, a culture.

Yeah, but on Sunday, that’s not what kept 6-foot putts from going in for the U.S. It was much more simple than that.