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Ryder Cup or Olympics, fear of losing not the best motivator

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

It's an unlikely comparison, drawing parallels between the NBA pros on America's Olympic "Dream Team" and the 2004 Ryder Cup squad.

It's almost like comparing apples and oranges. A hard-core urban game versus one played in an elite, country club setting. Flying athleticism versus stoic nerves and steely, inward focus.

But a curious thing about all sports is the common denominator of the human psyche - the old mystery of motivation. Which is the greater: the fear of losing or the possibility of glory?

There is no doubt that both the U.S. hoopsters and golfers are the most talented in the world - and yet they can easily lose.

The Dream Team opened the Olympics by getting whipped by Puerto Rico and then barely beat Greece.

The U.S. Ryder Cup team has lost three of the last four to the Europeans, despite fielding teams that most people would call more talented.

On the basketball side, you could argue that the Americans are playing a game radically altered by international rules, and you'd be right.

You could also argue that the U.S. team, despite its talent, is thrown together and has only a brief period to play as a team - and you'd also be right. You could further argue that the NBA has turned into a bunch of rich, spoiled millionaires who have eschewed the fundamentals of the game and who are only in it for the individual stats and personal glory and you would not get much disagreement.

But, more than that is the motivation. It's the old everything-to-lose, nothing-to-gain syndrome.

Beating the U.S. - in sports, politics or war - is getting to the top of the mountain. It's a badge to be worn for a lifetime. Beating the best makes individual careers and coalesces national pride.

For the U.S., winning it all is to be expected - bringing a nod and a sense of relief - but losing is a cause of national shame. Who wants to be smeared all over talk-radio?

There are all sorts of theories on why our golfers lose when they become teammates - and we've been doing a lot of team-losing lately. Aside from the Ryder Cup, the U.S. women lost the Solheim Cup in Sweden and the men's amateurs let go of the Walker Cup.

Yes, the Europeans are more team-oriented for the most part when it comes to sports, including golf. And they do seem to have more camaraderie, toasting one another endlessly in pubs while the Americans wander off on their separate ways to call their stock brokers on cell phones.

"We have our families, we're independent contractors," U.S. Ryder captain Hal Sutton admitted to the media after announcing his two captain's choices, Jay Haas and Stewart Cink.

But, golf is still an individual sport, and even team events are won or lost by golfers making shots. Golfers don't hit the open man or help out on defense.

A betting man would pick the Americans in next month's Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills Country Club in Michigan, unless he wanted to go with the underdog. In fact, the U.S. is the solid favorite.

Top to bottom, the U.S. team will be far better, as talent goes.

Look down the rosters: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Davis Love III versus Padraig Harrington, Sergio Garcia, Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood.

That isn't exactly the stars they've thrown at us in the past, like Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo or Bernard Langer.

But, an overabundance of talent on the Yankee side has been the case before, and the Europeans have embarrassed us, just like Puerto Rico embarrassed Allen Iverson, et al.

"They seem to play above their weight," Sutton admitted of the Europeans.

There are other ominous signs. The U.S. team hasn't won a lot of individual tournaments, for example, only six in fact.

And, despite the fact Sutton admitted putting will most likely win or lose the Cup, there are some holes there as well.

Kenny Perry is 64th in putting on the PGA Tour, and Chad Campbell is 100th. David Tom's best finish in a major was 17th at the PGA.

Of course, there is still Mickelson, Woods and Love.

Golf is the most psychologically wrenching of sports because you have so much time to think about what can go wrong. And when you're thinking about what your next bad shot may do to your entire country, which expects you to win, that's an especially powerful devil whispering in your ear.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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