By JIM LITKE, Associated Press
MEDINAH, Ill. (AP) — If pomp and circumstance, color-coordinated outfits and flag-waving throngs are your thing, then the Ryder Cup is the only competition that matters this weekend.
Just know that behind closed doors, the same U.S. team battling Europe on the course for golfing glory and a gold trophy will be staging a little championship of its own.
"The Ryder Cup is all about ping pong, everybody," Bubba Watson announced Thursday.
This was just a few hours before the matches' opening ceremony, and he wasn't entirely kidding.
"When you bring your own paddles in cases, a briefcase with a paddle in it, then obviously it's about ping pong. Phil Mickelson and Matt Kuchar have their own cases for their paddles," Watson said, chuckling. "It's nuts."
The three tables in the Americans' team room rarely get a rest. There are the "friendlies" — light-hearted, mixed-doubles matches involving husband-and-wife teams such as the Mickelsons; and then there is the "blood-and-guts" division — apparently, any singles match involving Mickelson, Phil not Amy.
No one seems certain which U.S. captain first came up with the idea as a way for teammates to bond, let off steam or take their minds off golf for a few moments. Captain Davis Love III was reminded that back when he first played a dice game called "Pass the Pigs" and "Jenga" was the extent of the entertainment. But everyone agreed that as soon as the ping pong table turned up in the team room, once the boasting and trash-talking began, and the line of players calling "next" only got longer.
"Some of these guys think of themselves as table-tennis players, not ping pong players," recalled Paul Azinger, who captained the U.S. side in 2008, the Americans' only win in the last five meetings. "But believe me, they're not that good."
To make the distinction between the Olympic version of the game (table tennis) and the recreational one (ping pong), Azinger took a big step back.
"Most guys think they're doing this," he said, fixing a grim expression on his face, then tracing the long sweeping arc of a full swing.
Then he stepped forward, screwed up his features and flipped his hand in front of his chest casually from side to side.
"All they're really doing is this," Azinger continued. "Like I said, it's just ping pong."
Even so, it sounds a lot more spirited than what their European counterparts have been doing to while away the after-dinner hours in their team room. That was rumored to be a knock-off version of "Dancing With The Stars." The story was confirmed by Englishman Lee Westwood, who added sheepishly, "I've been told I have nice hips."
What began as an equally pointless competition between U.S. teammates took a turn for the serious in 2004, the first time Mickelson and Tiger Woods played together. Unfriendly rivals back then, they lost both their matches to Europe and determining who was the better ping pong player became one way to decide who should get the lion's share of the blame for the mess they'd left behind on the course.
Ultimately, both claimed victory. Now, to avoid any friction, they play doubles as a team. But Kuchar is the consensus favorite to take the singles crown this time around, which helps explain why Mickelson has avoided playing more than a handful of points against him.
"I know Phil is not playing Kuch until Sunday," Steve Stricker said, "I think because he doesn't want to get any bad mojo going before the tournament starts."
Azinger is working as a TV analyst at this Ryder Cup and keeping track of the goings-on in the U.S. team room from a distance. Even if he were a betting man, the former player and captain still isn't sure where he'd put his money. Asked whether he favors Kuchar or Mickelson, Azinger didn't have to think long.
"Mickelson," he said, trying to keep a straight face. "But Amy, not Phil."
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