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Golf: Americans in single-minded fightback

RYDER CUP Europe's players struggle to hold a late charge by US team apparently emboldened by shirts depicting past heroes
NEEDING ONLY four points to retain the Ryder Cup, Mark James and his European team knew it was not going to be easy in yesterday's singles at the Country Club of Brookline. But no one was quite prepared for the strength of the American fightback.

Starting four points down, double the biggest comeback margin in 32 previous matches, the United States faced the prospect of losing an unprecedented third consecutive match. Their players appeared for the singles in shirts designed by Ben Crenshaw and featuring photographs of the Ryder Cup and previous winning American teams.

On Saturday evening the US skipper had announced: "I am a believer in fate and I have a good feeling about this." It was even better when America took control of the top half of the draw, creating a sea of red on the scoreboard. Not for the first time, while the Europeans seemed to hole all the putts on the first two days, it was the Americans, now with the responsibility of playing on their own, who were doing so yesterday.

All three of the players James had sat out of the opening two days were among the top-six in his order. It was Open runner-up Jean Van de Velde who fell first, losing 6 and 5 to Davis Love, while, in something of a grudge match, Phil Mickelson beat Jarmo Sandelin 5 and 3.

The other three were all players who had played in every series and might have suffered from fatigue. In the vital top match, Lee Westwood lost 3 and 2 to Tom Lehman, who hit every fairway and every green and has not lost any of his three singles, and then Hal Sutton beat Darren Clarke 4 and 2 to tie the match. It would be up to those in the bottom of the draw to decide the cup's ultimate destination.

Europe's 10-6 lead going into the singles, after a second day in which the points were split 4-4, was one point less than their best ever, at Muirfield Village in 1987, and at Valderrama two years ago. Once again, on Saturday the standard of play was superb, with the difference that the Americans were sharing in the brilliant shot-making.

After halting Europe's momentum by halving the morning foursomes, the US needed to recoup some ground in the afternoon fourballs and, early on, led in all four matches. David Duval, after sitting out in the morning, was back to his best and showing an appreciation for an event he had virtually dismissed prior to playing in it for the first time.

Phil Mickelson rediscovered his putting touch and almost holed out from the fairway. Davis Love hit a brilliant second from the top of the rocky outcrop by the dogleg of the par-five ninth, an area known as the Himalayas, to six inches. Hal Sutton, at the short 16th, was merely a few millimetres away from achieving America's first hole-in-one in the Ryder Cup.

But, somehow, the Europeans hung on. Miguel Angel Jimenez had virtually to carry his compatriot Jose Maria Olazabal, but the Ollie's vast experience of such occasions meant he could talk his partner through the drama. Jimenez birdied three holes in a row from the fourth to go two-up and, though Sutton's shot at the 16th squared the match, the Spaniards hung on for an important half.

The other squared match involved the unbeaten Sergio Garcia and Jesper Parnevik. Having won their first three matches, the stunning effective mix of the youngest Ryder Cupper ever and one of the most eccentric had to pull back level four times against Love and Duval, finally doing so at the 18th, when Garcia holed from seven feet. The youngster's unconfined joy has been reminiscent of Seve Ballesteros.

"Sergio has been a replacement for the young Seve," said James. "He is definitely a force that this team has felt positively. And Jesper is a very hard man in matchplay. He's the perfect foil to Sergio. Plus, he's a pretty good weight so Sergio can lift him which has proved to be an advantage."

Colin Montgomerie proved the other strong man and, with Open champion Paul Lawrie, won two and a half points. In their 2 and 1 victory over Tiger Woods and Steve Pate, Monty holed out superbly on the back nine and then Lawrie hit his tee shot stiff at the 16th. "They are both very good teams playing pretty well under pressure," James said. "We are seeing some great golf, unbelievable stuff," said Crenshaw. "There are been some tremendously hard-fought matches, superlative golf. We're just so close." Yet, the Americans were left trailing, just as they were at Valderrama, and Crenshaw had no idea why US teams have recently underperformed in the foursomes and fourballs.

"We're still trying to figure that out," he said. "Whether they feel better with talking over a shot with a partner, they do a very fine job at it. I wish I could break down the differences. It's something we could talk about all evening."

The influence of the captains can be overstated, but while James went back to basics, Crenshaw perhaps overanalysed. James settled on his main pairing and kept with them. "There was nothing particularly deep involved," he said. "Those guys wanted to play with each other, simple as that."

But Crenshaw only used two pairings more than once and, having played Sutton and Jeff Maggert three times, with two important wins, should have kept them together. "It was all too complex to tell you the things I was thinking about," the US captain admitted.

Crenshaw stated before the match that he had tremendous flexibility in pairing any of his players and that all 12 were playing well in practice. The former turned out to be a complicating factor and the latter did not continue once the competition began. Woods, Mickelson and Leonard only contributed a point each, and Duval half a point.

Where James gambled was in leaving out three players - Andrew Coltart, Jean Van de Velde and Jarmo Sandelin -- until yesterday's singles. Only two players, Michael King in 1979 and Gordon J Brand in 1983, had suffered a similar indignity, and not even ruthless leaders like Tony Jacklin and Seve Ballesteros considered such a tactic.

The potential drawbacks were in leaving the threesome cold in the vital head-to-head contests, and that the seven players who were playing for the fifth time in three days would be tired. "It was a very difficult decision to make," James said. "It probably helped that they knew every step of the way how we were thinking.

"Decisions of that nature tend to be taken by the team, and it helped that Jarmo, Jean and Andrew have been tremendously supportive. It's a great shame they were left out, but I came here with the object of getting 100 per cent out of this team and the most points I could."