Golf: Ryder Cup - When fun stops and pressure takes over

The European team seem to be relaxed while the Americans appear tense and introspective... but it could all be just kidology
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The Independent Online
THE CONTRAST could hardly have presented itself with a more dramatic clarity. The visitors have been relaxed, expansive, enjoying each other's company, entertaining their questioners with varying flavours of wit, from Bordeaux sec to Worksop fruity, apparently determined to relish the occasion no matter what the outcome on Sunday evening. The home team have been clenched, defensive, easily provoked into displays of unhealthy self- analysis and tissue-paper arrogance, often revealing divisions in their assessment of the nature and importance of the event.

"It's a fun event," Tiger Woods said, not for the first time, and you wondered what exactly he meant, or if he even knew. The world's current No 1 played at Valderrama two years ago, and his individual Ryder Cup record reads one win, three defeats and one tied match. He is not used to failure, and it may be that he subconsciously downgrades any contest in which he has not prevailed.

This week, however, it has been possible to wonder about Woods's grip on reality. He was asked, for instance, if he thought that success in the Ryder Cup, which starts today, was essential to the completion of a great career. No, he said, it wasn't. Look at Jack Nicklaus, he said. Nicklaus had a losing record in the Ryder Cup, and who would dare call him anything other than the greatest player in the history of the game?

Well, as my colleague Andy Farrell pointed out after a quick glance at the reference books, Nicklaus's record in six Ryder Cup appearances was 17 wins, eight defeats and three ties. Not exactly a negative balance. So where does that put Tiger's theory of greatness?

What began as an attractive self-confidence may even be shading into something else. "I've played wonderful golf this year," Woods said during Tuesday's press conference. That, sunshine, is for you to know and for the rest of us to point out.

Any suggestion of hubris or psychological miscalculation can only rebound to the benefit of his opponents this weekend, since Woods is such a talismanic figure in the United States team. "Without question," Tom Lehman said on Wednesday, "Tiger Woods is the best player in the world. No doubt about it." While it is impressive to see a distinguished elder statesman bestowing such unstinting praise on a 23-year-old in only his third season as a pro, that kind of praise can bring its own special pressures, particularly in the relatively unfamiliar context of a team tournament, when one man's unexpected failure can be the dropped stitch that unravels the whole intricate tapestry.

Nor can the effect of the pay-for-play row be foretold. Woods, David Duval and Phil Mickelson were at the forefront of those suggesting that the golfers should receive something more than a mere $5,000 (pounds 3,100)"stipend" from an event grossing a predicted $63m, apparently inspired by a fourth team member, Mark O'Meara. The division between that quartet and the captain, Ben Crenshaw, has been repaired by their public pronouncements, but there is no telling what real effect the affair has exerted on the deeper currents of collective motivation. You don't even have to think that O'Meara, Woods and the others were wrong in their view to see what damage it might have inflicted.

The Ryder Cup is more like cricket than regular tournament golf, in that an individual must produce the goods for the benefit of the team. The collective dynamic is volatile, unguessable, of an importance that can only be assessed after the event. No one knows which elements will prove crucial.

It could happen that Woods plays five matches and repeats his Valderrama figures, while someone like Jean Van de Velde, who may not occupy the same planet in terms of pure talent, does not play at all until the Sunday singles and yet, by his presence, makes an essential contribution to the collective effort.

If you didn't already like Van De Velde after the way he took his catastrophe at Carnoustie, you had to love him after his appearance here on Wednesday, when he spoke with eloquence and humour and insight into both his experiences this season and the condition of the professional golfer.

Responding to a question about the differences between the lives of golfers on the European and American tours, he said: "I think it's probably in the culture. In Europe, you jump on a plane, you travel two hours, and you're on the other side of the continent. So you get to meet different people, and it's a different way of life. If you want to learn from others, then you have to be more open. You have to communicate a lot more. You have to do things differently. You've got to expect that the people are not speaking your language. And it's not going to be an easy life. You're going to find different things - different hotels, different beds, different food. So I guess in one way it helps you realise that you're not the only people on this earth. And I'm not saying that in a mean way.

"It's just that here [America] it's a fantastic country, and it's a great Tour, but at the same time it's so big that you are within yourself a lot more."

None of the American players seemed deeper within himself than David Duval, the world No 2, a laconic southerner who is generally taken on the golf circuit for a terminally dull character but who, on closer and more sympathetic inspection, has the fascinating stillness of a gunfighter at rest. Duval and Tom Lehman, the working man's golfer, may turn out to have more say in the destiny of this contest than either Woods or the insufferably noisy Payne Stewart, a man who thinks that Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" is a hymn to patriotism and who is promoting himself as the team's flagbearer.

Jeff Maggert's claim that the US team contains "the 12 best golfers in the world" was an understandably and forgivably hyperbolic assertion of confidence that may backfire on his colleagues. When Lee Westwood was asked about the pressure on the American team, the curl of his lip spoke volumes for the effect of Maggert's words on the Europeans. "Well, they must be under pressure, mustn't they," Westwood said, "being the 12 best players in the world, according to themselves."

It's a marvellous mind game. While Ben Crenshaw sits and publicly agonises about the tough decisions he has to take, Mark James has his players rocking with laughter as he deflects yet another inquiry with a perfectly delivered deadpan one-liner. On the face of it, there's not much doubt about which locker room you'd put your money on.

But it can hardly be that simple, even on the level of motivation. Is it better to feel cheerfully relaxed going into a competition like this, or is it more productive to experience the kind of tension that such a contest should properly engender in a normal human being? And, anyway, is the relaxation real, or is the tension feigned? The adrenalin will be pumping through both sides, sure enough. It's what they do with it that counts, and no one, not even James and Crenshaw, can predict where inspiration will strike or confidence crumble under a unique set of forces. Like the man said, a fun event.