Golf: Ryder Cup - Woods and Garcia go head to head

RYDER CUP Young guns to meet in foursomes as James keeps faith with Europe's rookies and leaves out Olazabal
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The Independent Online
AS INTENSE as the proceedings at the Country Club of Brookline during the 33rd Ryder Cup will be, Mark James could not let an assessment of Europe's chances of beating the Ben Crenshaw's Americans for the third consecutive match get in the way of a good one-liner. "It's serious golf," James said, "but at the end of the week I'll be able to shake Ben warmly by the throat and we'll sit down and have a beer."

By Sunday evening, either James will be tempted to squeeze a little harder than intended or the American media will have got to Crenshaw's neck first, with a noose. The US collection of superstars from the top of the world rankings start clear favourites against the self-deprecating underdogs of Europe with their seven rookies.

More than that, the Americans realise they have to perform to avoid being dismissed as money earners rather than winners. "There is a strong sense of urgency to get the Cup back," Tom Lehman said.

"The pressure of not having done it on the last two occasions is there," Crenshaw admitted. But the two-times Masters champion is keen to guard against over-confidence. "We all know how entirely unpredictable the game of golf is. It doesn't matter how good you stack up the teams in your mind. You've got to do the job. Whoever has the best feel for this golf course, gets the ball in the cup, is going to do well."

"Our status in the betting shops does not bother us," James said. "I'm not going to beat drums about how we are definitely going to win. But, equally, I wouldn't say we're definitely going to lose. We have a good team who are going to be hard to beat.

"Motivation has not been difficult," he added. "They want it badly. They all want to do well, win points and become the next Ryder Cup superstars. If anything, I need to demotivate them so their heads don't explode."

James showed his faith in his rookies by pairing two, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Padraig Harrington, for this morning's foursomes against Davis Love and Payne Stewart after ruling out Jose Maria Olazabal for the alternate- shot format due to his wildness off the tee. While Colin Montgomerie and the Open champion, Paul Lawrie, lead off against David Duval and Phil Mickelson, all the attention will be on the second match.

The clash of Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia, one superstar near his full potential and the other approaching it rapidly before our eyes, will be an intriguing element throughout the drama. The 19-year-old Spaniard, without care, it seems, for the burdens of a whole continent, partners Jesper Parnevik, while Lehman will be a steadying influence alongside Woods.

The bottom match sees Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke face Hal Sutton and Jeff Maggert. Olazabal, like Seve Ballesteros in 1995, will no doubt make his mark in the fourballs, while Andrew Coltart, Jarmo Sandelin and Jean van de Velde will also be on the sidelines this morning. Crenshaw left out Mark O'Meara, whose partnership with his good friend Woods did not work out two years ago, Justin Leonard, Jim Furyk and Steve Pate.

As with any other golf tournament, the maxim holds that you can't win it before the final day but you can certainly lose it. The Americans managed to do just that both at Valderrama, where they trailed by five points going into the singles, and even more spectacularly in the Presidents Cup last winter.

The States have led going into the final series only once in the last eight Ryder Cups. That was at Oak Hill four years ago and proved one of only two occasions in that time when they have lost the singles.

Once again the Americans should have the strength in depth to prevail in Sunday's 12 head-to-head contests. James's problem is that while his team could well be on terms after two days, with only eight players required at any one time in each of the first four series of foursomes and fourballs, it is difficult to see Europe gaining the sort of cushion they might need - the sort that Ballesteros's side achieved two years ago.

But while Maggert might think any old combinations of the "best 12 players in the world" should be able to do the job on the first two days, Crenshaw knows he must get the best out of his leading players throughout the foursomes and fourballs.

In international competition, Woods has won only two of his eight games in the partnership format. The world No 1 can hardly be expected to carry his whole team if he cannot even combine successfully with a partner. But Woods is currently playing supreme golf and, as he said: "This is not a tournament where you'll settle for a top-two finish."

One statistic which favours the Europeans is that they have five players who have been on a winning team to the Americans' four. In addition, Woods is among six on the home team to have suffered a stinging rebuke for their defeat in Spain. Love, another of the dirty half-dozen along with Leonard, O'Meara, Mickelson and Furyk, thinks enough is enough.

"This team, with Ben as the leader, is a little more respectful of what the Ryder Cup means," said Love, who is raring to go after two weeks resting a pinched nerve in his neck. "Some of us have been on some losing teams recently, and we are very determined and focused."

Guide to the Ryder Cup, pages 30-31