America hold the aces for contest clouded in tragedy

Few moments are more anticipated in sport than the opening tee shot of a Ryder Cup. Though it may be early on a Friday morning, the atmosphere holds a tension usually only found in golf late on a Sunday afternoon of a major championship. When the first ball is struck at The Belfry next week there will be even greater relief than usual.

Few moments are more anticipated in sport than the opening tee shot of a Ryder Cup. Though it may be early on a Friday morning, the atmosphere holds a tension usually only found in golf late on a Sunday afternoon of a major championship. When the first ball is struck at The Belfry next week there will be even greater relief than usual.

It is now three years since America regained the Cup in a dramatic and, at times, controversial comeback at Brookline. For an event played on a biennial basis, that means something has gone amiss. It was the tragic events of 11 September last year that led to the postponement.

The Ryder Cup was scheduled for two weeks later and while the prevailing view in Britain was that the match could probably still go ahead, in the States it was never an option to continue. Though domestic sport restarted after a week's hiatus, it was still too soon for an American team to leave their shores for one of the few occasions when the United States engages in international competition in a high- profile manner.

Suggestions that the Ryder Cup going ahead represented business as usual neglected the whole reason that event has risen in popularity and status over the past two decades. Compared with regular tour golf, and even the majors, the Ryder Cup is strictly business unusual.

Yet this Ryder Cup, the 34th since the inaugural encounter in 1927, will again be different from those of recent years. The logistics of restaging an event that was merely awaiting its actors and onlookers when cancelled last year have proved complex. Thousands of hotel rooms had to be re-booked and the transport problems caused by the construction of the north Birmingham relief road multiplied. While the grandstands that stood empty a year ago have been rebuilt, the merchandise on sale in the souvenir tent and the outfits worn by the teams will bear the date of 2001.

It was quickly announced that the make-up of the two teams would be among the items that remained unaltered and that decision has been held to despite calls at various points in the past 12 months for additional personnel, either a qualifier or a wild card or one of each, to be allowed entry.

"Everything is different this year because of the delay," said the US captain, Curtis Strange. Rocked out of its traditional rhythm, the build-up to the re-arranged match has been quiet. "I think the first thing that came to mind was that there would not be the buzz for the players trying to make the team and for the two picks. Who would they be? It's great writing. It's great bar-room talk. It was good fun."

Without that buzz, what was there to fill the void? Not much, as it turned out. The most obvious talking point over the summer became the form and fitness of the players of both teams.

At the USPGA Championship at Hazeltine, eight of the 12 Europeans missed the cut with a collective 77 over par. It was a depressing statistic, but what relevance does it have for The Belfry? Sam Torrance, Europe's captain, argued not a lot and to an extent he was right. "The PGA has never been a great one," Torrance said. "It's always hot and humid and over the years we've not performed that well, so I'm not going to look that deeply into it. It's always a tough one for us.

"[The States] had quite a few players struggling and we're certainly not in a worse position than they are. With the excitement of the Cup, it can lift you from the depths of despair to the heights of your game."

The Ryder Cup format is so different from normal tournament play that defining trends in form and extrapolating them to the match is often unhelpful. If things get close, experience of tense situations is often more important. But there is a limit and Strange himself found that out at Oak Hill in 1995. Picked as a wild card by Lanny Wadkins for experience rather than current form, Strange did not win a point and bogeyed the last three holes to lose to Nick Faldo in the pivotal singles.

How often have players said that the Ryder Cup arena is not one to be entered playing badly? Yet on this occasion there is not much to be done. "Everyone is worthy of representing their country because they made the team to start with," said Strange.

"Just because their form went bad because of an attack on our country, then I still think they should be part of the team. For the first two days, you don't have to play all 12. If somebody is not in good form, or they get flu, they don't have to play until Sunday. You don't go into battle with all 12 in perfect shape all the time, but you have to go into battle. I kind of like that."

How the captains deploy their players may be more interesting and have more relevance this year. Strange added: "When has the Ryder Cup ever been played with 24 of the best players in the world at that time? Probably never."

You could say that is correct, because of all the non-American and non-Europeans at the top of the game. But if the question was whether the match has been played without the best available teams, then the answer must be not in the time that the match has reached the heights.

Justin Rose will have to wait for his debut; Jose Maria Olazabal may have played his last match. Almost half the European team has been supplanted as the best 12 players the continent can provide as the likes of Lee Westwood and Phillip Price have struggled with their games. Jesper Parnevik, an obvious wild card pick a year ago, admits to battling a form of the yips this summer while injuries have hit Colin Montgomerie (his back complaint having recurred all year) and Padraig Harrington, who was struck down with neck and ankle problems at the USPGA.

Harrington and Sergio Garcia are the only two players to have improved world rankings this season while Darren Clarke and Thomas Bjorn will also have important roles to play. Montgomerie and Bernhard Langer provide the bulk of the experience which gave the Europeans a better overall Ryder Cup record than their American counterparts.

When it comes to major winners, however, America lead seven to one (Langer). Leading them, of course, is Tiger Woods, whose Ryder Cup record so far is not exactly overwhelming. Having been beaten at Oak Hill in 1995 and Valderrama in '97, as well as being thumped in the President's Cup in Melbourne in 1998, an American team possessing many of their current stars finally seemed to have worked out team matchplay when trouncing a strong Internationals team in the 2000 President's Cup.

But they are not without worries of their own over the form of the likes of David Duval, Hal Sutton and Paul Azinger. Over the last nine matches, going back to Tony Jacklin's first as the European captain in 1983, each team has won four times with one match tied. During that span, Europe has won more points overall. They have a healthy advantage in the fourballs, a narrow one in the foursomes but have been overwhelmed in the singles.

At Brookline in '99, the key to the match was always going to be whether Europe could get far enough ahead on the first two days to withstand an American fight-back. A four-point advantage proved not to be enough but the contest was remembered for the mass celebration by the American players and caddies after Justin Leonard holed a 45-foot putt on the 17th green.

There was a hysteria about the atmosphere at Brookline that was unacceptable, particularly the abuse of Montgomerie. While the players of both sides will be reminded of their responsibilities, it is inevitable, due to world events, that the visitors may be sensitive to perceived anti-Americanism but it is hoped the gallery will find the right mix of partisanship and appreciation of both teams.

The Ryder Cup should not be considered a friendly or an exhibition, as some of the American players like to put it. It should be remembered that ultra competitiveness allied to mutual respect is what elevated the event to its current standing. "The Ryder Cup is about 24 men being as competitive as possible and as sporting as possible," said Nick Faldo, who will be working for television this year.

"It will all come down to determination. On paper, some of the guys haven't played well and they will feel under pressure. But you have to forget the past season and realise that the Ryder Cup is the most important week of their lives, there and then. The great thing about matchplay is that anything can happen: you just have to be determined, be aggressive."

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